Wild Horse Viewing

February 7, 2009

I thought I might offer some tips and thoughts from our most successful wild horse viewing trips…in case you decide you’d like to venture out to see these magnificent creatures on your own. These are my personal observations, beliefs and experiences, and as such, are offered only as guidelines.

My husband and I have developed what we call our “wild horse etiquette” that we follow when we enter any HMA or herd area. Please be sure that as you enter an HMA, you follow any official regulations that are posted at entrances. I know, for example, that the McCullough Peaks HMA near Cody, WY has a 500 foot viewing distance rule – and they enforce it. It is really hard for me to judge distance, but I do my best to honor that rule while photographing there. It’s generally only an issue with the more accessible horses that have become somewhat habituated to people. Other, more remote bands within the HMA will enforce that viewing distance themselves!

We stay on the roads. If there is a 2-track, we’ll use those as well. I’m always prepared to do alot of walking. A lot.

We try to determine where the watering holes are. These are good places to look for horses, but we try not to be so close to these sources that horses will avoid drinking due to our presence. 

Krueger Pond - Pryor Mountains, MT

Krueger Pond - Pryor Mountains, MT

When approaching a band, I don’t try to sneak up on them. I try not to startle them either (with a slamming car door as I get out). I walk out towards them with a happy mental image while silently projecting that I’m only there to admire, not harass. (Crazy? My aunt, a lifetime horsewoman, is convinced horses can read our minds so we should always visualize good and happy things when we’re around them – and I believe her). I approach and stop if I sense a lot of uneasiness from the horses. I take my first shots (which are sometimes my only shots). I call these my “horse dot” images. If the herd settles down, I move forward. I let them take me in and work my way closer if I can. My desire is to observe their natural behavior which isn’t necessarily glimpsing their hindquarters as they disappear in a cloud of dust, but it does happen, especially in the less visited areas.

Bachelor bands of horses are often the most curious and will generally come the closest to investigate. The bachelors can be a lot of fun. Bands with foals are more wary. I try not to disturb them by getting too close. I find the herd dynamics fascinating and the solitude of the range therapeutic. I’m constantly amazed by what I observe. I’ve acquainted myself with specific individuals over the years and I’ve seen their distinct personalities emerge. Of course I have my favorites, but I marvel at them all.

McCullough Peaks, WY bachelor band.

McCullough Peaks, WY bachelor band.


We don’t bait or otherwise attempt to feed wild horses. Doing so can make them very sick or even kill them. Take the tragic example that occurred at Shackleford Banks, NC. In this blurb from their website, it tells the story of a very special white, orphaned foal. “On January 2, 1997, we found Spirit’s remains, along with the body of a young mare whose company he had kept since the roundup in November of 1996. His death was the result of human interference; probably well meant, but nonetheless devastating. .” Though they don’t mention specifics, hearsay is that someone left some sort of food source out for the horses that they couldn’t digest. While visiting the Pryor Mountain horses of Montana a couple of years ago, we witnessed a visitor attempting to offer bread and carrots to the wild horses. If it isn’t natural to their habitat, please assume it isn’t good for their system.

Shackleford Banks horses. They are also known as Banker Ponies, but they are not ponies.

Shackleford Banks horses. They are also known as Banker Ponies, but they are not ponies.

A bachelor boy with a buddy - Shackleford Banks, NC.

A bachelor boy with a buddy - Shackleford Banks, NC.

When we hit a high spot anywhere on the range, we get out and take a look around (especially behind us). It’s a good opportunity to “scan” for the tell tale sign of wild horses (stud piles, dust, etc) and you can sometimes hear them – which is why, even though it’s dusty, I like to drive with the windows at least partially down and the radio off.

We don’t usually take our dogs when we visit the ranges. The biggest reason is, it’s just too darn hot and there are alot of snakes, spiders, cactus, etc. Most of the areas are remote and getting veterinary treatment in a timely manner just isn’t practical. We have taken the dogs with us for winter and early spring shots, but we let them out only when there are no horses in the vicinity. If you do take a dog, I would try to keep it leashed. Dogs have natural instincts and even the best trained animal may find itself chasing a band of horses that are spooked into running at the sight of a perceived predator. Foals are especially vulnerable in this circumstance. And there’s no telling what a protective mare or stallion may do to your dog if it gets too close.

Though these are harmless Bull Snakes, we have seen enough Rattlesnakes to worry about our dogs encountering one in these range areas - McCullough Peaks, WY

Though these are harmless Bull Snakes, we have seen enough Rattlesnakes to worry about our dogs encountering one in these range areas - McCullough Peaks, WY

Speaking of the little ones, as a side note – typical foaling season is from March through mid July. It is really important to keep your distance during these months or a mare may become stressed and abandon her foal. My photos from “The Stallion and the Foal” series may have come about from this very scenario. There was a happy outcome for the foal in my images, but many are not so fortunate. Without the mare’s milk and protection, they starve or are taken by predators. 

“The Stallion and the Foal” video:

For documentation purposes, I take many “reference” shots of individual horses and range conditions. It’s good information to have for comparison from year to year. I also document injured and deceased animals when I find them.

When we see trash or wire as we’re walking in the ranges, we pick it up or take it out of harm’s way. If you have a domestic horse, you understand how easy it is for them to embed the only nail in the paddock/pasture into a hoof or cut themselves on the tiniest loose flap of tin on the barn, etc. Murphy’s Law – if they can get into trouble, they seem to. My Vet actually nicknamed my young gelding “Good for Business” if that tells you anything about my personal experiences. Wild horses don’t have the luxury of veterinary care, so if we see something that could cause potential trouble for them, we try our best to correct or remove it. 

Wire that Tom rolled up from Sand Wash Basin HMA.

Wire that Tom rolled up while I was out photographing the horses at Sand Wash Basin HMA.

For safety’s sake, let someone know your general location, always have a good map or GPS device, carry tools (we’ve blown tires and even our car battery on some of the extreme terrain), extra food, water and clothing. And, be aware of weather conditions. Even when we are mindful, we’ve been stuck in the horse ranges more than once due to a quick moving storm which creates impassable roads. It’s good to take all the extra precautions so that if you happen to get caught in this kind of situation, it doesn’t become an emergency – just a minor inconvenience (part of the adventure!) that you’re prepared for. (One more tip: a large trash bag works wonders as a rain slicker in a pinch!).

5 Responses to “Wild Horse Viewing”

  1. Lea Williams Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful pictures. when we went to see the Pryor Mt. mustangs a few years ago we took many many pictures. I am just an amature at it but I have them all in my mind. Even the ones of Cloud peeking out at us by the watering hole just over the little hill from the cabin. We mostly go to Oregon. We have 10 mustangs all adopted from Oregon but 1 from CA. We love them. I added your blog of my list. I blog about ours at Lea and her Mustangs on blogspot. Thanks again for sharing your wonderful pictures.

  2. pnickoles Says:

    Hi Lea and thanks for the nice comments. Where in Oregon do you visit the wild horses? It’s my hope to get up to see the Kigers someday, even though I hear they are very elusive. And, kudos to you for adopting all those mustangs! 🙂

  3. Karen Says:

    thanks Pam for the excellent tips!

  4. Elden Says:

    Thanks pam for sharing your pictures. I just love any and all wild horses. I sepnd a lot of time in utah looking at as I call them my horses. I need to venture out and find other places to areas to see wild horses. Your site has given me so new areas to check out. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. pnickoles Says:

    Hi Elden – thank you for your comment. Utah is another place I’d like to get to someday. Maybe we’ll meet out on the range someday. Good luck in your ventures. 🙂


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