Arizona: The Salt River Wild Horses

The Salt River Wild Horses

Just northeast of Mesa and north of Apache Junction, within the boundaries of Tonto National Forest, in the desert and among saguaro cactus, on the steep slopes of rocky buttes and in and along the Salt River, stride wild horses. They are beloved of locals and are watched over by an amazing group of volunteers. They are unique in that they graze in the river on eel grass. You can sit on the river banks watching and listening to the horses slurping, splashing, and blowing bubbles as they snorkel for seaweed.

People kayak or tube, following the current, floating right by them. Fly fisherman cast their lines in a rhythmic dance overseen by the horses. And the horses live out their lives in this land of contrasts, living an almost aquatic life and, at the same time, traversing the dry geographical edges of the Sonoran desert.

But all this isn't why I fell in love with them. I fell in love with them the first time I looked into a wild bachelor stallion's eyes. It is these horse's eyes that make them so very special to me. There is such depth of soul in their big, soft doe eyes. Such gentleness. And just a little bit of, and just enough of, the wild.

Grazing on eel grass

Traveler Eleven and I spent four days photographing these amazing animals. Our strategy was to drive along the North Bush Highway looking off into the distance for horses in the desert, or clear horse trails with fresh "leavings", or just looking for horses hanging out in the river. There are many turn offs for various recreation areas where access to trails or the river provide ample access to the river. We would do what I coined the Salt River Sand Slog along the river banks, sometimes upwards of two miles, to get to areas where we could observe the horses in serene surroundings. Or we wandered in into forest or along desert trails watching horses appear and disappear in the shadows like magical well-meaning wraiths.

We went out at dawn and in the late afternoon when the light was best. Each evening we were treated to a show as the sun went down lighting the horses perfectly as they grazed in the river.

Evening on the Salt River.

A long zoom lens, like an 80-400, 200-500, or 100-400,  an extender, and a wide angle lens will be your best friends here. A long lens is essential as you don't want to get too close to the horses for their safety and yours. Having a camera that can handle low light levels well is also a good piece of equipment to have. The wide angle lens will let you show the amazing environment that these horses call home. Come prepared for heat and bugs. Wear long pants and good hiking boots. Take plenty of water with you. Expect also to have to duck through fences. Look out for the local foliage as most of it comes armed with huge thorns. Watch out for snakes and biting ants. And if you are a giant klutz like me, watch out for ground squirrel and rabbit holes.

A long lens will also help you capture the amazing bird life on the river. Eagles zoomed over our heads with some regularity. Heron, egrets, coots, and other wading birds were constant companions on the river banks. Roadrunners and a myriad of small birds like warblers, Great-tailed grackles, quail, flycatchers, and phainopeplas will also want attention from your camera lens.

One of your greatest resources for a successful photo outing here is just striking up conversations with locals. The volunteers and local photographers can guide you well.

Early morning in the desert. This was one of three bachelor stallions we encountered. 

We had other interesting encounters as well. Cattle also spend time in the river and some cross over. There was a bull haunting the woods near Coon Bluff when we were there. And on Halloween evening we stumbled across a woman in Renaissance dress taking photos of herself in what the locals call the enchanted forest. It was a perfect Halloween celebration.

Do watch for horses as you drive along the roads.

You'll want to try to stay at the Saguaro Lake Ranch as it is located very close to where you'll want to start searching for horses. They have great accommodations, either inn rooms or cabins down near the river. They will feed you a hearty breakfast. You can also arrange dinner there as well. Hiking, tubing, and horseback riding are all options they can arrange or direct you to. And there's nothing like sitting outside your cabin at night and having an absolute horde of javelina scoot by you as you drink a glass of wine. They are hands down some of the cutest animals I've ever seen.

We also at lunch at the Lakeshore Restaurant at the Saguaro Lake Marina. This was a nice place to get a bite to eat and get out of the mid-day sun. Guard your french fries and sugar packets as the local population of Great-tailed Grackles like to steal them.

I cannot wait to return to the river and its horses.

A band stallion sights a rival. 

Band stallion.

Late fall is burr season. Horses and humans end up decorated with them. There is a sad association with this image. This was the band last year that lost a foal. The foal was shot dead and two other horses were wounded by some idiot with a gun. The killer has not been caught. 

This strawberry roan mare took my breath away in the late evening sun.

A stallion and his colt.

Next stop: The wild horses of northeastern Nevada

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