Sassy miniature Shetland pony survives five months in the forest
April 10, 2018
Colorado's high country can be a cruel, unforgiving place, especially for someone small and lost. So it was in summer/autumn 2014 when weather extremes swung from mild to wild in the Roosevelt National Forest.
Owls called out in the night as bobcats, cougars, coyotes and lynx stalked prey. In the midst of it all, a solitary miniature horse aimlessly wandered through underbrush and clambered over fallen trees, doing her best to survive. But, before her ultimate fate transpired, she'd had a previous close call.
One Wednesday in early 2014, a herd of miniature horses stood among many equines consigned to Centennial Livestock Auction, up for grabs to private buyers and meat men alike. One of the minis was a jet black mare with just enough white markings to officially make her a pinto.
She looked heavy-in-foal. The herd's stallion ignored her as though she was. This evidence prompted one observant woman's concerned phone call to a friend/owner of a horse rescue facility, pleading for this soon-to-be-mama and her unborn baby. They desperately needed a savior. And… success.
When the gavel slammed down, the bulbous black mini sold to Shiloh Acres Horse Rescue in Ault, Colo., where owner Amber Herrell named her "Pancake." When passing time dubbed the mare to be not in-foal (just morbidly obese) she went up for adoption to an approved home.
Shelley Vestal of Bellvue, Colo., responded to Shiloh's web posting. Herrell's description included a prophetic caveat: "And, well, she has a lot of attitude." Right then Vestal knew the pudgy mini belonged with her.
Recommended Stories For You
Vestal's other horses were big, including one draft, so Pancake was led to a pen on the opposite side of the fence. It would take time for the herd to safely accept the tiny newbie. Turns out any concern was for the wrong critter. Vestal's 130-pound Great Pyrenees, Bear (also a rescue), considers himself top dog. He trotted over to check out the newcomer, only to be greeted by an ebony mini-tornado. Pancake chased Bear to the buck fence, where he bailed out all but his backside before the mini chomped down. Pancake-one; butt-bitten Bear-zero.
Another rescue, Dottie the Dachshund, responded to the clamor, abandoning her pack rat hunt in the barn to scurry over. Did she fare better than Bear? Negative.
When the horses trotted over to the field-dividing fence, Roany, a large Mustang, curiously leaned across. His "getting to know you" sniff merited a quick nip to his shoulder.
"Thus we were all introduced to life with Pancake," Vestal said.
A HARROWING AFFAIR
On July 25, Ed Wydallis of Buckhorn Veterinary Practice arrived to conduct annual routine care. When Pancake's turn for shots, dental and de-worming came, it was anything but routine.
"Pancake's eyes told us we were in trouble," Vestal said. The mare rolled them, showed the whites, and incessantly glared.
"Have you ever owned or worked with a miniature horse before?" Wydallis asked,
Vestal said, "Nope, every other kind of equine though."
The longtime vet muttered something or other. Hmm. But, considering Pancake's diminutive size, how hard could this be? Chaos ensued.
A tranquilizer is standard for dental work. When the vet approached with the syringe, all hell broke loose. Pancake shot straight up into the air. People ducked. Pancake swung left, swung right, and buoyantly leapt here and there.
Three large adults eventually wrestled her into submission in a corner of the stall. Doc Wydallis, helplessly on his knees to work on the 30-inch high girl, remained eyeball-to-eyeball with her irate peepers throughout the procedure.
Wydallis leaned back when finished and glumly asserted, "She's plotting my death."
The rocky Vestal/Pancake honeymoon lasted a mere couple of weeks. "Cakes" suddenly vanished into thin air. Stolen? Escaped? Devoured?
Oddly, the mini didn't return home. Remaining with a herd is equines' strongest instinct. But not Pancake's. Vestal and her family conducted a thorough search of their property and beyond.
Itty-bitty hoofprints traversed dirt roads, circled round and round and went in every direction as far as up to Forest Service Road 350. There the tracks went off-road and into the enormous Roosevelt National Forest, where they were obscured.
The search team broadened to include neighbors and boy scouts; afoot; on ATVs and bicycles — everyone was looking for little Pancake. The Forest Service and Larimer County Sheriff's Office were alerted. "Missing Mini" ads appeared in local newspapers with a photo of the errant 6-year-old puny pinto. Vestal offered a reward. Weeks passed. No luck. Pancake had gone poof.
Searchers scouted Pingree Park Road and Buckhorn Road to no avail. July gave way to August. Hunting season started; perhaps a hunter would spot her. Or, could a fat, black mini be mistaken for a small bear? Would Cakes become an unintended trophy? September, October, November — no Pancake.
