Wild Horses Roam Free

Wild horses are the icons of the West. Roaming the high desert plains, in some areas surrounded by 14,000-foot snow-capped mountain peaks, wild horses splash through rocky creeks and rivers as they traverse their territory. Their allure has attracted photographers and horse lovers alike to see them in these wild and free settings.

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When Shelley Paulson first saw the Salt River herd, they were too close to shoot with a telephoto lens. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Travel with us to see herds of wild horses in the four-corner states: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Arizona’s Salt River Wild Horses

At Home: Roughly 30 minutes east of Phoenix, Ariz., horses roam the lower Salt River in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. They’re often found near the Coon Bluff Campgrounds.

Horse History: After a legal battle to keep the herd from total roundup in 2015, the State of Arizona declared the horses protected. The horses are a genetic blend of unbranded and free-roaming horses; some say this group includes descendants of Spanish horses imported in the 1600s. Today, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group manages and feeds the herd in cooperation with the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

Visiting the Herd: Photographer Shelley Paulson and her Mustang-trainer friend Annie MacDermaid visited the Salt River horses together. MacDermaid served as a guide; she finds homes for wild horses and is a top trainer for the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Trainer Incentive Program.

Paulson says she first glimpsed the horses—mostly stock-horse type grays, roans, duns, and bays—from the parking lot near the recreation area.

“We drove up and they were right there,” she says.

The horses were so close that Paulson’s 150-600 mm lens was too long. The pair stayed the required distance from the horses but sometimes needed to move back to stay out of the way.

The next day, Paulson and MacDermaid woke at 4 a.m. to scout the horses on trails south of their first encounter point.

“We hiked an hour or more before finding horses,” Paulson says. “We followed a group that was in the open and looking for shade. A light dust blew and created a beautiful glow. We were so lucky. You can go out and may not find any horses. To come upon them with this beautiful light was really a treat. It was very different visually than the day before when they were close up to people camping and on their beach towels.”

Colorado’s Sand Wash Basin Wild Horses

At Home: The herd’s territory ranges over nearly 160,000 acres 45 miles west of Craig, Colo. In the northwest corner of the state, the habitat includes sagebrush and pinon-juniper woodlands on mountainous ridges and mesas.

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Photographer Scott Wilson says the Sand Wash Mustangs are more accustomed to people in summer and protective of newborn foals in the spring. Photo by Scott Wilson

Horse History: Officially known as the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area horses, the herd’s genetics include links to Iberian/Spanish breeds as well as gaited breeds, Arabians, and North American breeds. The BLM aims to keep the herd between 163 to 363 horses. Some gathered horses ship to Cañon City prison’s program for gentling; incarcerated individuals finish training seven to 10 horses per month, and the prison hosts two adoption programs monthly.

Visiting the Herd: Denver-based photographer Scott Wilson visited the herd of sorrels, bays, pintos, and grays with the guidance of Stella Trueblood, who presides over the Sand Wash Advocacy Team.

“She very kindly showed me around some of the best routes through the basin before I set out to explore independently,” says Wilson. He emphasizes that the horses’ territory is sprawling and requires four-wheel drive, as well as a good set of hiking boots.

“You might see a band of horses five minutes after entering, or you could spend the day searching for your first sighting. I think that unpredictability is part of the charm,” Wilson adds.

He remembers seeing single horses peacefully roaming alone and then approaching a band of horses where stallions fought with pounding hooves—an adrenaline-producing sight, even from a distance.

“I use long lenses, which helps ensure you aren’t interfering with the behaviors of the horses and actually gives you better pictures since you are observing them naturally,” he says.

If you go, Wilson has some advice.

“Remember these are wild animals in a wild location with no toilets and no water. You will need to be patient and keep your eyes peeled. Take good binoculars. But if you are willing to search, you will find some of the most dynamic and photogenic wild horses in the world.”

New Mexico’s Jicarilla Wild Horses

At Home: Find the horses in the Carson Forest, about 40 miles east of Bloomfield, N.M. Horses roam 76,000 acres covering 6,000-8,000-foot elevations.

Horse History: This U.S. Forest Service-managed herd includes cavalry stock and ranch horses as well as horses traced to the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. The Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance’s founder, Barb Kiipper, says the herd consists of bay and black horses with some buckskins and grays. She says the 14- to 15-hand horses have some Spanish blood, as well. Temperament-wise, they are known to be easygoing. Once with numbers over 600, the herd now has about 150 head.

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The Jicarillo herd is extremely skittish around humans, and photo tours have to approach very slowly and calmly. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Visiting the Herd: Paulson first attended a photography workshop to find this lesser-known herd.

“Other herds are well-trafficked,” Paulson says. “They don’t run away when they see you. This one took hours to find. Then we had to be very quiet to not send them running.”

Paulson says the horses could see humans were there, but they needed to sense a calmness to stay in place. Her photo guide constantly talked with a voice that soothed the horses.

“I had a long lens, but even then, my images are cropped because it was hard to move close,” she says. “It was a profound and almost sacred experience. It made me realize my love of the horse.”

Utah’s Onaqui Wild Horses

At Home: Ninety minutes southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah, this BLM-managed herd travels over 205,394 acres from Johnson’s Pass south to Look Out Pass on both sides of the Onaqui Mountains. The horses are frequently seen in the vicinity of the Pony Express Trail in the southern reaches of Skull Valley.

Horse History: Wild horses have been seen on this landscape since the late 1800s. The horses are medium-sized at 800 to 1,000 pounds and have varied colors, including brown, bay, sorrel, roan, buckskin, black, palomino and gray.

Over the years, the BLM has introduced new horses to increase genetic variation. The BLM would like 121 to 210 horses in the herd, whose numbers were more than twice that at the start of 2021. The Wild Horses of America Foundation voluntarily partnered with the BLM to inject Porcine zona pellucida (PZP) into mares as a form of birth control to help keep populations humanely regulated. Horses removed from the herd land at Utah’s Delta Wild Horse & Burro Facility.

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The Onaqui herd allows humans to get fairly close, allowing for some amazing photos. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Visiting the Herd: Paulson and MacDermaid visited for an article about selecting a wild horse.

“We got up early to get the best light, but we struck out until about 11:00,” Paulson remembers. “Then we saw one lone stallion and a bird who sat on his head. He was magnificent.”

Later in the day, a storm changed the landscape’s look. “There was a beautiful sunset and we found a great herd all grazing together in a valley,” she adds. “The magic of this herd is that you can get fairly close.”

For any herd visits, Paulson suggests looking up viewing requirements and making sure that you watch and take photos in nature without disturbing horses.

With patience and calmness, Paulson and Wilson approached the herds with a presence that allowed them to take in the scene—and take away powerful photographs to share.

This article about wild horses appeared in the 2021 special edition of Western Life. Click here to subscribe to Western Life Today!

Heidi Nyland Melocco

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