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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Photographing the Wild Horses of the Onaqui HMA in Utah

White stallion wild horse standing on a ridge at sunrise in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1250 | ISO 6400

Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to visit the Onaqui Herd Management Area in Utah to photograph the amazing wild horses that call this area home. While I wrote about Wild Horses in the American Southwest back in January (you can find that post here), this is going to be more specific to the Onaqui wild horses and give you a bit of background on them as well as my experiences photographing them this year.


A herd of wild horses rests side by side in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/9 | 1/2500 | ISO 1000

A Bit of Background


The Onaqui Herd Management Area (HMA) is located about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City in Tooele County, Utah. The HMA covers 200,000 acres today and, while established to protect the wild horses and the historical significance they represent, it is a mixed-use area where livestock graze, off-road vehicles play, and hunting take place. It also provides quality habitat for other native species such as pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and sage grouse.


A male pronghorn walks across a grassy valley with mountain slopes behind him in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 4000

The Onaqui herds are America's most famous and most followed wild horses. Through the dedication and perseverance of a small team of volunteers and generous citizen "scientists," the herd, its dynamics, and lineage is cataloged through the Onaqui Catalogue Foundation. Starting in 2018 and really coming to fruition after the 2019 government round-up of these horses, the Onaqui catalogue is now one of the most complete herd databases of over 500 wild horses. This information can then be used by researchers, the public, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and others who have an interest in these horses and the management of them.


A paint colored wild horse running through wild sunflowers in the Onaqui Herd Management Area in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1250

In 2021 the BLM authorized a massive round-up of almost 90% of the Onaqui herd. Over 400 horses were captured through helicopter round-up methods. Only 123 were returned to the range. Today there is an estimated 300 total wild horses across the 200,000 acres.


A wild stallion patrols as his herd gazes behind him in the Onaqui Herd Management Area Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/9 | 1/2500 | ISO 1250

Other support that the Onaqui herd obtains from volunteers is PZP darting, which is an annual application of birth control that has been proven to provide quality and safe population management in wild horses. In 2020, the last data year shared by the BLM, over 100 mares were treated with PZP. The use of PZP is vital to help eliminate future round-ups and help keep the wild horse families intact so the increased use of this antifertility treatment is a huge step in the right direction.


A young wild horse foal charges out of an arroyo in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1600

Visiting the Onaqui Wild Horses


The Onaqui HMA is also home to a segment of the historic Pony Express route. Today, this route is a graded dirt road cutting across the range. There are a few other roads, such as the one that connects Dugway, UT, to the Pony Express National Backcountry Byway. Off of these roads are 4x4 trails that should only be traversed by high clearance 4x4 vehicles or ATVs/ORVs. The roads are typically very dusty; however, precipitation can leave the roads, including the byways, in impassable conditions. Be sure to check the weather before heading out.


Additionally, while graded, these roads do pose plenty of tire hazards. Carrying a full-size spare is highly recommended. I was very thankful for a full sized spare when a rock punctured one of the tires on my rental vehicle during my visit in September. It is an hours drive or more to the closest repair shop and the last thing you want is to get a flat and then have your spare not make it either. If renting a vehicle, ensure they have a spare AND that the tire pressure in your running tires is at the appropriate levels. Lately I have been having an issue with rentals having tire pressure well over the car manufacturer’s rating, as was the case with the truck I ended up with the flat on, and I fully suspect that the overinflation of the tire contributed to the puncture.


Wild sunflowers line the historic Pony Express National Backcountry Byway in Tooele County, Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/22 | 1/200 | ISO 2000

Once on the range, it is just a matter of riding the roads until you come across one of the larger herds, where multiple family bands travel together, or cross paths with a smaller family herd or even the onesie/twosies of bachelor stallions out on their own. Frequently I tend to find them between where the pavement ends and Sampson Springs Campground.


Wild white stallion horse walks along the range road as his herd crosses on their way to new grazing grounds in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 10000 | Topaz DeNoise

Understanding a horse's need for water will also help depending on the time of year you visit. During the hotter and dryer months, scoping out the watering holes is an easy way to frequently see not only the wild horses but also other wildlife that call the range home, such as pronghorn. Just ensure that when you are near the watering hole, you give plenty of space for the animals to feel comfortable visiting. Getting water might not sound risky but for prey animals, like horses and pronghorn, it is a time when they are most vulnerable and thus will shy away more quickly should they feel threatened.


A wild stallion horse stands next to a watering hole set in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 2500

Water traps are basically corrals set up around waterholes to make it easier for wranglers to catch larger numbers of horses at one time and have been used for decades. Some of the wild horses out on the range will have had experience with these making them even more wary of humans hanging around the water holes as they come in to drink. Please be mindful of this. Keep at least 200 ft from the water. Don't get between the horses and the hole but stand off to one side. Lastly, if the animals show signs of hesitation, please consider backing up further or leaving the area to allow them to come in for life essential water without additional stressors.


After finding a herd or family band it is up to you as to how long you observe them. Some prefer to just watch from the road while others opt to hike out and follow the herd at a respectful distance for a while. If choosing the second option, remember to take water, have sturdy, close-toed shoes/boots, and park your vehicle out of the main road towards the shoulder if there is not a designated pull-off available. Please do not drive off-road as this leaves scarring on the range and damages the delicate plant life communities found in the high desert environment.