Small feral creatures burrowed; birds hurriedly flew south; big burly bears sought a home to call their own in which to doze away winter woes and snows. With still no sign of a solo, astray mini, Vestal, her husband, John, and their extensive posse began keeping an eye out for pony bones rather than an entire little Pancake.
Vestal's hope faded. "I kept checking in periodically with those wonderful folks at the Larimer County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Forest Service, but nothing. As time passed, we became increasingly concerned that she couldn't survive."
"After all, we live in an area populated with natural predators like mountain lions and bears," Vestal said. "We even asked folks to let us know if they found remains so we could confirm what happened to her. But not a word. Not a sighting."
The week before Thanksgiving, Vestal attended a Chicago business meeting while husband John remained home. The weather was brutal with bitter cold and snow. That's when the call came in.
Hunters in a remote area near Pennock Pass had initially spotted a cougar. The big cat didn't return, but a tiny black horse walked right into their campsite … and directly back out.
They knew that didn't look right, out there in the middle of nowhere, and called the Canyon Lakes Ranger District to report the mini mirage. Rangers who'd kept Vestal's now-frayed MIA note called with the new lead.
John quickly headed out with halter, lead rope and grain to the remote area he believed the hunters had described. He called for Pancake for an hour before giving up. On the way back to his 4-WD, John just happened to glance to his left and saw something black standing off in the trees. It was Pancake.
He haltered her and led her to his vehicle. But now what? John tried driving slowly while leading her but realized the road route home would be too far for her emaciated condition. The only viable option was as the crow flies.
Parking the SUV, he and the mini headed cross-country through the mountains. There were many rest stops along the way for thin, weak Pancake.
When they finally arrived home, the rest of the herd excitedly greeted their little errant mate. John called Wydallis for the dos and don'ts of what to do for pathetic Pancake. Not only was she a shadow of her formerly fat self, her tiny hooves had seriously worn down during the five-month misadventure. It didn't take the mighty mini long, however, to bounce back to her ornery self.
Reghan Cloudman, public affairs specialist with the Canyon Lakes Ranger District, still recalls the incredible resolution to Pancake's meanderings.
"It was such a great, happy ending to the story after all those months," she said. "Other people using the forest helped bring it to that happy conclusion and it was a really nice opportunity for me to share something positive that happened in the woods."
Even now, 3½ years later, Panccake's self-preservation instincts remain piqued. A lengthy litany of her ongoing exploits proves it.
The miracle mini routinely drinks from, and then overturns, the concrete bird bath in the front yard. She once snuck into the garage and exited with garbage bags, spreading rubbish around the driveway as would a naughty dog. Vestal detected that trashy event when Pancake casually walked by the window wearing a potato chip bag on her muzzle. However, her targets aren't limited to inanimate objects, no siree.
Pancake has been known to kill squirrels and birds that get too close to her food. Aiming higher, she angrily pursues moose and elk that approach her pasture salt block and also enjoys chasing wild turkeys. She once cornered and attacked a coyote in the hay barn. Only with much effort did the wily creature escape her accurately flying hooves.
Vestal's very large Belgian gelding, Jake, has a big bulls-eye (visible only to Pancake) on his belly. She enjoys racing up to the gentle giant, spinning around and double-barreling his mid-section before delightedly hopscotching away.
"He always looks surprised," Vestal said.
Pancake repurposes Jake in the winter.
"When we have very deep snow falls, like May 2017 when we got almost five feet of it in one event, she uses Jake as her snowplow," Vestal said. She follows behind him as he plows a path."
Pancake continues to be independent. She's occasionally caught on game cameras out of the pasture and somewhere she's not supposed to be. Thankfully, she returns each time. The mini also now occasionally plays well with others, albeit in acts of rebellion.
A large tree felled by a 2017 autumn windstorm demolished the Vestal's back fence. Pancake promptly led the herd out on a walkabout documented by game cameras. All the pretty little (and big) horses returned the following day.
This wee black and white scamp loves playing games with the dogs. Vestal's family observes from the window as the group circles the house: on one lap Pancake chases the canines; on the next, the dogs are in pursuit. Pancake is very busy.
The Shetland pony breed hales from a rugged region of Great Britain and is well-known for its strength and survival abilities. Primarily Shetlands served as the famed, historical pit ponies of England. Endlessly toiling in deep underground mines, many went blind from lifetimes hauling heavy loads of coal in near-total darkness. Their sad lot in life for those ponies of old was adapt or die; the breed maintains its persevering, obstinate demeanor.
Pancake closely resembles original Shetlands with short, solid, piston-like legs; a thick muscular neck; and an unrestricted attitude. Maybe that unbounded energy is simply her inner Shetland needing a job. Or perhaps she's a one-of-a-kind free spirit. Regardless, tales of her bold, daring feats draw fans from far and wide … exactly where little Pancake loves to go. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.