Chasing Wild Horses in Arizona
Updated: May 4
Horses have been a big part of my life since I was first brought home from the hospital. Not only did we have horses while I was growing up that I learned to love and understand, but as I got older, I started training horses as well. The special ones were always the mustangs.
A piece of living American history, mustangs roam ever shrinking areas of the American West. States with large amounts of public land such as Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona have herds of these wild horses, descendants of those brought to North America by Spanish explorers. With my love of horses, my previous experience working with mustangs, and childhood fantasies based on the old Western movies that would come on TV over the weekends during summer, personally photographing mustangs in the wild has been a dream of mine for years.
There is something deeply satisfying when a wild animal finally gives you their trust, be it in allowing you to touch and guide them or the trust that must be given when an animal notices you in the field and allows you to continue to observe it. Maybe that is why I find wildlife photography so fulfilling.
During this year of wondering I was determined to capture images of American mustangs in the wild. Arizona was my jumping off point and did not disappoint!
Two areas I visited both in November and January were amazing and I had several stunning encounters. Below I share my experiences at these sites, images from both areas, and some recent news about some of the herds.
Just outside Phoenix to the East lies a combination large of two national forests, the Tonto and the Apache-Sitgreaves. Within these protected forests there are many bands, some more widely known than others.
The Tonto National Forest is home to one of the more widely known herd areas, the Salt River. People come from all over the country to catch a glimpse of the Salt River Wild Horses. The Salt River has many spots for visitors to pull out and look for the horses along Bush Highway. With a few hundred individuals roaming the lower Salt River area, with time and patience visitors can usually catch sight of these wild beauties.
Location tip: Please use extreme caution when driving along the Bush Highway! The horses do cross the road frequently. Just within the last few weeks, one band stallion was hit and killed when trying to cross the highway with his herd.
Photo tip: As these horses are somewhat use to humans and their environment holds its own vast beauty, a range of lenses is suggested. Here you do not need to have a 600mm, even though it would help in many situations. A 70-300mm works just as well and allows photographers to capture not only individual portraits but also the herd in their environment.
Obviously early morning and late afternoon are key times to see wildlife in general. However, the horses in this area can be seen at all times of the day. Areas like Phon D Sutton Recreation and Coons Bluff Camp (open Friday evening through Sunday at sunset for actual camping) are areas that are frequently visited by the horses.
The types of family groups photographers are likely to encounter are going to be family herds and bachelor herds. Family groups are usually made up of one or two stallions (males), several mares (females), and, if you are lucky, some youngsters. Apart from some youngster play or tender moments between band members, family units are usually stable and are most commonly seen grazing with little action.
Bachelor herds on the other hand can offer a bit more action more frequently. These herds are made up of older stallions that have lost their mares to other, stronger, stallions, and younger stallions that may only be a year or two old who have been kicked out of their family herd to fend for themselves. The youngsters learn how to act like stallions from the older guys so there is typically quite a bit of mock fighting and horseplay that goes along with these groups.
I was lucky on one of my visits back in November to find a bachelor herd and catch several sequences of mock play between band brothers. Everything from tail pulling to full rearing and and chasing along the river banks.
A bit of a drive from the lower Salt River, up into the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest, there are a smaller population of wild horses known as the Heber wild horses.
I visited this area back in November to find this herd. The band I found was a good size family herd with a beautiful palomino stallion and a few older youngsters.
Unfortunately, this area is suffering from the age-old fight between ranchers who want to use public land for their own and the wild creatures who live on the land. Within the last few weeks at least six of the wild horses have been shot along with several other animals, yet no cattle have been touched. With the federal government shutdown right now, there are no federal officers able to investigate these crimes.
I did not see the horses that lost their lives as the ones I have pictured here are another family band in the area. The only surviving member of the band that was terrorized is a young filly (young female) who, at the time of this writing was doing ok under the watchful eyes of volunteers. Please, if you are out in these areas and see anything questionable, please report it! While the shutdown impacts the federal rangers, who would usually oversee the area, the County Sheriff's office is currently the responding authority. Also, this also brings up the point that you should always be aware of your surroundings when out, especially if you travel solo.
While these horses continue to face persecution for just being, shedding light on the situation and having more visitors bring in tourism dollars to the area can be a great way to combat this human aggression against the animals. So, go and visit them, see how they live, photograph your adventures, and share!
No, I'm not asking a question. Why is an actual town just south of Ajo on the edge of the Tohono O'Odham Nation Reservation.
Within this tiny community there is a wonderful RV park, Hickiwan Trails, that backs up to a vast area of wild land protected by the reservation. There are close to ten miles of hiking trails that start at the park as well as full restroom facilities. Tonya, the owner, is a great wealth of information about the local lands and community events. It is a very peaceful area that I foresee myself revisiting time and again.
Location tip: Staying at the park is the easiest option as you are then free to hike out on the land as a guest of the tribe. If you decide to stay elsewhere or if you want to drive out onto the reservation, outside the Ajo-Tucson Highway, you will need to get a permit to be on the reservation from the Chief.
Upon these lands roam hundreds of wild burros and horses. The burros can be heard braying at all times of the day and night and are frequently seen near the camp in the evening as they come to a local watering hole in the area.
Location tip: If staying overnight and you are a light sleeper, bring ear plugs as the burros are known to make a ruckus at literally all hours including 1 or 3 am. Sometimes the coyotes join in as well.
Just like the horses, there are family groups and bachelor bands. Being burros, even the family herds can have a bit of action, and they can come out of the bush with a full head of steam. Or, some vie for attention when their curiosity is peaked by a random photographer.
In one day, I was able to find about 50 wild burros and three wild horses there on the reservation! So many great photo opportunities and not another photographer in sight. Due to only having the RV for transportation, this time my friends Pat and Margie were kind enough to take me out in their Jeep where I was able to capture images such as those below.
Photo tip: This is an area not frequented by photographers and so the wildlife is a bit more sensitive to human attention. A longer lens, such as the Tamron 150-600mm G2, is highly suggested so that you can get up-close images without actually getting physically up-close.
There are other areas around Arizona that are home to wild horses and burros, but those are for another visit. I had such a great time in these locations, even as I explore more, I will continue to visit these spots to get my mustang fix.
Would you be interested in photographing these beautiful American West icons? Be sure to keep an eye on my Photo Adventure page as I am putting together an Arizona Equine Adventure, so you can capture your own images!