Meet the Salt River Wild Horses
Horses have always embodied the freedom and openness of the frontier. Cowboys and Indians no longer fight each other, but horses still symbolize the openness of the West. According to the Bureau of Land Management, 86,000 wild, free-roaming horses live on nearly 28 million acres of public lands across ten western U.S. states. Around 400 of them live in the lower Salt River Valley and the Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix, Arizona.
I recently attended a photography workshop sponsored by Tempe Camera
and Canon USA
and had the opportunity to learn about these majestic creatures that represent the spirit of Arizona and the American West.
Where Did the Horses Come From?
According to historical records, members of the herd are most likely descendants of horses that were brought to the Southwest during the 16th century by Spanish explorers and missionaries. They probably escaped and learned to live on their own. So, they're commonly referred to as mustangs, from the Spanish word mustengo
, for "ownerless beast."
They're protected by Arizona State Law, and the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA) partners with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG)
, a non-profit group, to manage and care for them. However, the horses came close to being evicted from their long-time home.
Why the Horses Are Protected
In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would remove the horses because they presented a "danger and a nuisance." A few had been hit by cars when they wandered onto the highway and there had been reports of them trampling campgrounds. The public, SRWHMG and other advocacy groups protested vehemently, and the Arizona State Government passed Arizona Revised Statute 3-1491, also known as The Salt River Horse Act, which allowed the horses to remain where they'd lived for centuries.
One stipulation of the law is that the herd is confined to a 13,700-square-mile area that's fenced on all sides for the horses' protection and campers and hikers. This means food resources are limited. So, another requirement of the law is a "humane" birth control program managed by SRWHMG.
SRWHMG uses Porcine Zona Pelucida (PZP), an immuno-contraception that can be applied in the field using darts without capturing the horses. It's the only acceptable form of birth control for wild horses because it doesn't harm their hormones or change reproductive behavior. The program has proven to be effective because only one foal has been born during the past two years. Human birth control methods can fail and (apparently) so can PZP.
How to View the Horses
SRWHMG asks that visitors who want to see and photograph the horses observe these guidelines to protect the horses and for their own safety.
1) Stay at least 50 feet away. If a horse approaches you, please move out of its way.
2) Please do not feed the horses. Well-meaning visitors often ask if they can bring carrots and apples. However, these and other foods can cause digestive problems and could even kill the horses.
3) Keep dogs on a leash and away from the horses. Dogs like to chase horses, and a horse will defend itself by kicking the dog.
4) Don't interfere with natural wild horse behavior such as "battling" (i.e., stallions challenging each other).
5) Watch for horse crossing signs while driving in the area.
6) Remove all trash. Items such as food wrappers and plastic bottles can harm horses.
7) If you see an injured horse or observe something that could harm the herd, please call SRWHMG at (480) 868-9301.
Where to View the Horses
The map shows several places to see wild horses in the Tonto National Forest and Salt River Valley. Our group photographed a herd of about 25 horses grazing on a mountainside early in the morning. However, experts say the best viewing times are before sunrise and after sunset, and the best places to find horses are near water. Parking areas for all viewing points require a Tonto Pass
or an America The Beautiful Pass
Are You a Horse Lover?
SRWHMG is entirely staffed by volunteers and doesn't receive any government funding. So, they're always looking for donations to pay for the fertility control program, veterinary care and emergency rescue service. This is actually how the fees we paid to attend the photo workshop will be used. Please contact SRWHMG if you'd like to make a donation
or sponsor a horse
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