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Return to the Wild Mustang World of the Sand Wash Basin, July 2023

Hello! From this Colorado spirit who grew roots in Georgia! My husband, Brad, and I returned to the Sand Wash Basin this summer. What a kaleidoscope of emotions and experiences it was for me. I’m still whirling around in it! Come along with me as I continue to process this heart healing adventure.

Sand Wash Basin, CO – home to a magnificent herd of Wild Mustangs

The Sand Wash Basin is a desert range in Northwestern Colorado, spanning 160,000 acres. It is wilderness, inhabited by pronghorn deer, elk, sage grouse, other birds and a type of prairie dog. But, what Sand Wash Basin is most known for is the herd of Wild Mustangs that live freely in the basin.


I first visited the Sand Wash Basin (SWB) in 2020 and then again in 2021. Yes, it’s a desert. Yes, the vegetation is scruffy compared to the lush pasture I’m used to at home in Georgia. How do animals survive? It was amazing to see how they did it.

My first trip is documented in a blog post here:


It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life to be in the world of wild mustangs and learn from their behavior. After spending 23 years in the world of the domestic horse, the wild ones helped me fill in many gaps in my understanding. The mustangs live a fierce, vibrant life, honor their family bonds, are protective, loyal, loving and playful.

I won’t repeat that entire story here, as you can read for yourself before moving on, if you are a horse enthusiast.

Our second trip in 2021 was during a significant drought. The ponds that were full in 2020 were now either empty or reduced to mud holes. The mustangs were still drinking from the muddy ponds, laying in mud to cool off. The only true water sources were wells kept pumping by generators that had to be turned on and off by volunteers of the Wild Horse Warriors of Sand Wash Basin group, dedicated people who drove over 50 miles one way on a daily basis! It was astonishing to see how these people, headed by Cindy Wright and Aletha Dove, would devote so much of their time, energy and resources to get water to these horses. Private fund raising was also going on to purchase water and have it hauled to the horses at different locations on the range. We helped with whatever we could while we were there, camping out at Lake Draw so we could turn on and off the generator to bring water to the troughs there.

Then, in September, 2021, the tragedy hit. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), held a massive helicopter roundup. The BLM is the government organization designated to manage and provide minimal care to the mustangs on land, passed into law in 1971, that is to protect them and be their forever home. Over 600 of the 900+ mustangs were removed by the BLM, never to see this wild life again.

This post is not meant to be political. Suffice it to say that 10’s of thousands (conservative estimate) of people were devastated over this roundup. You can read about it in many places and watch documentaries about it. So many of us were caught between rage and having to accept that we must DO SOMETHING on the other side of this mass roundup. We could not rest with the roundup being the end of the story.

Drawing by Jill Christensen Le Craw Joines

Many individuals and groups of people started rescue missions and sanctuaries to provide new homes for mustangs that would now be adopted out to the public. Many applied for non-profit status and looked for donations and grants for support. I watched as all this was developing. I donated money to whatever refuge, sanctuary and mission I could. I wrote songs, wrote prayers, drummed, prayed for safe landings for these mustangs experiencing trauma and facing uncertainty.

I wanted to learn as much as I could about what people were doing to help these mustangs on the other side. I discovered a young woman in my home state of Georgia who was starting Mustang Mission, to provide a home for mustangs passed over in the adoption process and to rescue them from what’s called “the slaughter pipeline” that transports wild mustangs across the border to Canada or Mexico. It is still legal in these countries to slaughter horses for human consumption.

Erin Phillips founded Mustang MIssion in 2021, at the age of 17. It is her ultimate passion to help these mustangs. You can read all about her mission here:

Mustang Mission

I reached out to Erin to network and support her work. My husband, Brad was moved by Erin’s mission and decided to resurrect our old stock trailer so we could offer transport to mustangs adopted and moving to homes in the Southeast.

Ultimately, we were the folks who transported Erin’s first mustang, Alamo, rounded up from the Onaqui HMA in Utah, to Erin’s Mission in 2022. We began a working relationship and friendship with Erin and her family and it has continued to flourish!

