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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Wild Horses of the American Southwest

Silhouettes of two wild horses backlit but golden light and dusty air in the Onaqui Mountains Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | 1/2000 | f/8 | ISO 400

Dust. It is ubiquitous to the western environments where wild equines typically live. Unfortunately, it is a photographer's nemesis; yet, I have never been one to shy away from a subject due to the environment. The dust permeated everything as I explored the vast high desert rangeland around the Onaqui Mountains of Utah and to this day, even after cabin air filter changes and lots of vacuuming, a fine layer of Utah desert dust coats the dash of my SUV seemingly every time I get back in her. That said, it is so worth it!

Note: what follows is a "brief" history of wild horses and the politics that currently have wild horses on both the literal and proverbial chopping block. Some details may be disturbing to some readers. No disturbing images will be shown however.

Not interested in helping preserve these amazing creatures with both native and historical ties to North American soil? Please scroll below the call to action where I talk more about photographing them.

Wild horses and the American West have been synonymous with each other for hundreds of year. Modern day horses, burros, and asses can trace their origins to the prehistoric forests and plains of North America. Up to a dozen species of these ancient forbearers roamed this land before some crossed the land bridge into Eurasia. It was there that the modern equines we know today finished evolving and were domesticated about 6000 years ago. In that time, those older species died out here in North America for unknown reasons.

In the 1400s the Spanish reintroduced horses to the North American continent when they began their exploration of the continent. As more and more explorers came to North America, more modern horses were released, abandoned, or broke loose to escape into the wilds. Some were even shipwrecked, like the wild ponies that now inhabit several of the eastern barrier islands along the mid-Atlantic seaboard. These "domesticated" horses quickly reverted back to a wild lifestyle, with social hierarchies, natural predators, and plenty of habitat.

Some of those wild ones were once again captured and had deep influences on many tribes of native people. As populations expanded and North America was "settled," divided, and subdivided over and over again, wild horses were seen as a natural resource to be utilized. Mustangers of the wild west times would round them up and sell them off. During World War I, more than a million were conscripted for the military and sent to the battlefields. Then, as the war ended and the depression set in, Mustangers continued to round up wild horses for commercial purposes, such as dog food and adhesives.

Two wild horses mustangs posture in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | 1/1250 | f/7.1 | ISO 500

In the 1950s, a woman by the name of Velma Bronn Johnston, who would go on to earn the name of "Wild Horse Annie," was returning home from work when she saw a trailer packed full of wild horses, dripping blood. As a horsewoman and animal welfare supporter, that was the last straw for her and she made her mind that she was going to bring the cruelty of this industry to light. By 1959, a representative from Nevada (Velma's home state) introduced a bill to Congress that would outlaw the use of motorized vehicles and aircraft for the hunting of wild horses and burros on public lands. While that was a step in the right direction, Velma continued to speak up for the protections of these wild animals. Through the use of a grassroot movement based around speeches, news publications, and a massive letter writing campaign that inundated Congress with letters from women and children across the country, there was massive public outcry to further protect the wild horses as natural living creatures that carry American history in their blood.

Nixon finally signed into law the federal “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” in 1971. This act gave the wild horses certain protections and provided for federal management and control of wild horses and burros on public lands. Since then the Act has been amended four times. The last one was in 2001. This is referred to as the "Burns Amendment" (after Senator Conrad Burns from the state of Montana) and in this amendment, Burns essentially gutted the protections and humane management of wild horses in the ten western states where they are found. His amendment allows for an increase in the number of horses rounded up and allows them to be sold for pennies on the dollar through a pipeline for slaughter. All because of the cattlemens'/ranchers' lobby.

Wild horses, like so much other wildlife, use resources like water and forage while on public lands. Public lands in many western areas can also be rented out by cattlemen to graze cattle at ultra low prices. Deteriorating conditions of western rangelands means the cattlemen are looking for a way to get more natural resources for their livestock without paying more, thus they have been looking for ways to remove wild horses from their historic lands in order to graze cattle.

There are a couple problems with this approach. Cattle have been shown time and time again to be much worse on rangeland than the wild horses. In 1982 the National Academy of Sciences stated that the primary cause of overgrazing on public lands was private livestock. Mind you there have been a significant number of studies supporting this position since then (such as a 2020 study by the BLM that identifying allotments that failed to achieve one or more standard where livestock grazing was determined to have been a significant factor. See the interactive map here). As far back as 1991, the government has known this as their own reports from the GAO (Government Accountability Office) showed that wild horses do not have a negative impact on public lands.

