Wild Horses and No Horsepower
Nature photography requires traveling to remote places. This is especially true when photographing wild horses. In their remote domain, you do not want to have your car break down. Over the years traveling all kinds of heinous four-wheel drive roads, often by myself, I have been pretty lucky. Car trouble in these remote areas could lead to serious consequences. Every now and then I get a “wake up call” that reminds me of the dangers. A couple of weeks ago was one of these times.
I drove my Subaru with its brand new engine from Santa Fe to Boulder to present a couple of photography shows. I was nervous since the mechanic who installed the new engine had made some serious and sloppy mistakes back in December. The car sat in my garage at home while I took my sweet time fixing it. I finally finished cleaning up his mess just before this road trip. In fact, the trip to Boulder would be its first long road test. A few days before the journey I drove it around my home while checking computer readouts and gauges to monitor the engine. With a sigh of relief, I made it to a friend’s house in Boulder safely after the 6.5-hour drive. The trip to Boulder was beautiful as the mountains were bathed in artistic light for the journey.
Beautiful late afternoon light on the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado.
As soon as the photography show finished we drove six hours from Boulder to Craig, Colorado. It was a late night! A few hours sleep and we were up before dawn driving another couple of hours to watch a special Ute sunrise blessing of the wild horses in Sand Wash Basin — a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area designated to protect wild mustangs.
Ute sunrise blessing of the Sand Wash Basin area of Northwest Colorado by the Little Snake River.
I was looking forward to some quiet time now, away from busy roads and people, and out with the wild mustangs. Not so soon, though. The little town of Maybell, Colorado was having its annual Great American Horse Drive of the Sombrero Herd of horses. These horses are used on dude ranches during the summer and left to roam these sagebrush hills for the winter. The roundup was quite a production! Dudes and dudettes came from all over to get all dressed up and ride in the roundup. This was their moment of excitement riding along with about 500 free-range horses into the tiny town of Maybell.
The roundup was followed by a small festival. I met some very nice ranchers here and talked with them about life out in this remote corner of Colorado.
The roundup of the Sombrero Ranch herd of horses from their winter range is a fun event for the small town of Maybell, Colorado.
Finally, it was time to venture out into the high prairie hills and find some wild mustangs to photograph. We left the dudes, dudettes, and dude ranch horses back in Maybell. We were a team of eight women, and me, in three vehicles heading out into wild yonder.
The wild horses were pretty easy to find and not as skittish as herds of mustangs I have photographed in other areas. The BLM has done a great job with this horse management area (HMA) by patrolling it and keeping a close eye on things.
Palomino mustang stallions sparring. This type of sparring is common in the springtime, especially when mares are close by.
We chose to explore the more remote parts of the Sand Wash Basin. Thirty miles of rocky road into our exploration a rock tore through one of our tires. No problem, I thought. We will just change the tire and continue on our way. Then, I learned something new. They actually sell brand new cars without spare tires these days! What?? Yep, no spare, not even a smaller “donut” tire. No spare, no jack, no lug wrench. This amazes me with regards to liability issues. Getting stranded out in the middle of nowhere can have serious consequences!
Motorists who have broken down, or became stuck, on remote backcountry roads have died. Just in New Mexico alone, I can remember quite a few cases like this one. Not having a spare tire out here is like being up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
We looked at using the spare tire from one of our other vehicles however, they were not the same size. Luckily, we had a good enough cell phone signal to call for help. A talented and reasonable mechanic from the small town of Maybell, “Sandwash Basin Syd”, drove out to our location, removed the tire from the rim and patched it. This repair was impressive considering where we were! The mechanic then followed the repaired vehicle out of the backcountry just to be sure they made it out ok — and then charged what I consider way too small a repair fee, $100. A tow truck visit would have been much more expensive.
A band of wild mustangs at a watering hole. Two foals can be seen hanging out by their mothers. The foals tend to get on the other side of their mothers, away from the direction of humans.
The day was not a bust though, some of the group were able to continue exploring the area and photographing bands of wild horses. My favorite encounter was at a large pond where we quietly watched a couple of bands of mustangs taking turns at the watering hole. We stayed in our vehicles with the engines turned off. Even so, the horses were well aware of us and were uncomfortable with our presence.
Of the many BLM Horse Management Areas and other wild horse locations I have visited, Sand Wash Basin had more people than I am used to seeing. The wild horses at Sand Wash Basin seemed to be more habituated to people — however if you watch their behavior closely they were still disturbed, or affected, by our presence. After taking some photos we left the horses alone at their watering hole.
