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

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.”
–Unknown

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