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Wild Mustangs of the Sand Wash Basin (SWB): A Trek into the Wild Horse World

Accompanying slideshow at
https://youtu.be/cbSm8OJ7KYA

The Back Story

Even the name was alluring. Wild Mustangs of the Sand Wash Basin!

I first heard about them in 2016 through my Facebook friend, Karen AuBuchon Johnson, a professional wildlife photographer and journalist from Peyton, CO. She started sharing about her trips to the remote wilderness in Northwest, CO. Her photography captured the wild beauty of these mustangs that lived in the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) range. What she shared was breathtaking. I learned about the legendary King of the SWB, Picasso, who was believed to be the oldest living Stallion in the wild, almost 30 years old at that time.

I was blown away by and instantly drawn to Karen, her work and her passion. Since the beginning of 2002, I had directed an equine facilitated therapy and learning program, EquiHeart. Horses and forging a relationship with them across our different worlds had become my passion. I hungered for a deeper understanding of the horse’s world, their social interactions with each other and with humans.

Now, I was hooked on the idea of going to them in their wild environment, being non-intrusive and respectful and having the most profound of all equine encounters – with wild horses. It became a dream of mine; one I held onto for 4 years.

You see, I live in GA, a “mere” 1717 miles away from the Sand Wash Basin, which is outside the small town of Maybell, CO. The thought of actually making my dream come true was daunting!

A Challenge Ahead

So, here we were May 31, 2020 four years later, my fiancé, Brad, and I, packing all we needed to make the 3 week round trip to Colorado. With a motorhome, Jeep and camping gear, we were ready to live out in wild mustang land.

A wild adventure for sure, but, Wow! We had no idea just how challenging it would be to make it to our destination. About three hours away from our campground in Craig, CO, we were overheating badly. Brad knew we had some major mechanical problems. Luckily, there was a large Detroit diesel engine repair facility in Denver. So, we turned around on that windy, steep section of HWY 70 and headed back.

The repairs were so extensive the motorhome never made the trip. We found a cabin in Craig and off we went in our Jeep packed to full capacity, determined not to miss any part of our wild mustang adventure.

My Ultimate Equine Encounter comes true.

Five days after leaving our home in GA, we were at the entrance to the Sand Wash Basin. I was like a kid on Christmas morning, looking in every direction for any “gift” of a glimpse of them. I’ve done photography my entire life, but at the time, I didn’t have anything capable of really great professional quality pictures. Thankfully, one of my volunteers in EquiHeart, Nancy, was gracious enough to lend me her camera equipment, including a 400 zoom lense. I was all set to record everything! (3,000 + pictures in the end!)

And. Karen AuBuchon Johnson was able to meet us there, guiding us into the deepest, most remote areas where we were most likely to encounter the horses in their raw element. We also met up with Nadja Rider, professional wildlife photographer and administrator of Wild Horses of Sand Wash Basin Facebook group, and Cindy Wright, SWB tour guide, BLM horse area worker and administrator of Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin Facebook group. I felt so blessed!

When we first started down the dirt and gravel roads, we fully expected to see horses only in the far distance and not many of them at that. I thought how fortunate I’d be if I saw a few here and there throughout our 3-4 days in the basin. Well, we were ecstatically surprised.

To sum it up in numbers, we spent 4 days traveling the basin, over 300 miles of gravel and Jeep trails, and experienced the life of about 350 different horses (Brad actually had a tally going) in a multitude of settings. We encountered several bands of horses and lone stallions numerous times in different settings.

During our four day trek, we followed the mustangs, often watching breathlessly, from early morning till dusk as:

  • they all ran across the basin from different directions, down the hills to the watering holes
  • the stallions sparred and chased each other in their dynamic “dance” to protect their dominance and territory
  • they rested in the afternoon sun, lying down on the hillside and in the valleys
  • they crossed the great expanse of the basin once again, grazing and running
  • they took their evening trip to a different watering hole, many miles away

Summary of Our Amazing Encounters

Yes, I heard their call deep in my soul four years ago. I accepted the invitation from these magnificent wild horses to come to them. We came in June, 2020. I again felt invited and permitted into their intimate world where they were aware of and often intensely fixated on me. Some seemed to tolerate us humans well as we kept our 100+ feet distance. But, some in the deepest and remotest areas of the basin were clearly not accustomed to humans and frantically ran around, not away from us, but around us, studying us, seeing what we would do next just as we were doing the same with them.

What most amazed us:

  • Their feet looked so well trimmed and actually in really good shape
  • They were so physically fit, particularly their hind quarters and legs
  • They ran so much of the time, over really hilly and rocky terrain, traveling so many miles throughout the day
  • They were well fed on the sagebrush
  • They were beautiful in conformation and appearance
  • Yes, the stallions were scarred, some having a lot of battle scars
  • Only 3 out of 300+ horses had physical wounds that were obvious