On average only three percent of the American beef produced uses public lands for grazing which causes the vast majority of damage to the public rangelands. Economists have stated that if all publicly grazed beef was pulled from the market, there would be no reason for the price of beef to rise. It is that small of a percentage of the American beef production. Yet, the ranchers still lobby for access to this land, public taxpayer land, and the destruction of the wildlife that might compete with their livestock.

A paint mare, one of the Onaqui herd in Utah, moves towards the local water hole during blue hour | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | 1/640 | f/6.3 | ISO 20,000 |

Today, multiple agencies call on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the department that has been tasked with the oversight of wild horses and burros in the western US, to consider how they determine population numbers on the various rangelands. Even the National Academy of Science stated in their BLM sponsored review of the department's Wild Horse and Burro Program that the BLM " ...has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands." Ignoring these issues of how the BLM even counts how many wild horses are actually still free roaming, if one looks at the data, the growth patterns are inconsistent to include a large change in 2014/15 when the BLM changed how they count...yet again.

A herd of wild horses rests in the midday light at the foot of the Onaqui Mountains in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 640

Because of the constant roundups to limit and under populate these animals in their natural environment, the government spends over $100 million dollars of tax payer money annually to house, maintain, and try to adopt out some of those wild horses captured. Currently, the last reported number of wild horses in government holding facilities was just over 61,000 and the number of wild horses across all their ranges in the American West is estimated at 64,000 if the BLM's numbers are to be believed. Essentially half of all wild horses in America are in government holding, just waiting to be sold off to the lowest bidder.

And the round ups continue, moving more wild horses into holding facilities as range segmentation limits cross breeding and thus, leaving herds at population levels below biologist recommended levels for genetic diversity. Currently, there is a BLM scoping notice out for the bait trapping and removal of the majority of the McCullough Peaks herd in Wyoming. Not only have equine specialists, like Dr. Gus Cothran, leading horse geneticist and professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine, stated their concern about herd genetic viability should this roundup take place, but this herd has shown good results in the past to annually injected fertility control.

There have been many herds that have shown with proper fertility control applied in field, herd numbers can be managed very effectively. In a collaboration with local, state, and federal entities, the Salt River wild horses in Arizona have been managed effectively which came about after the BLM and National Forestry Service (USFS) published a notice that they were going to remove the wild horses in the Tonto National Forest in 2015. Over 70 thousand people signed a petition to halt the roundup while the non-profit Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) fought the USFS over their removal of these beloved local animals. Due to Arizona law and documentation showing these wild horses had been in the area as wild for centuries, the state recognized them as wildlife and the USFS and BLM backed off, turning the herd management over to the SRWHMG where management continues today.

Wild horses gather in the Salt River in central Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | 1/2000 | f/7.1 | ISO 1000

Of the 200 miles that the Salt River runs, the eighteen miles of river that the wild horses are able to access are the most biologically diverse. Recent studies in other parts of the west have shown where wild horses and burros actively dig wells that help other native wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, bobcats, jackrabbits, and pronghorn, access to that water would otherwise be out of reach during drought conditions.

A mare and foal pair trail slightly behind the main herd as they graze in the direction of their mid-morning water stop in the Onaqui Herd Management area in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 500

Since the turn over of herd management to the SRWHMG, the increase use of PZP (a dart administered fertility control hormone for wild horses) has resulted in a stable population (no pun intended) of wild horses that peacefully cohabitate with other wildlife in the Tonto National Forest. PZP has been a proven way to manage wild horse populations without the brutal roundups. The BLM would spend much less in tax payer money to manage herds through concentrated PZP darting than they do in capture, long-term care, and attempted placement of the tens of thousands of wild horses currently in holding and those they want to add to captivity. Additionally, fewer wild horses would be killed in the attempts to keep their freedom as each roundup ends with at least a few "casualties."

While the BLM likes to tout that only one percent of wild horses rounded up die during the process, those are just the ones that the BLM directly attributes to the round up. More die in the weeks and months after capture either due to "pre-existing conditions" or suffering acute trauma such as breaking their necks while fear-charging gates and panels. Furthermore, just like crowded venues are a hot house for disease transmission in humans, the same goes for wild horses in these holding facilities. In 2021, more than 140 wild horses at a holding facility in Colorado died from equine flu after the contracted facility failed to vaccinate the horses upon arrival.

