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Wild Mustang Encounters

Wild Mustang Encounters
Sand Wash Basin, CO
June 2021
Mary Ellen Connett


I wrote this blog right after visiting the wild mustangs in the Sand Wash Basin. I have not edited it as I wanted it to reflect my true experiences at the time. Since coming home from the trip, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) initially supported getting water to the mustangs during the months long drought, but I must add it took a landslide of letters, emails and phone calls to get them to offer this support. The 8 mile fence along HWY 318, costing approx $125,000 and paid for by private donations, is now almost finished. Other water sources have been identified and are now operable. Rain came to the basin and all the ponds are now full. New vegetation is growing. All the pictures I see now on wild horse advocacy sites show healthy, clean, flourishing wild horses.

Then, in August, 2021, the BLM announced they would hold an “emergency” helicopter gather of 783 of the 900 something wild mustangs to take them off the range! WHAT???? The wild horses will experience such horror and terror, some will run to their death, especially the young ones who will wear away their hooves and break legs running the miles in scorching heat into the pens. Their fate is dismal at best. They say some will be adopted but there are thousands of wild horses held in captivity now as the government carries out their plan to eradicate all wild horses from land that should be their legally protected homes through the Wild Horse and Burro act passed 50 years ago. Many wild horses will be sold to people who will resell them to kill buyers who will ship them to slaughter in Canada or Mexico.

The government supports having the cattle and sheep take over these lands because money is the objective, not maintaining a safe, secure home for Wild horses that are symbols of American freedom and are the one animal on the planet that has partnered with humans for the evolution of our species. We owe wild horses our undying loyalty.

Efforts to stop this emergency gather have all gone in vain. The BLM has not listened to a single protest. Our voices raised for our wild horses have not been heard.

This blog is a final tribute to the Wild Mustangs of the Sand Wash Basin that I have known and loved for over 6 years. I am truly grateful that I have been blessed with the opportunity to live out among them for 2 weeks in the past 2 years. The experience has changed me forever. I will grieve for a long time for their capture from the wild life they lived that brought inspiration and spiritual blessings to people from around the world. This herd of mustangs was the most famous of all, where the legend Picasso reigned for 30 years and his legacy of Van Gogh and all his
offspring will be remembered forever.


Our first trek to the Sand Wash Basin (SWB) in Northwest Colorado was last summer, June 2020. It was all about wonder, awe and breathlessness in the excitement of being with this beautiful mustang herd in their wild surroundings. There was plentiful water and forage then, and the horses looked clean, groomed and well nourished. We couldn’t believe what we saw and couldn’t wait to come again.

This year, June 2021, it was an entirely different experience. First of all, the SWB had been in a drought since March 2021. There was not a bit of rain for almost three months. The only water source that was somewhat consistent was at Lake Draw and it took solar power during the day and a generator at night to try to keep water pumping from the spring up into the troughs and one tank. The other tank was cracked and inoperable. The ponds we saw horses bathing in last year. as well as drinking from were all dry. There was one other mud hole that the horses sadly
had to drink from. They pawed at the water constantly hoping to bring up something that resembled water from the murky bottom. Some rolled around in the mud briefly until they realized it was not cooling them off. Some young ones were almost getting stuck as they sank down into the gray clingy muck.

Our feelings of wonder and awe from a year ago were transformed to sadness, worry, and fear; yet, fortunately, the excitement returned, each time a band of anywhere from 5 to 25 came running at top speed down the hills of this desert land to the water below. You could hear the power of their hooves striking the ground, see the dust flying, watch the stallions prance and posture and rear up in an attacking position, often locking hooves and legs with the opposition.

Then the questions would race through your mind. How could 900 + horses survive the 100 degree temperatures without a sustainable source of water? How could they get enough to eat? How do the lone stallions survive in the wild all on their own? Will the horses who have had some to drink back off now and let the others come to the water? How could the mama horses keep producing milk to feed their young?

Some of the horses had ribs showing, hip bones sticking out and backs looking swayed not from age but from lack of sufficient nutrition. Mud covered stallions sparred vigorously at the one watering hole and around the mud hole. Mares and foals covered in mud up to their chests from standing in mud trying to reach some water to drink. This was a very different equine encounter this second time in the SWB.

Now, fortunately, there were some bands of horses that came for water and that we saw out on the range that weren’t in such bad condition. How that was possible remains a mystery. Some of the horses stayed clean and had shiny coats. Some were clearly well nourished. It made you wonder about their days traveling miles and miles to find enough sage brush to feed them and water sources at the end of their journey.

It’s a rough life as a wild mustang. But, it’s the price of their freedom and their ability to live with their pure God-given instincts to survive on the open range. It is raw, wild beauty, the harshness and the softness.

We spent 6 days in the basin this year and camped out 2 nights. Camping out there is fantastic! We camped at Lake Draw as we knew most of the horses were coming there for water. We saw glorious sun sets that were fire in the sky and powerful sun rises that gave hope for a new day. We were able to assist the Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin (WHWSWB) non-profit group to switch over from solar to generator power at dusk and switch back to solar power at mid morning to allow Cindy Wright and her sister, Aletha Dove, a break from the endless and time consuming trip back and forth from their homes to the basin twice a day to keep the water flowing. There are other volunteers that help them but not enough. It is a huge undertaking to help these mustangs but the sense of satisfaction is huge.

This year, I became one of the herd. I felt closer and more intimately connected through the time spent and the commitment to help them in any way possible.

During five out of the 6 days there we came across Cindy Wright as she was leading tours in the basin. Of the 160,000 acres out there it was amazing that we crossed paths at all! We met and had a lengthy talk with Ben from the BLM – Bureau of Land Management. He seemed compassionate toward the horses and enjoyed sitting with us and talking about them as they came to the watering hole. There were serious efforts being made this summer on 2 projects led by the WHWSWB organization. They had been working with the BLM since April to get permission to haul water and for the BLM to place water tanks throughout the basin. The other project was getting permission to start construction of the fence along HWY 318 to protect horse and human lives. Both of these projects were finally started at the end of our stay there. It was a great way to end our experience knowing that the efforts of WHWSWB were finally resulting in the cooperative venture of the BLM working together with them on the wild mustang’s behalf.

I feel so blessed to be able to have the resources – jeep, experienced driver of the jeep, my partner, Brad, the ability to take 3-4 week vacation to travel from GA to CO for this experience. I waited 4 years to do it and now I want to come every year. To savor these encounters and to share the experiences with others who might not have this opportunity, I take pictures of these mustangs as I observe them in their social groups, such loyal stallions protecting their bands
and the loving mares caring for their foals, colts and fillies. And the bachelor stallion bands mutually grooming. And, most thrilling of all – the stallions sparring for dominance and position among the many bands in the herd. At the end of the 6th day, I had about 6,000 pictures. After many hours of sorting I reduced this down to 7 different albums: Dance of the Wild Stallions; Portrait of Wild Beauty; Affectionate Bonds;Play and Letting Go; The Wild Life in the SWB.

You can view these albums on YouTube. The pictures give you an up close experience of what their life in the wild is like. Here is the link to my youtube channel:

And, if you feel moved by their plight in the wild, with the need for water to get them through this terrible drought and to support other efforts of the Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin, please visit their Facebook page and learn more about them and how you can help:

It’s such a pleasure to bring the life of our beautiful wild mustangs to others who are also as hooked on them as I have become. And for those who may not get a chance to experience them in person. To honor these mustangs for the amazing ways they survive, often in the harshest conditions. And celebrate their beauty! I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent with them. I learn so much about horse behavior and relationships by observing and photographing them. I wish I could come more often.

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