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A Journey Into the Life of Colorado's Wild Mustangs


September 13, 2017

Karen Johnson

Two of the many beautiful wild mustangs I photographed

I've been around horses all of my life, as far back as I can remember. When I turned 11, I got my first horse and have had them ever since, to include Appaloosas, Quarter Horses and Paints. My favorite TV shows and movies were westerns featuring lots of action shots with horses, especially the colorful Indian ponies and wild mustangs. I never dreamt that I'd have the opportunity to see real, wild mustangs up close in their natural habitat. I wasn't prepared for what would transpire when I did!

My sister, Patty, shared a picture someone had taken of wild mustangs in Northwestern Colorado to my Facebook page a few weeks ago. That photo really caught my attention. I began researching online to see if this herd was accessible and its whereabouts. I learned a herd of over 300 free-roaming mustangs lived on over 155,000 acres of public lands managed by the BLM called the Sand Wash Basin Management Area and I planned a trip to go see them.

The area is located about 45 miles west of Craig, in a remote rugged wilderness with no facilities of any kind. Shortly after I turned off Hwy. 318 just past Maybell, onto County Road 75, driving a short distance into the basin (a four-wheel drive road that becomes impassable when wet), I saw panoramic views that extended far and wide and no signs of civilization, just untouched wilderness. Looking out upon the landscape was like stepping back into time when the only human inhabitants in the area were Shoshone and Ute Indians, dating back as far as 13,000 years ago.

Wondering where the mustangs might be out in this vast expanse, I became excited when I saw signs of fresh horse manure. Driving on, I saw a herd off in the distance and it wasn't long before there were several small bands of horses scattered all around me. They were quietly resting or grazing on the sparse vegetation. I stopped my truck and they moved in closer. I was so happy to see what great shape they were in and impressed by their beauty, strength and overall healthy good looks.

Note: I have heard about the plight for survival of the wild mustang and of a recent 2018 budget proposal that included added wording to scrap Congress's prohibitions set in previous appropriations bills that barred BLM from euthanizing healthy mustangs and burros. This new bill, as written, could lead to the mass killing of healthy wild horses and burros in holding and on the range. This bill was approved by the House of Representatives in July of this year and is now going before the Senate the week of Sept. 18.

My heart was so grateful to discover this herd was healthy and thriving and has so much room to roam. A passion to preserve and share this living legacy for future generations was ignited in me; not just for the mustangs but the preservation of wild open lands where a variety of wildlife still exists.

To my surprise, I learned that the ratio of mares to stallions in this herd was about 50/50; consequently there were lots of small bands of horses with a herd stallion and a few bachelor herds of stallions.

I stopped my truck, standing beside it on the roadway, when all of a sudden several stallions began rearing up fighting in an all out battle, displaying such raw power and energy. Seeing this action close up through my camera lens, everything in my world stopped. I was mesmerized and all I could do was watch and be an observer in their world and take lots of photos.

That evening another photographer told me of a 30-year-old pinto stallion named Picasso and a nearby pond, named after him, where many of the horses come to drink. I learned all the horses have been named and are kept track of by an advocacy group and volunteers. When a young foal is born the first person to see it and share its picture gets to name it.

I spent the day driving through the basin. At sunset I picked a spot to spend the night and camped out in the back of my truck. I watched the different bands of horses wander off in all directions hearing an occasional whinny or horse squealing at one of its herdmates. Camping by myself, I felt safe knowing that all these different stallions weren't that far away. It was very quiet and peaceful, other than a few coyotes howling off in the distance during the night.

What a treat it was to see the midnight sky lit up by such vibrant stars. I've never seen stars so bright, even when camping in the mountains. Stars appeared so close it was as if I could just reach out, pick one and hold it in my hand. I felt so grateful because living near the city lights most people rarely get to experience this natural beauty.

The following morning I noticed a couple of herd of horses coming up from a vast open expanse below the hill where I was camped the night before. I figured they were heading to the pond for a morning drink, so I decided to follow them.

From an observation point above the pond, I watched some of the herd stallions bring their bands to drink. I was just about to leave when I heard the sound of horses' hooves pounding off in the distance. As I turned to look, horses came galloping down to the pond to drink, some were even playing and splashing in the water.

I have collected such treasured memories and photographs of the different stallions and members of their herds; they have touched my heart so deeply. If you ever have the desire to see wild mustangs, I would encourage you to take the opportunity to visit the Sand Wash Basin wild mustangs. The herd is definitely worth the trip to see in their natural habitat.

I also want to encourage those of you who would like to see our legacy of free-roaming mustangs protected and preserved, please let your congressmen know how you feel about this issue and help protect our wild mustangs from the needless slaughter of healthy horses.

Please see related pages of photo feature in Colorful Colorado section.


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