I began to watch the adoption events of the Sand Wash Basin mustangs through the BLM. I always wanted to know if these mustangs found loving homes. When I noticed that Rocket, one of my favorite mustangs from my 2020 visit to the basin, was on the adoption list, I frantically searched through all the facebook groups I knew of, and all the sanctuaries and rescues, to find out who wanted to adopt him. My plan was to support Rocket’s adoption monetarily. I felt, in my mid 60’s, adopting a wild mustang wasn’t something I needed to take on myself.

Rocket #8521

Well, no one had Rocket on their list to adopt. Someone did “win” the bid on Rocket but they never picked him up so he went back up for adoption in January, 2023.

At this point, the message was clear: Rocket was supposed to be with me! Now, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed to bring Rocket home to my EquiHeart herd as a therapy horse. You can read about why Rocket was so well suited for this in the blog of my 2020 visit:


I raised money to help support my winning the bid on Rocket and it happened! What a relief and such a happy day in my life!

Rocket has been with Erin Phillips at Mustang Mission since late March, where his gentling training began. I visit and participate in Rocket’s training as much as I can with an 8 hr drive round trip to get to him. Rocket’s doing extremely well!

You can read some of my FB posts about his training on my EquiHeart FB page:


So, now, in July, 2023, I had a mission to return to the SWB and experience it anew. I wanted to stand in the place where I first met Rocket and his band in 2020, where I witnessed his incredible intuition and sensitivity to a loss that his herd was going through. I wanted to spend time with Cindy Wright, who I also met that day, and my friend, Karen AuBuchon Johnson, who showed us the way through the basin on that first trip. I wanted to see other friends I met around the basin, Carol Koltz and Keri Connolly.

I also wanted to visit as many rescue, refuge and sanctuary facilities on our route who had SWB mustangs since the roundup. I wanted to meet the incredible people who have dedicated their lives to caring for the mustangs on the other side of the roundup. I wanted to see the horses, experience them in their new life, some who I would remember from my 2 previous trips.

It was my intention to fully absorb what is now happening and understand it at a depth one can only experience by being there and walking the path these people and horses walk every day

Our 2023 Trek back to the Sand Wash Basin

Summary from a text to Gina Sorrel Kuttrus of For the Love of Aria:

“So much to process! We’re leaving today. The entire experience from meeting you to Amanda to Pat Craig’s place up here and then the basin as it exists today. Seeing two Mustang’s mating, finding a new foal, and then on the way out, seeing Meteor’s bachelor band seeming to pay respect to Corona, whose body was lying nearby. Yes, we found Corona on the way out. A perfect circle of life. It was such a mixture of emotions.”

How to even begin? How to find the words to describe this adventure my husband, Brad, and I took this summer?

Here we go!

After 2 long days of travel, we entered Colorado, reminded that they need to spend more tax dollars on fixing up their roads! Our first stop was to see Gina Sorrel Kuttrus who founded For the Love of Aria and who has an equine rescue and rehabilitation program in Kiowa, CO. You can read about her program here:



It’s interesting when you come to “know” someone from their Facebook posts and then you meet them in person. I love Facebook for helping this type of “knowing” happen. Because you really can get to “know” someone on Facebook. And to know Gina is to love her and to feel her love, her heart and her dedication to caring for these formerly wild mustangs.

Gina was so generous to give us her time on a busy Saturday. We toured her facility, some 40 acres of beautiful land in East Central Colorado. She told us the stories of just about every mustang in her care, with impeccable detail. I don’t know how she retains so much information and understanding of these horses. We also met Gina’s daughter who is a great help to her, and her son and husband, and Shannon, who works alongside Gina.

Working tirelessly, currently caring for about 53 mustangs, Gina gentles and trains some, rehabilitates others, many of whom will be open for adoption and others who will have a forever home with Gina. We saw some familiar mustangs, like Hawk, Robin (Van Gogh’s mother), and Stella Luna who became famous when the stallion, Merlin, courageously guided her toward her mother who was trapped in the pen during the 2021 roundup. (Merlin himself escaped and Stella was with foster parents until Gina adopted her). All the horses and the 2 burros, were in wonderful condition, being fed quality hay and having a trusting and safe home with Gina.

