Two bonded wild mustangs from Utah's Onaqui Mountain herd were tragically separated and sent to separate holding facilities in a roundup. Luckily, their story wasn't over; a woman and her husband made it their mission to reunite the formerly inseparable pair and offer them a safe haven for the rest of their days.
Wild horse photographer and deputy director of the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), Melissa Tritinger, owned a pony of wild mustang pedigree as a child, sparking her love for the breed. Years later, she spotted pinto stallion Stargazer for the first time on her first expedition to the Onaqui Mountains photographing wild horses.
"I was struck by his markings, how he stood out in the herd ... he always put on a show. I was always looking for him on my trips. Many loved him and what he stood for: freedom on his terms," Mrs. Tritinger told The Epoch Times.
Stargazer had a mate, a small, dark gray mare named Northstar, "Nora" for short, whom he'd met in the spring of 2020 after the mare was supposedly abandoned by other horses due to an injury that slowed her down. Stargazer became her protector, never leaving her side.
Seized and SeparatedStargazer and Nora roamed free in over 200,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), surrounded by juniper trees, mountain valleys scattered with sagebrush, and "well-trodden trails leading to water sources," until helicopters came and tore them apart.
Nora was seized first in a July 16, 2021, roundup. The mare found herself "chased and driven into a man-made metal trap by a hovering helicopter," while Stargazer was left behind.
"Stargazer knew he'd lost her that day in the chaos," Mrs. Tritinger said. "Videos and images depict him running frantically, as if in search of her. He managed to elude capture, remaining wild for one more night. Yet, the following day, when the helicopter returned, he too was captured."
When Mrs. Tritinger and her husband learned what had happened to Stargazer and Nora, they took matters into their own hands. She said something had to be done so that Stargazer and Nora's story, which "seemed to be written in the stars," could continue.
"To me, they embodied all that was pure and wild, and I couldn’t let their story end this way," Mrs. Tritinger said.
"Horses that don’t find homes, and ones that don’t slip through the cracks, are placed into long-term holding facilities, all at the expense of the taxpayer. ... space in properly managed sanctuaries is limited, and the number of horses in need is overwhelming."
In order to reunite the bonded mustangs, the Tritingers needed to make sure they placed the winning bid for both horses during a week-long internet auction held by the BLM. After "numerous delays to the start of the auction, along with much anxiety and apprehension," the couple won both bids and cried tears of relief.
ReunitedOn Jan. 10, 2022, six months after their sudden separation, Stargazer and Nora were collected from their holding pens and loaded onto the same trailer to be driven to the Tritingers' farm. Mrs. Tritinger traveled to Utah to witness their reunion.
"It was a whirlwind of emotions," she said. "They'd been put in a special pen together the night before, and it seemed like they picked up right where they had left off. They stayed close, often touching. Stargazer positioned himself between the bars and Nora. ... Fittingly, under a blanket of stars, the trailer arrived at their safe space."
The next morning, the couple got their first good look at their new residents.
"They were both so dirty," Mrs. Tritinger said. "Their eyes were tired, and they moved slowly as if they were carrying the last six months in holding on their backs. ... The accumulation of manure and debris from their time in the holding facility had formed dried clumps in their hair, all over their bodies, producing an audible jingling as they moved."
The couple's "top priority" was to examine Nora to see if she was pregnant, but the exhausted mare beat them to it; with Stargazer by her side, she went into labor and delivered a stillborn gray and white male pinto foal. The Tritingers named him "Lil' Dipper," since the North Star, after which Nora was named, is the brightest star in the Little Dipper constellation.
Mrs. Tritinger said: "Their first and only foal was conceived when they were wild and free on the range. We like to believe he is now wild and free in the big starry sky. ... Even though Nora and Stargazer can no longer call Onaqui home, the Little Dipper constellation will always be above, now with an extra little twinkle."
Forever HomeDespite their loss, Stargazer and Nora "seemed to recognize that they were no longer in danger." The Tritingers wished they could return to the wild, which was prohibited by the BLM, but were encouraged to see the mustangs slowly accept their new human caretakers. Their dry, comfortable enclosure, nutritious food and clean water, gentle touches, and resident domestic gelding, Ruby, all helped to ease their transition.
"We consider it a privilege and an honor to be their forever home," Mrs. Tritinger said. "Every day, these two amazing mustangs are curious, open, and trusting, though some days more than others. They listen intently with their ears forward and their dark, soft eyes follow every move we make.
"We love them so much, and we do everything we can to help make the steps further into the domestic world gentle, and at their pace."
While Stargazer and Nora have a happy ending to their story, theirs is the exception. Thousands of wild mustangs and burros in holding do not have the same fortunate outcome, said Mrs. Tritinger, who believes spreading awareness is "an essential element in helping all the wild horses in the broken government system."