Essentially, all this adds up to wild horses continually being vilified and eradicated in the American West under the guise of better rangeland stewardship while the BLM and USFS turns a blind eye to the ranchers and domesticated livestock that decimate rangelands, foul water supplies, and pass disease on to native wildlife (Google brucellosis cattle pass to Yellowstone bison or Bighorn sheep pneumonia.)

A wild stallion postures as he trots across the high desert of the Onaqui Herd Management Area in Utah towards another stallion | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 800

Call to Action: So this is where you come in. Public pressure is what has continuously helped protect wild horses here in America. So public pressure is what we need once again in mass to show the Federal government that we, the American people, really do want these wild horses managed in humane and wild conditions.

The immediate needs are with the McCullough Peaks herd. The BLM Scoping Notice is only open for public comment until February 7th, 2023. Sandy Sisti, an amazing wild horse and wildlife photographer and advocate, has written a well worded post with some talking points that can be used for crafting your comment on the Scoping Plan for this herd. Again, public comment is only open until February 7th, 2023!

If you want to take your support a step further, consider contacting your federal representatives, including the Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is in charge of the BLM and USFS. If you are in Western states, particularly places like Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana, contact your state representatives to make your voices heard about how your public wildlife is being treated.

The more this subject finds its way into lawmakers inboxes, voicemails, and in front of their faces, the higher chance we have that meaningful action will be taken to help protect the wild horses and their rangeland.

OK. I'm off my "soapbox" now.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the dust. Worth it!

The wind carries a large dust cloud as a wild horse mustang shakes the dust from itself after taking a dust bath in the Onaqui Mountains Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 500

Photographing wild horses continues to be a very special type of photography for me. I grew up with domestic horses and at one point even adopted a mustang. To see them in the wild is something else entirely. Personally, I think sitting with horses is one of the greatest therapies out there.

A white mare of the Salt River Wild Horse herd stands in the shade nibbling on mesquite leaves in Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 6400

As with any other species of wildlife, understanding their behavior is key to successful photography. With the wild horses, depending on their location, there are going to be different behaviors when it comes to their usual routines throughout the day or season. Herds in more northern states or at higher elevation are going to have different seasonal range patterns than those in Arizona.

A pair of wild horses stand surrounded by backlit autumn foliage along the Salt River in Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000

But similarities do occur. All horses need to drink fresh water at least once a day at a minimum to survive. Those in more arid or hot climates will frequently drink more than that if it is readily available. My photography often revolves around this pattern when out with wild horses. In Utah, knowing where the water holes are can give you a decisive advantage considering the herd management area covers over 240,000 acres.

A large herd of wild horses stand silhouetted along a ridge surrounding a watering hole in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photograph LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/400 | ISO 2500

Traveling out onto the rangeland in the early morning, I look for herds near the known waterholes and keep my eyes peeled for any clouds of dust that may being kicked up by herds on the move or spunky stallions. As the morning passes and the light gets harsh, I will visit watering holes in the area looking at the tracks and manure piles. Typically there are large manure piles near places like waterholes and trail intersections that are known as post piles. Stallions use these to leave their mark that they have been there. Should several stallions be in the area of the post pile at the same time there are often scuffles to see who will be the one to "leave their mark" first and last.

A pair of stallions stand over a post pile and one raised its head performing the flehman response lip roll in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 800

Depending on the herd, they are likely to visit water mid morning and then again in late afternoon. In places where water is more scarce than others, like Utah, these waterholes can have several family bands coming into them at the same time. This mingling of bands is frequently where much of the action takes place as stallions greet each other, try and keep their families separate from one another, and keep an eye on any bachelors that might try to make a move to steal a mare here or there as well.

A wild stallion snakes his mares away from another herd that moved into the area they had been grazing in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Snaking behavior, as seen here, is frequently used by stallions to urge their mares further from other bands so they don't "get lost."
A wild stallion nips at the shoulder of a wild mare to se if she is receptive to his advances in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
A wild stallion tries to woo one of the mares in his herd. Notice the ears on the mare.
A wild stallion stands in the low Salt River in Arizona giving distinct body language with a low head and ears back for others not to encroach on his family's space | A. Bender Photography LLC
This low head position with ears back is a warning to another band (out of frame) that had just come down to the river not to get too close to his family.