Our next stop was with Amanda DeNeice, the co-founder of Bandidas Wild Horse Promise. You can read about them here:



I hadn’t previously interacted as much with Amanda on FB, or if I did, I didn’t know it was her as there were several women involved in the development of this non-profit in the beginning. But to meet Amanda is to feel like you instantly know her. She has a bold and bright spirit and love for the wild horses in her care and also at the 2 other locations that are part of Bandidas, as well as a solid connection to the horses on the range.

The mustang, Ortencia, was being cared for in a pen designed for when the mustangs needed special attention. Amanda and Ortencia have the magical bond you have when you are the first to spot a new foal in the basin and get to name her yourself. Amanda and her husband, Brian, have a beautiful property spanning 80 acres outside of Steamboat Springs, where they live with their children and animals. They have had to start from scratch building the fencing and pens needed for the mustangs. They currently haul water to the mustangs from a water source. I was amazed at the dedication Amanda has to run this program and also having a separate full-time job as an office manager.

I forgot that Amanda had adopted Diablo, a favorite of mine from my 2020 trip. It was wonderful to see him living a beautiful life with about 6 other mustangs, a mixture of mares and geldings. Flash was one of the geldings and Honey, La Dore, JazzyLove, Jetta.

It made my heart happy to experience the mustangs at both Gina’s and Amanda’s places living out happy lives and being lovingly cared for. I kept imagining having Rocket at our farm soon and being with him every day, integrating him into the EquiHeart herd of 5 other domestic horses.

Now, the excitement was building as we headed from Steamboat Springs to Craig, CO, where we would set up our main camp in our motorhome.

At the Maybell campground on Monday, July 10, I held a frame drum making workshop for 6 participants (which went beautifully!) After making our drums, a group of us finally headed into the Sand Wash Basin.

It was my intention to have a drum circle for prayers, healing and blessings for the mustangs that were rounded up that they all found love and happiness in their new homes, for the mustangs that were still free on the range, that they would forever remain free and well, and for all the humans who needed healing from losses that could never be recovered over the past 2 years.

Cindy, Karen, Toni and I drummed out these prayers and sent our intentions far and wide into the basin and beyond. I released some of Rocket’s hair into the wind, that his spirit would forever remain free in the basin and he would be remembered as the stallion that he formerly was. I was able to unveil my latest painted drum with Rocket’s beautiful face on it, his mane flowing freely in the wind!

Now, we were ready to explore what lay ahead for us this year in the basin. Cindy Wright, founder of Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin, had explained that, with all the rainfall they had in June, I would see a very different basin, lush with new growth and ponds full of water. That was exactly the case. The landscape was hardly recognizable. I felt it in my bones, this was a different range from when I was here before.

What a mixture of feelings swept through me. The other stark difference was the absence of the numbers of horses we saw before. I had to take a good bit of time to process this. First, I felt all the anger coming back! Why did they take so many horses? There’s so much land here!! To take over 600! (BLM planned to take up to 800 but were stopped at 600 due to all the protests from wild horse advocacy organizations and citizens crying for this cruel helicopter roundup to stop. The experience came flooding back to me.

Emotions ranged from anger to appreciation for the regeneration of the vegetation and water sources. But knowing so many mustangs could no longer enjoy this freedom to roam across this mysteriously desolate yet beautiful land was so very sad. This feeling still haunts me.

Then, the thought of the terrible winter they had in the basin. Have so many of the horses died during the harshness of winter? Where are they?

Our favorite spot, Lake Draw, was not operating because a well run by generator wasn’t needed with all the natural water available right now. Lake Draw was like the OK Corral Saloon in the Wild West during the 2020 and 2021 visits! Every horse passed through there at some point! There were brawls, duals, flirtations, sneaky stealings, dances, drinking, oh! The drinking! Rests for the weary and then departure. A revolving door of activity throughout the day! It was the excitement and drama wildlife photographers live for! It’s what brought droves of photographers to the basin, waiting for that perfect sparring shot! I loved it and longed to experience it again.