A stallion at one of the watering holes, staring at us in a protective stance. Our presence, just being in the area of the watering hole, affects the behavior of the mustangs. Consideration of how our presence affects the group dynamics near watering holes and access to water was important. Staying too long by a watering hole, just to take photos, is not worth the negative impact on the health and safety of the horses!
Wild mustangs interacting in a playful way.
Our car troubles were not over though. The next morning before heading back to Boulder we lost the keys to one of the vehicles. Thankfully the keys were later found where the horse drive had occurred the day before.
After one more photography show in Boulder, I drove back to Santa Fe. Just when I felt my Subaru was back to working order, the engine lost its oil suddenly as I climbed Poncha Pass in Colorado. An oil hose had ruptured and sprayed oil everywhere. It was now 10 PM and I was not about to try and fix the problem myself. I called AAA and was towed all the way to Taos (for free !). My journey was still underway as I spent an extra day in Taos while the mechanic fixed my car.
Overall we were lucky that nobody was hurt and that we all were able to see some incredible wild horses and make it home safely. On this trip, I met some wonderful people who were a pleasure to spend time with watching the wild horses, and who impressed me with their calmness regarding the challenges with our vehicles.
A young mustang foal proudly leads its family.
What to keep in your vehicle
Traveling to remote locations can be dangerous if you do not keep some key items in your vehicle.
Here are some items I have found, through the “school of hard knocks”, to be useful in case of car troubles.Read More
- A two-way satellite texting device. I have been using a DeLorme InReach and love it. It has allowed me to communicate delays in returning from the wilderness, rescheduling airline flights from remote locations, checking in with friends and family back home, and many other useful communications. It works where there is no cell phone reception. It comes with me when I am in the field, even for an afternoon hike by home (it is usually the simple trips where unexpected troubles get you).
- On my iPhone, I use the GAIA GPS app. This is now my go-to GPS for wilderness travel. It works in airplane mode. I can take my iPhone for weeks and recharge it with a USB battery power pack ( I only use it when I need to navigate, keep it in airplane mode, and keep an eye on battery usage).There are many different USB power packs, check the reviews and make sure to bring the correct cables to charge your iPhone. I bring an extra cable with me (school of hard knocks –> cable failed in a remote area, not allowing me to charge iPhone and use GPS).
- When you leave your vehicle to hike, create a waypoint using the GPS of your vehicle. Even if you park on a road, or established trailhead this is a good practice. You can read about my experiences getting lost in the most familiar places — it happens when you least expect it!
- A portable air compressor and battery jump starter. These range in price and quality. A good one like this one is what I keep in my truck.
- A tire repair kit. Most punctures (non-tears) can be quickly fixed using these. Sidewall tears are much harder, and often impossible, to fix.
- Good tires for rough and rocky roads. For most trucks and SUV’s a 10-ply, load range “E” tire is safe for rocky roads.
- A good, inflated, spare tire. Check it has air and learn how to access it and the jack for your vehicle. Your vehicles owners manual is a good resource.
- Keep some extra water and non-perishable high-energy food in your car. I keep a small plastic sealed box with some emergency food, matches, headlamp, and a first aid kit.
- A warm blanket for winter time. I keep a spare sleeping bag and tent in my truck — they have been used more than once when conditions required me to spend the night out.
- Paper maps (non-electronic). Ideally, you can get topographic road atlas for the states you travel. Do not forget a spare set of reading glasses if you need them.
Normally, I am of the mindset that “less is best” and I realize that one can go overboard with safety equipment. Having an attitude of “adapt versus conquer” is my preference. Learn to go with the flow as much as possible. The list above does make sense though. When trouble happens to you this approach is pretty robust:
- Use your cell phone or satellite text to communicate your location to family or friends. Communicate clearly your status, and your plan. Let them know when they should begin to worry if need be.
- Stay calm. If you leave your vehicle for any reason, always create a waypoint of your vehicle location. Look at the scene behind you every now and then, so you can recognize it on your return.
- It is ok to ask for help. All too often people are afraid to ask for help, until it is too late.
An example of how things can quickly go wrong when traveling in the mountains. Relying too much on GPS route guidance led this poor man up a remote road where he became stuck and died. It took months to find his body.
“Half the failures in life result from pulling in one’s horse when it is leaping.”