If photographing along river areas, such as the Salt River in Arizona, the horses can visit any time. In this situation, its a matter of waiting until multiple families visit at the same time and actually get in the water. Some will only visit to drink while other will get in to cool off, snorkel for the river vegetation, or even to just rest away from pests like flies who have a much harder time biting legs if the legs are underwater.

Two wild horses graze on aquatic vegetation while chest deep in the Salt River in Arizona . Image presented in black and white | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 1000 | converted to B&W in Lightroom

Seasonal water level changes will also impact behavior along the banks of this high value resource. in the winter months, levels drop, exposing the eel grass and other aquatic vegetation. This makes for easy grazing on a plentiful but short-lived food source once it is out of the water. Many herds come down to partake and some evenings there can be 60 - 90 wild horses in the river. It really is a sight to behold.

A wild horse eats long strands of ell grass river grass in the Salt River in Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Eating Vegetarian River Pasta" series
A wild horse eats long strands of ell grass river grass in the Salt River in Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 2000
A wild horse eats long strands of ell grass river grass in the Salt River in Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC

Understanding their behavior goes beyond just daily and seasonal habits, but also their body language. Watching a horse's ears can tell you so much about their mentality and will frequently telegraph coming behavior. If nothing else, you should know ears pinned back means trouble and frequently is a precursor to action. Watching a subject's body language helps you prepare for action images.

Two wild horses posture next to each other with ears back and necks out in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1250 | ISO 1250
Two wild mustang stallions size each other up side by side as their dancing stirs up the dust of the high desert in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 800 | converted to B&W in Lightroom
A chestnut wild mustang stallion trots across the high desert in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah to confront two other stallions in the area while other horses in the background look on | A. Bender Photography LLC
This wild stallion suddenly took interest in two other stallions a hundred yards away, his body posture, with head up and ears flat back, told me that I should be concentrating on him as my subject as there was going to be some potential action.
Two wild mustangs greet eachother over the back of a third who is acting as a mediator in the high desert of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Upon reaching the others, one stallion acted as a mediator, putting his body between the two as a kind of shield, as the two other wild mustang stallions greeted one another.
Two wild mustang stallions rear up in a fight at dusk on the high desert of the Onaqui Herd Management area in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/250 | ISO 20000 | Topaz DeNoise used in post
Two bachelor wild mustang stallions fight with one rearing over the other while chest deep in the Salt River of central Arizona | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 4000

Finally, when out with wild horses, I know it can be easy to forget they are actually wild animals, but it is imperative that you keep this in mind. Not only will it help you keep yourself safe but also the horses. They already have enough people gunning to label them domestic livestock, the last thing we as photographers need to be doing is adding fuel to that fire by getting too close. The SRWHMG and the Tonto National Forest state visitors should remain at least 50 feet/15.25m away from the wild horses in that area at any time. In places like Utah, the BLM states a distance of 100 ft/30.5m will be kept from the horses. All locations also have policies that do not allow for the harassment of the wild horses (unless you are the federal government contractors but I digress). This includes doing anything that changes their natural behavior such as making loud noises, flushing them from water sources, or trying to feed or pet them. #responsibleequinephotography

Two wild horses are silhouetted in the golden sunset light as one horse paws at the ground in front of the other in the Onaqui herd management area of Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
"That's close enough!" Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/8 | 1/2000 | ISO 200

In the Onaqui Mountains, early morning light creeping up over the eastern peaks and the dust settling, I am in the presence of a small family band that is peacefully grazing in the cool air. As the run crests the ridgeline a beautiful red roan bachelor stallion glances in my direction as the breeze pushes my scent towards him. A lone human sitting a ways off does not strike him as a threat and he goes back to his breakfast, still wild and free.

A wild horse looks up from grazing at the base of the Onaqui Mountains of Utah in early morning light with a bit of sun flare in image | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/640 | ISO 3200

For those interested in being guided to photograph wild horses in the American West check out these related workshops and tours:

A wild mustang walks through a cloud of dust near a water hole where it is silhouetted by the setting sun and brilliant burnt orange light  and casting a shadow in the dust in the Onaqui Mountains in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 50-400mm | f/7.1 | 1/1000 | ISO 80

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