Pictures above – Lake Draw in 2020

But instead, I had a very different experience. It was helpful to visit Lake Draw even though I knew I wouldn’t see a single horse. It was the ghost town saloon this time. It made me so sad. I remembered seeing Van Gogh for the first time, and Michangelo and Owl in 2020.

Lake Draw empty and barren July 2023

Then my 30 minute encounter at Lake Draw with the beautiful Cimmaron in 2021, who I fell instantly in love with.

Where were they now? Van Gogh, deceased. Michaelangelo and Owl in separate Sanctuaries, Cimmaron not seen yet this year. Was he still alive? All this going through my mind and my heart. Gut wrenching.

I had to go back to the place where I first met Rocket and we did, along 126E. It was a mystical experience for me. I saw the entire scene again, replaying every moment. Rocket chasing away a curious stallion and returning to his band to comfort them. Me not knowing what was going on but feeling grief. Me instinctively getting out a drum and drumming softly for this band of horses. Learning later that a mare had just died and there was a motherless foal in the group. Rocket was a true protector of his band. He reminded me of my horse Sunny, the Sentry of the herd, my original equine soulmate who is still with me.

Meeting Rocket and his band in June 2020

I remembered it all. And once again, I got out my Rocket drum and began to drum to honor our meeting and the incredible blessing that I now have Rocket under my care. I drummed and prayed that Rocket has accepted and is happy in his new life, knowing that his spirit will always be in the basin.

Not having seen many horses in the basin up till then, we decided it was time to visit the Wild Horse Refuge in Craig on our way back out to the basin on Wednesday. . The new Wild Horse Refuge in Craig was on our list of places to visit to experience the other side of the roundup in 2021.

I am SO GLAD we visited!

We were fortunate to have arrived in Craig, CO the same week that a group of SWB mustang mares, adopted by the Wild Horse Refuge, were coming to their new location.

This Refuge is heaven on earth for these mustangs that were forced to leave their native land! Less than 30 miles away from the SWB, the adopted SWB mustangs are now living their best life! I salute Pat Craig, the founder of The Wild Animal Refuge, for creating this new branch, The Wild Horse Refuge, (WHR) giving SWB mustangs a return to a very similar life that they knew in the wild. You can read about the Wild Horse Refuge here:

(303) 536-0118

We spent some time observing what looked to be about 60 horses, all mares, corralled in a large fenced area. They all looked well. We were hoping they would find their way out of the corral and into a larger area where they could drink from a stream. We drove away to explore further down the road and when we turned around, we were so excited to see the mustangs running to the larger area. What happy horses! So many were rolling in the sandy area. We commented that it looked like they were on a beach vacation! Happy, frolicking mustangs. Many wandered into the water, splashing and kicking.

It did my heart so good to see these horses, soon to be released onto the 22,000 acres of the same type of land they once lived on in the SWB. If you could see this for yourself, I think you would agree that if a mustang has to be removed from the wild, having them find refuge in a privately owned wild range almost identical to the range they were removed from would be their next best life! I hope the pictures give you that understanding. I will enjoy visiting the Wild Horse Refuge on our next trip to the basin when it will be fully operational. You can make donations to this amazing undertaking by going to their website here:


Back in the basin Wednesday and Thursday, we saw the most horses in the middle parts, at Cooper Springs, Crossover Pond, and points in between there and Lake Draw. We saw only two small bands of horses at Coffee Pot. Stryker was at Cooper Springs every day we were in the basin. He seemed to be waiting there for someone to arrive. He guarded his territory but was not particularly aggressive to any other stallions as he would be if he were trying to gather some of their mares. Or maybe he was one of the smartest ones to stay near water at all times.

What I realized was that with so many fewer horses in the basin this year, there wasn’t the feeling of frenzy or desperation. There is good and bad to that I suppose. Horses are indeed social animals as all sources of information about horses will tell you. Yet, we saw so many lone stallions out there this time. That feels sad from a human perspective. But it was pointed out that we’ll never know for sure if some just like to be alone.