Wild white stallion horse grazes in fall foliage in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 3200

Wild Horse Behavior


When observing the wild horses, the best way to ensure high quality images is to understand the wild horse behavior that you see in front of you. Understanding what their body language is telegraphing will help you be in the appropriate place with lens focused on the main player more times than not.


Some key body language cues to look for are:

  •         ears pinned back

  • ears pricked all the way forward

  •        neck arched (especially in stallions)

  •         pawing of the ground

  •         Flehmen response (lip curl by stallions)


A wild stallion snakes his mares (out of frame) in the high desert grasslands of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Snaking" Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 2500
Two wild stallions posture as they meet out on the Onaqui Herd Management Area in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/1600 | ISO 10,000 | Topaz DeNoise
Wild black stallion horse posturing in the high desert of the Onaqui Mountains Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1250
Wild white stallion pawing at the ground kicking up dust in a challenge to others around him. Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Challenge Pawing" Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1600
A grey wild stallion curls his lip in a Flehmen response to a mare's pheromones. Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Flehmen response" Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2500 | ISO 8000 | Topaz DeNoise

These behavioral cues frequently come before more action-packed moments such as posturing, charging, fighting, or other fast paced movements. While these actions do happen on a frequent basis over the course of a day or week, they are fleeting and there can be long times between moments of action. Patience and a small field stool are required for sure. If you visit and get some great action right off the bat, count yourself lucky.


Two wild stallions rear as they challenge each other. Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1000
A wild stallion lunges at another with teeth barred on the Onaqui Herd Management Area Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 2500
Two wild stallions clash on their hind legs during a battle of dominance in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 2500
Two wild stallions rear mid-fight with each other in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1600
Two wild stallions leave the ground as they bluff each other over dominance in the Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 800

Two wild stallions posture challenging each other in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1000
Wild stallions challenge each other within the Onaqui herd in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 3200
Two wild stallions charging and grass flying in the Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 10000 | Topaz DeNoise
A young wild horse annoys his mother. Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Pt 1: A young colt tests boundaries when trying to get attention from his dam.
A wild colt champs after annoying his mother. Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Pt 2: The mare gives the colt THE look and he responds with "champping," a behavioral trait that translates to something akin to "I'm a baby. Don't hurt me."

Less intense daily life of the wild horses can be seen as long as you find the horses. Some common behaviors of daily horse life that might not be straight forward to first time wild horse observers are:

  •         head low with one rear hoof resting on the toe edge = resting/sleeping

  •          standing side-by-side, nose to tail = resting and keeping flies off faces

  •          two horses side-by-side "chewing" on each other’s' withers = grooming friends/family


A herd of wild horses in the Onaqui Herd Management Area Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1250
Two wild horses stand next together in the setting sun in the Onaqui Mountains Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 1250
A wild horse walks across a ridge in the Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 4000
Two white gray wild horses graze among wildflowers on the Onaqui range Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/500 | ISO 10000 | Topaz DeNoise
A wild horse grazes among wild sunflowers on the Onaqui herd Management Area Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 1600
Two wild horses stroll through wild sunflowers in the Onaqui Mountains in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 2500
A wild band stallion watches as his herd grazes behind him surrounded by wildflowers on the Onaqui HMA, Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 2000

A Sad Story (TW)


So, I'll make this short but I want to share this little filly's story. In September I was really excited to see this beautiful little dappled bay roan filly with her dam and what looked like her possible sire.


Wild foal Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Wild foal Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Wild foal and family Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Wild foal and family Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

They made such a beautiful little family and I spent quite a bit of time watching and photographing their interactions.


Wild foal and family Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Wild foal and family Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Wild foal with family stallion Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Upon my return in early October, just over a month later, my first thought was to seek out the family once again and see how they were doing. While I found the band and found the mare and stallion, I did not see the filly. My heart sank a bit but I also understand that wild horses have predators, primarily mountain lions, and that the big cats are common through the Onaqui Mountains.


Yet, when I ran into one of the Onaqui Catalogue Foundation volunteers and inquired about the missing foal, I was further saddened to hear that discarded barbed wire, left on the range by ranchers, was actually the filly's cause of death.


This death spurred volunteers and the BLM to discuss what can further be done to ensure trash and old ranching equipment that poses safety hazards to the horses is delt with. Unfortunately, it came too late for this little one.


These images stand as record for some of her brief time here on the range, living as wild and free as she could.


A wild mare chases two foals in play on the Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Run free forever little one...

Final Note


Beyond the sad story, I continue to cherish the moments I have with these wild horses. Their perseverance, family dynamics, and historical significance leave me in awe as I watch them amble around this vast, unhospitable rangeland they have been reassigned to by the government.


A wild stallion stands on a ridge with the mountains behind him in the Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 1250 | Converted to B&W in Lightroom

Stallions covered in scars from battles fought and survived.


A wild stallion trots across the high desert in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/9 | 1/2500 | ISO 4000

Mares with their own marks as they protect their foals and settle status disagreements through hoof and tooth.


Three wild horses trot across the grassy valley in the Onaqui mountains Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 2500

And young ones, full of energy and life.


A young wild foal stretches its legs across the Onaqui HMA Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2500 | ISO 8000 | Topaz DeNoise

May they continue to run free while they can.


A grey dun trots across the high desert rangeland of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1600 | ISO 16000 | Topaz DeNoise
A wild paint horse lopes over a ridge in the beams of the setting sun on the Onaqui rangeland Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/1600 | ISO 10000 \ Topaz DeNoise












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