Story and photos by Haley R. Pope
It was 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday in May—the wind was biting cold and the sky a deep royal blue. All bundled up, I hoist my heavy camera case into the truck and my husband and I head straight west out of the small town of Meeker, Colorado. The sun wouldn’t rise until 5:50 a.m., so we had plenty of time to get into position. But first, we had to find them.
We drove along isolated dirt roads following the old-fashioned paper map I had picked up at our local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office. I had gone to gain insight into where we might find them during that time of the year. Three spots were circled on the map. With our windows rolled down, we wound through the hilly terrain as the light began collecting along the horizon. Sagebrush, pinion pines, and juniper trees covered the landscape like moss. On the breeze was the pungent scent of sagebrush. Except for the crunching our tires on the earth and an occasional bird chirp, all else was silent.
We crossed over a dry riverbed and rounded a hill passing through a narrow valley when I spotted movement on the right. A large brown animal was moving through the sagebrush within 50 feet of us. Then another animal came into view. And another. We had found them: the wild horses of the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area—right before sunrise. Coasting to a stop, we saw ten individuals with long, tangled manes and shiny coats grazing. When they caught sight of us their ears pricked forward, eyes opened wide, and they stood motionless.
We worried the herd would bolt, so I began taking shots. My Nikon D7500 camera and NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto lens was stabilized on a beanbag perched on the open window of the truck. Using a full-frame telephoto lens on an APS-C camera allowed me to achieve a maximum zoom of 700mm. That difference would help me get super close shots of my subjects without being physically so and further isolate my subject from the background creating a pleasing blur.
Luckily, they didn’t bolt, and after fifteen minutes of observing and photographing from the truck, the horses calmed down enough to graze and we stepped out of the truck. Moving cautiously and pausing every few steps allowed them to get accustomed to us. It was just after 6:00 a.m. and the sun was beginning to peak over the hill casting its signature golden glow. I mounted my camera to a tripod and continued to monitor and photograph the horses. In this herd, there were three foals, a few weeks old, with long, gangly legs who were glued to their mother’s side. I locked eyes with the stallion—a gorgeous jet-black horse with a flowing mane calling to mind the famous Black Stallion. He stomped his front hoof a few times, as deer often do, as a warning not to approach, and I halted.
Allowing time for acclimatization is essential when photographing wildlife, especially if you aren’t shooting from a hide. Respecting the animal by giving them space and not forcing the introduction can allow you to get closer (if appropriate) and observe their natural behavior—something that can be the most rewarding experience of all. Except for the limited interaction these wild horses have with the BLM staff, there’s little contact with humans, so patience is necessary.
After a while, we left this herd and continued down the road in search of others. Before long, we saw commotion up ahead. Dust plumes rose high in the air and through them came two stallions galloping at high speed, hooves thundering on the ground. With nostrils flaring, eyes flashing, and gnashing of teeth, it was clear they were fighting over something. Sweat streaked their pockmarked coats. Their neck veins bulged and ears pinned back as they craned forward to sink their teeth into the other’s rump.
We quickly pulled over and I readied my camera on my tripod, using the open truck door as a makeshift hide. Casting a glance around, we laid eyes on four more horses, plus a mare and young foal tucked into the sagebrush. This was a tussle for dominance and breeding rights.
Wild horses live in harems, a herd of 12 or fewer individuals, one of which is a sexually mature stallion, while the rest are mares and their young. Generally, stallions are non-aggressive members of their herd whose job is to mate with the mares, maintain harmony, and protect the group from danger. However, competition can erupt when young males reach maturity and are pushed out of the herd, or when a younger stallion challenges an older one for the claim of a herd. What we were watching was a vicious fight between individuals with something to lose.
At first, it was unclear who was the defending stallion and who was the challenger. But as the fight raged on, it became obvious that the black stallion had successfully exerted his dominance over the bay. Almost an hour after we had arrived, the two exhausted, breathless horses slowed to a steady trot. Both stallions had suffered severe bites and kicks that left oozing gashes that would take time to heal.
After facing each other one last time, the black stallion led off the mare, her baby, and the rest of the herd over the crest of a hill. As the defeated bay watched them go, he stamped his foot and snorted in frustrated dejection. But there was also a determined look in his eye. Maybe on another day, he would prevail… Counter to popular belief, America’s wild horses didn’t evolve in the Americas—they are descendants of domestic horses introduced by Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries. They successfully adapted to the rugged terrain, flourished, and became iconic symbols of the Wild West. To protect the rangelands used by wild horses, Congress passed the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971.
Today, there are 177 BLM herd management areas, spanning 26.9 million acres in ten western states. The Piceance wild horses have 190,130 acres of rangeland to roam. That may sound like sufficient space, but overpopulation is a current sustainability concern that threatens to degrade management areas and negatively impact other wildlife and livestock.
The BLM implements population control measures like contraception, occasional culling, and adoption. Other wild horse advocacy groups have called those management strategies inhumane and ineffective; yet allowing horses to starve or languish in holding facilities is likewise inhumane and ineffective. It’s a complicated, controversial issue, but organizations have banded together to help address it. If successful, healthy wild horse herds, like those I encountered, will continue to roam freely across western lands while contributing to overall ecosystem health.
You can learn more about the BLM’s programs to manage wild horses and burros here.
Haley R. Pope is a zoologist and conservationist with a passion for photography and writing. She uses those mediums to explore wildlife conservation topics and share biological knowledge in a visual story-telling format. As the president and owner of TerraLens Photography LLC, she offers freelance photography, writing, and photo archiving services to other companies.
Haley leads trips for Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program, which operates in more than 40 countries and builds houses for those in need. In the future, she’d like to lead ecological and photography focused trips. Connect with her below!