With my feet firmly planted on Sand Wash Basin soil, breathing in the strong scent of sage brush and feeling the wind blow across my face, I kept trying to imagine what these mustangs feel. When the population rises to where it was, over 900 mustangs in 2021, do they stress more or less? Do they like the saloon atmosphere at Lake Draw or does it increase their anxiety? What we see as fierce activity in horse behavior, isn’t that normal for them? Do they feel fully alive when they are sparring for each other’s mares or are they happier the way we saw them this time – with minor acts of sparring that couldn’t really be described as sparring, but just gentle reminders of a boundary not to cross.

It occurred to me that the fierce and fiery SWB, loved by wildlife photographers and wild horse enthusiasts around the world, might actually be a highly anxious horse world where the mustangs are more desperate for their survival. We all like to see pictures of mustangs active, wild and free rather than walking peacefully to water or across the expanse of the basin. We like our adrenaline to rise when we’re out there. Horses are anxious by nature, we say to ourselves.

But, this year, I honored the mustang’s peace and calm, and today, I feel gratitude in this. It was a very different experience. I actually withdrew myself several times when I realized my standing near the pond with camera in hand might discourage a mustang from taking the much needed and anticipated drink of water. Photography was much less important than observing the mustangs taking good care of themselves. Leaving them in the peace that they so deserved.

It also could’ve been the July heat as opposed to the more mild temperatures in June that made some of the difference. We rarely saw horses running this year the way they ran in 2020 and 2021. Maybe they were smart to conserve their energy in 95+ degree temperatures.

Yes, it was seemingly more peaceful in the basin this year, but also lonely for horses and humans. In fact, we only saw a total of 4 people that we hadn’t already known or been traveling with during the 5 days we were there. In the previous years, we would pass vehicles all throughout the day and would see more than 300 horses in a day. We do cover about 60 miles a day when we’re out there. This year, though, we may have seen about 80 horses in 5 days. No horses at Lookout Mtn or Sheepherders Spring or along 75. For that, I was sad.

But, I must tell you I was searching for the messages I was being sent from the Spirit of Sand Wash Basin, and there truly is a Great Spirit of the Basin and many other spiritual beings and guides out in this sacred land. I was being told about the Circle of Life, Nature’s mysterious ways of ebbing and flowing. What we humans can’t control.

Here’s how I received this message. We saw a beautiful mating encounter between a palomino mare and a great bay stallion, later identified by Heather Robson as Blondie and Zorro. I had never seen an actual mating before so it was profound. I watched the dance, the coyness of the mare, the strength of the stallion and afterwards, the mare placing her head over the back of the stallion in an embrace. It was beautiful and I felt a beautiful foal would come from it.

Heather told me that Zorro and Blondie’s story is a true love story! They were together for years in the basin. Blondie was captured in the 2021 roundup but then released. Zorro evaded the roundup. And, miraculously, they found each other again. How fortunate for me to have seen them mating and learn that true love can and does endure!

Then we saw a new foal emerge from within Flame’s band at the Crossover pond. I was the first to see and photograph this family so I had the honor of naming the foal. I found out that the mother, or Dam, was Rockette, no relation to my Rocket, and the father, or Sire, was Flame. I named the new foal, who was identified as a colt, Citano, meaning star in the sky. The night before, we saw a vibrant display of the brightest and boldest stars in the sky as we camped in the basin. So the name felt fitting.

I was praying to find Cimmaron, Aroyo, Tango, Butch and Tashunka, but I didn’t. My consolation gift was learning that who I thought was Butch, a heart throb of mine from 2020, was actually Dorian. And Dorian is a stallion, son of Corona, who now had Rocket’s former mare, Rosie, and Rocket’s offspring, Lancelot and Faustina, with him. Again, the brilliant Heather Robson offered this welcomed gift to me. (Heather, by the way, holds most of her “database” in her head and memory, only occasionally going to the computer. Truly amazing!)

