How to Find and Photograph Wild Horses in the US

Growing up in the crowded European country of Belgium, few things symbolized the American Dream as much as the iconic Mustang. No, not the Ford muscle car. The wild horse!

While the last wild horses in Europe were officially declared extinct in 1909, the U.S. seemed to be teeming with wild horses. I specifically remember reading an article in National Geographic magazine from the 1970s in which the author went searching for (and found) them in Nevada. When I finally made the move across the pond in my late twenties and started searching out wild horses for my wildlife photography in the American West, I was surprised to learn, especially in a country that owes so much to the loyal horse, about the many controversies surrounding these national icons.

Are they wild or feral? Why does the government spend millions annually feeding captured wild horses? Why do they even need capturing? Did the wild horses really get turned into dog food at one time? And where I can photograph them?

Are Wild Horses Wild or Feral?

The American Museum of Natural History states that horses have been in existence for 50 million years. The first horses are actually believed to have originated on the North American continent and then to have spread to Europe and Asia via the Bering land bridge. The last ice age, however, completely wiped out the North American horse population, or so the story went.

Recent DNA research by Tyler Murchie, an archaeologist specializing in ancient DNA at McMaster University, showed that wild horses were still roaming the North American continent as recently as 5,000 years ago, about 8,000 years later than previously assumed. Around that time, previous research suggests that a similar faith to that of the European wild horses may have met them: overhunting by humans leading to their extinction in America.

Fast forward to “today’s” American wild horse populations who are here thanks to the Spanish Conquistadors – think Christopher Columbus who brought horses with him on his second voyage to the American Continent and Hernan Cortez who used horses on his travels across the U.S. in search for the Seven Cities of Gold – during the 15th and 16th centuries. As horses escaped or were set free, they became the ancestors of our wild horses.

So, today’s body of research suggests that wild horses came from America, made their way to Europe across the Bering land bridge, were domesticated and overhunted – to the point of extinction – both in Europe and America, before being brought back to the North American Continent as domesticated horses, to then once again be set free. Does that fit the dictionary definition of “wild” or “feral”: you be the judge.

Are Wild Horses Turned Into Dog Food?

The American wild horses of today are protected under the “Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” of 1971. This act, still in place today, formally protects “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States, and makes it a crime for anyone to harass or kill these animals on federal land.” The act recognizes that, although once considered domesticated, these animals have since adapted to life as wild animals in the American West.

The Bureau of Land Management (or BLM for short) is tasked with managing the horse herds that live in “Herd Management Areas” (HMA) spread out across the U.S. There are 177 HMAs in existence today spread out across the Western states.

An estimated 2 million wild horses roamed the landscape around the turn of the 19th century and “they were feral livestock and anyone could go out, gather them, do whatever they wanted,” per Bob Garrot, director of the Fish and Wildlife Ecology and Management Program at Montana State University. Shockingly, many horses were slaughtered and turned into dog food; others were shot by ranchers to prevent the horses from grazing land used by their livestock.

The U.S. government even went as far as hiring people to remove horses from public land; for example, by poisoning their water holes and issuing permits to hunters. Not a great way to treat a national icon, hence the public outrage that led to the 1971 act, when only 17,000 wild horses were left! Today, the number of wild horses is believed to stand at 67,000.

Managing the Wild Horses

How the BLM is actually supposed to manage the population of wild horses is the topic of a heated debate, however. Since the Herd Management Areas lack natural predators, it is up to the BLM to find an acceptable way to prevent overpopulation.

The traditional method applied is rounding up the wild horses and making them available for adoption to private citizens. These round-ups spark a lot of controversy in the wildlife conservation community: spectators who witness them; regularly done by helicopter; frequently witness horses dying or being placed under extreme stress. As wild horses are forced into corrals for capture, some horses break a leg, foals are separated from their mother … Probably not what the writers and supporters of the 1971 act had in mind.

And what happens once excess horses are captured? The BLM places them in short-term holding pens with the goal of these horses being adopted by private citizens. That admirable plan isn’t working out, however. Since 1971, annual adoption numbers have been falling annually, resulting in the BLM having to lease land for long-term placements, as they are not allowed to kill them. Fast forward to today when the BLM has an estimated 13,500 wild horses and burros living in short-term holding pens and 31,500 (!) in long-term pastures. Imagine the size of that herd in captivity!

