In 1995, local filmmaker Ginger Kathrens watched as a newborn colt stepped out of the forest and into her life. She named the colt Cloud, after its white coat, and the Emmy Award-winning producer/director has been documenting his life and the plight of wild horses ever since. She's even established a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit, the Cloud Foundation, to help save the herds that roam the American West.
Because horses like Cloud, now a stallion that lives free in the Pryor Mountains of Montana, are at risk.
"We're losing these beautiful animals," says Kathrens. "They need to be preserved, and [the foundation's] job is to keep them in the wild."
With this in mind, the Cottonwood Center for the Arts will host A Celebration of Wild Horses Through Art and Music, a juried exhibit of 27 national contemporary equine artists, to benefit the Cloud Foundation. Tracy Miller, owner of Tracy Miller Fine Art in Manitou Springs, helped put the show together. Her father was a working cowboy who often participated in cattle drives on horseback. "I was a typical young girl who was obsessed with horses," she says, "and when I was 11, I got my own horse."
Miller, herself a Western and wildlife artist, says there are a lot of world-class wildlife artists right in our own backyard. "By bringing together some of the finest artists, sculptors and photographers to celebrate equine art," she says, "we can promote awareness for the situation of the wild horses."
Which leads to the question: What, exactly, is the situation? For the answer, one must first turn to the Bureau of Land Management, which regularly rounds up the herds that live on public lands.
The BLM estimates that the current free-roaming population of wild horses exceeds by more than 22,500 the number that can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. Though it has also applied fertility control treatments to mares, and has an adoption program, the bureau estimates that herds grow at an average rate of 20 percent a year.
"The BLM removes up to 14,000 wild horses from public lands per year," says Kathrens. "They warehouse them at public expense, with the older horses being held by private ranches, and the young ones corralled for adoption, all at government expense."
Meanwhile, she explains, "Horses live in family groups, which is unique among hooved animals, and the young are reared by the whole herd. Separating family units is the first thing the BLM does."
Kathrens has seen it happen in her study of wild horses, and her three films following Cloud's herd, which have aired through PBS' Nature (and one of which she'll screen at the Tim Gill Center for Public Media this week). Worse, news outlets have reported cruel treatment during the roundups.
Much of this has to do with private ranchers using the land for cattle; those ranchers say wild horse overpopulation is limiting the grazing supply, and that the BLM isn't doing enough. Just this month, a Utah congressman introduced a bill that would allow states to manage wild horses themselves.
"Our goal is to have all foals born in the wild, stay in the wild," says Kathrens. "Our initiative is to manage them on the range, and preserve their natural predators, too. The BLM is mismanaging the land."
Organizers hope to make this an annual event, not only to support the foundation (which receives all of the proceeds), but to celebrate a genre devoted to what Cottonwood calls "elegant symbols of freedom."
Miller emphasizes the message for the exhibit more succinctly: "Leave our wild horses alone."