This gift was bittersweet. I felt happy to know Rocket’s band mates were safe with a new stallion. As Dorian turned to look at me, I heard him saying, “We’re all Ok. Please let Rocket know.” But, I also felt sad that Rocket, Allie and Torpedo ended up captured. It’s such a mixture of emotions. I’m glad I have Rocket now, and that Allie and Torpedo (now named Mr. Sandman) have loving homes, and they didn’t have to endure a deadly harsh winter in the basin, which they may not have survived. But I still feel sad for them to have lost their beautiful freedom!


On the way out of the basin on our last day, we were blessed to see the bachelor band we learned of that included the beloved Meteor. I was so happy to see him and the other mustangs that I’ll have to have Heather ID later.

As we looked off into the distance at Meteor and the guys, we accidently noticed the body of Corona, a famous SWB stallion who was reported dead along the road in winter/early spring this year. I had seen and photographed Corona on our 2020 trip. He was so beautiful and wise. I learned then that Corona was the second most famous stallion in the SWB, second only to Picasso. Both of these legends are now deceased.

Corona in 2020

Twirled around a branch near Corona’s feet was a piece of his mane that I felt was there for me to take to honor his spirit and his legacy. I paid my deepest respects to Corona and felt like this moment was to solidify that the changes in the basin were real and here to stay.

Spending time with Corona’s remains helped me accept the reality of the Circle of Life and Death, the need to accept change, to grief and then let go again, to not judge that which we do not understand or those in whose moccasins we have not walked.

God is good. Life is good. Humans and horses and all living beings are resilient and survive and go on. The meaning of life is in the journey. The journey is always evolving, changing, growing, ebbing and flowing. So must we learn to follow our heart, make our dreams come true, learn from our experiences and honor them.

Our journey IS who we are. To journey is to feel truly alive. To learn. To Grow. To accept that all things happen for a reason. To surrender to that fact of life. And to also know you CAN and WILL make a difference, even as a pebble drops into a pond, by acting in alignment with your heart and passion!

Remember to honor and tell your story to all who will listen!

Thank you for listening! You are a part of my tribe now.

Blessings to ALL!

Mary Ellen Connett MacDonald. 🐴❤️�

4 thoughts on “Return to the Wild Mustang World of the Sand Wash Basin, July 2023”

  1. Doreen Dudley says:

    Mary Ellen, I loved this so much, but when you got to Corona the tears just would not stop. He was the one horse that had my heart so completely and I had not yet made it to the Basin to try to see him, when I heard the devastating news of his death. I would say he was my heart horse and he still profoundly moves me, even in his death.

    I was a volunteer at an equine veterans retreat recently up at The Middle Way, and at the end we circled up and they wanted to know what horse had the most impact on our lives. At first I was thinking about Secretariat, who as a teen in the 1970’s turned my world upside down and I still get chills thinking about him. But then suddenly I realized that there was another, that few there would know, but who made this new wild horse world I was now in love with, my passion and my life…my dear Corona. (yep crying as I write this too) Fortunately, very close to where I live in Fort Collins, Colorado, is one of the Banditas properties, that I have the honor to volunteer and visit with Cindy Harrison. Here is where some of Corona’s family is living out their best life, and I sponsor his daughter Laramie, and his granddaughter Juliette there, but Cindy also has granddaughters Khloe, Abigail, and great granddaughter Gabriella together.

    I love what you do and I love your heart for these horses and as you know, I was cheering you on to get Rocket earlier this year. You are an amazing soul and so spiritual in your relationship with these horses…and they indeed know. Thank you for all that you do. I hope to get home to Georgia and meet you and Rocket one of these days!

    1. Mary Ellen Connett says:

      Doreen thank you so much for your comments on my blog. It means so much to me to be seen and heard and know that we share this special bond with these magnificent mustangs! I do hope our paths will cross in person one day. Let’s stay in touch through our on line connections! Thank you for your soulful response!

  2. Beautiful post and pictures! I’m so glad that I can be a part of your’s and Rocket’s lives! Love both of you so much!!

    1. Mary Ellen Connett says:

      Thank you Erin! We love you and are blessed that you are Rocket’s trainer!

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