Only 2 horses were limping but not badly because they kept running

  • Many had coats that were shiny and healthy looking
  • Most looked well groomed (!)
  • Some had tangled manes but most looked brushed
  • Foals, colts and fillies were able to keep up with the bands, running right alongside their moms
  • We saw only one dead horse, Hope. With such a short life span for most, and such a hard life, I expected to see more that had died in the areas we traveled (300 miles)
  • A band, Rocky’s, that lost one of its mares, Hope, and now had a motherless foal, was showing us how they grieved over their lost member. They huddled in groups, their heads and necks resting over each other’s, nurturing the motherless foal, taking her in, being protective over one another. Note: the story we heard from Cindy Right was that the stallion of this band, Rocky, herded each member back to make one last visit to the dead mare, Hope, before allowing them to move on.
  • There were many stallions that traveled alone which surprised us since horses are social herd animals.
  • Many of the bachelor stallions followed closely with the established bands of a primary stallion, mares and foals; and these are the stallions that often sparred together.
  • Stallions sparring was a very normal occurrence and the other horses hardly even reacted. They just kept on grazing or drinking.
  • They stayed so healthy with absolutely no intervention or vet care of any kind
  • Except when stallions were sparring for dominance, they had utmost respect for hierarchy and were disciplined in waiting their turn at the watering hole.
  • Except for one stallion who kept coming back for more and more challenges and consequently, had a serious wound on his flank, the stallions sparring ended fairly quickly with the less dominant backing down.
  • There seemed to be an understanding among all the stallions as to who was the dominant among the bands, ex. VanGogh appeared dominant in a group of several bands with stallions. He was approached by many stallions and they did their dominance dance and then parted.
  • The stallions were extremely protective of their bands and moved them about to keep them on track, followed behind to keep watch and also showed affectionate behavior.
  • The lead mares were often mistaken by us for stallions until we could have a closer look because they also had a very strong presence and led the band from the front and kept a watchful eye on the band and the young.
  • All the horses seemed to have such respect and affection for their leaders – the stallions and lead mares – shown by their following their directive and standing close to each other with head over one another’s back or neck
  • Most of the drama in the bands is clearly with the Stallions. And, they are absolutely stunning to watch and photograph their postures as they dance!
  • Mares in heat can dance too, like a flirtatious mating dance, and could spar up against the stallion.
  • Most of the bands that we saw were 5 or less horses.

Picasso?

We never “found” Picasso, who was last seen in November, 2019. We looked far and wide in the open and off the beaten path. He was one of the main reasons I came to the SWB. It was a great hope of mine to actually encounter Picasso and to honor him.

I prayed and drummed out there among the horses and under the full moon for Picasso, in honor of his long legendary life and for all the wild horses who live there.

I finally had to make peace with the fact that Picasso was out of my sight. I believe in my heart that Picasso is still alive and staying in a remote part of the basin where forage and water is available and where he could live more peacefully outside the bands.

Once getting a glimpse into their wild world, I imagined, at this point in his life, that Picasso was through, finished with all the drama, the sparring and being pushed around by the other stallions claiming their dominance. And yes, even with all the people and their cameras starring him straight in the eye as he went about his daily routine.

Picasso generously gave us the best of his life, thrilling us with his years of youthful vigor, his majesty and unsurpassed beauty. Now, it made sense that he didn’t show up at the usual places the other horses traveled to. He earned his retirement.

Picasso’s offspring?

Picasso’s offspring were now his ambassadors. And, we did spend a lot of time with them – VanGogh, his son, and Michelangelo, his grandson and Braylee, his granddaughter. VanGogh was traveling in a group of about 17 – 20 horses, and we weren’t sure if it was one band or several bands that somehow got along well enough that they traveled together. VanGogh stayed close by his mare and newest foal.

Michelangelo was very flirtatious with a young mare who was in season.

We also saw Braylee with her stallion and new foal running through grassy fields right outside the boundary of the basin.

On our third and fourth days, when Brad and I traveled alone, we encountered so many other mustangs we didn’t know by name, some striking paints in particular, that I felt certain would be offspring of Picasso. I’m hoping others could identify them from my pictures and share their stories.

Other Well-known Mustangs we encountered:

  • Rocky and his band, who had just lost Hope, one of their older mares, leaving her foal motherless
  • Bobby, the stunning stallion I fell in love with, who had a large band of his own and disappeared along a ridge, off into the sunset
  • Diablo, looking elegant running for us around the band he was traveling with
  • Corona and his band, crossing so close by we could practically touch them

These were a few of the ones Karen, Nadja and Cindy pointed out to us along the way.

Lasting Effects of my Wild Mustang Encounters

As I write this, I’m almost home. It’s hard to believe that we experienced such a wide range of activities in the lives of these wild mustangs. As we were crossing state lines, Brad asked me, “So, how will this experience influence your relationships with the two horses you’re coming home to, Sunny and Sven?

For one thing, I’m coming home with the deepest respect for what runs wild and free through the blood of even our domestic horses. Sunny, my 26 yo gelding, in particular, has retained some of his wild nature. I’ve seen him go after a stallion donkey with a fierceness and strength that completely knocked down iron pipe fencing. I’ve seen him mount mares and act like a stallion when he was pastured with a group of mares. I now know where that comes from.

I also have a deeper respect for the importance of their group, the hierarchy in their groups, and their affection for each other. And how powerful their instincts are for their survival. I’ll trust their instincts more now than I could ever have imagined.

I’ll probably even love them more completely, if that’s possible. And it’ll be interesting to see if they notice all this and see me and treat me differently too. (Note: at the time of release, I’ve been home for over a week and am experiencing some of the most intimate moments with my two horses, feeling such connection and cooperation among us.)

Since traveling to the World of the Wild Mustangs, I’ll never view a horse the same. And, to be honest, I feel personally transformed in ways that I still have yet to fully understand.

I hope my story will take you there too.

PLEASE watch and LIKE the slide show of our adventure on my Youtube channel at https://youtu.be/cbSm8OJ7KYAto help make this story really come alive.

And visit the 3 facebook pages I’ve been following:

https://www.facebook.com/sandwashbasin/

https://www.facebook.com/wildhorsewarriorsforsandwashbasin/

Friends of Picasso-Grand Wild Stallion of Sand Wash Basin public facebook page.

Hopefully, if your spirit is moved, you’ll be inspired to one day make your own trek to the Wild Mustangs of the Sand Wash Basin. It’ll be an adventure you will never forget! I can promise you that.

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