It is estimated that each horse or burro costs the taxpayer $50,000 over its lifetime in confinement. This cost alone makes up nearly two-thirds of the BLM’s total annual budget. An alternate solution to round-ups and expensive confinement is sterilizing wild horses in the Herd Management Areas; however, this method also has strong detractors among animal rights activists.

Where to Photograph Wild Horses

While many Herd Management Areas are still on my bucket list, over these past years, I have had the great fortune to visit several of the BLM Herd Management Areas. You can easily find out which Herd Management Area is available near your home by looking on the BLM website.

Observing these horses in the wild – living seemingly free and unencumbered lives – is a privilege enjoyed by many wildlife enthusiasts in the U.S. Some of the more accessible areas have become regular tourist attractions, including financially supporting local guides and photography tours. Here are some of my favorite areas to visit:

Sand Wash Basin, Colorado: Situated near the small town of Craig, CO near the border with Wyoming, the BLM road into their area is well signaled. These are some of the most followed horses in the country with local and international fans naming each and every horse.

McCullough Peaks, Wyoming: A few miles east of Cody, WY, these horses live in a huge area, accessible only via a few BLM dirt roads. What I love about these horses specifically is their looks: some of them have very long manes, something I haven’t witnessed (yet) among the other herds.

Salt River, Arizona: Although technically not recognized under the 1971 act, these horses who inhabit the Tonto National Forest near Phoenix, AZ, have the benefit of living surrounding a river in the desert heat. I lived in Phoenix, AZ for a few years so have spent lots of time photographing them: whenever possible, I loved escaping the city to find solitude in nature with these horses. They live in a big area so hiking was my go-to method in finding the herds. Park your car at any of the pull-outs and hike towards the river. Especially at sunrise and sunset, you’ll find the horses enjoying the Salt River.

Photography and Equipment Tips for Wild Horse Photos

Focal length: Horses are large animals so my go-to focal lengths are in the range of 100mm to 400mm. 100mm allows you to include some scenery while 400mm allows you to focus in on one horse. I typically photograph one animal alone unless I have the opportunity to include meaningful scenery, like their water hole, nearby mountain scenery, or the beautiful Salt River in Arizona. For the wide-angle shots, bring a wide-angle focal length like a 16mm or 24mm lens. For detail shots, I generally also carry a 500mm or 600mm lens into the field.

Lighting: Sunrise and sunset provide the ‘golden light’ and allow for cooler temperatures which means the horses will typically be more active. Find them at their water hole around these times.

Be ready: Photographing scenes of horses grazing for hours on end doesn’t typically make for engaging images. Once you start observing wild horse herds, you will soon realize that horses typically do one thing: graze. Since they have only one small stomach – as opposed to cows – they need to graze throughout the day. It’s important to be ready; even when they are seemingly endlessly grazing. A quick moment when a horse puts its head up makes for a much more intriguing picture than when its head is down eating.

Stallion meetings: Wild horses live in herds – or ‘bands’ – up to about 20 horses. Each herd is led by a stallion (the male). Once a horse is born – called a ‘foal’ by the way, not a ‘pony’ – after a gestation period of 11 months, the foal joins the herd. If the foal is a stallion, he is driven away from the herd by the lead stallion by age 2. When two stallions meet, be ready to photograph potential action scenes. When you follow a herd for a few hours, you’ll typically have a good chance of photographing some action.

Hire a guide: These Management Areas are big so unless you have an idea where to look, you are unlikely to be able to find and photograph the wild horse herds. My recommendation is to hire a guide. These horses are wild so there are no guarantees of finding them: hiring a local expert will definitely maximize your chances of finding and photographing the horses as well as economically supporting the horse populations.

Environment: Many of the Management Areas are remote – far away from civilization – and contain few (good) roads. Most of the access roads are dirt roads in poor condition so a 4WD vehicle is recommended. Generally, I would recommend only driving into the dirt roads when conditions are dry: since you’re typically out of cell phone range, driving conditions can go from bad to worse quickly during a rainstorm. If you bring your RV – camping is typically allowed on BLM land – make sure to follow local regulations, including camping away from the horse’s water hole(s).

And, finally, a general rule when photographing wildlife: these are wild animals so please don’t approach or pet them. Do not feed them. Respect the animals: if they react to your presence, you are too close. Back away. The last thing we need is for photographers to walk up to the horses; cell phone camera in hand; feed them or spook them away from their food and water sources. We want to protect these horses so let’s all place our best foot forward.

Good luck out there and happy shooting!

About the author: Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven is a freelance wildlife and conservation photographer based in New Mexico. You can find more of Vangoidtsenhoven’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven.