Running wild in 160,000 acres of North-West Colorado, the wild mustangs of Sand Wash Basin are a heady mix of raw energy, majestic beauty, violent battles and tender affection... (Oh, and maybe don't go if it rains!)
As a relatively recent European 'transplant' to beautiful Colorado, the mythology of the American Mustang has long been a captivating mental image and I was full of anticipation as I made the 290 mile trip from Denver to Sand Wash Basin on the outermost edge of NorthWest Colorado - next stop Wyoming!
The Basin is a sprawling 160,000 acre wilderness - dry as a bone and low on water - and when you consider there are only around 500 wild mustangs with a totally free rein to roam, it can be quite daunting when you get a couple of miles into the Basin and still see no sign of equine life... Then, in the distance, is that a rough-maned head rearing? Yes, the lazy amble of a weary mustang emerging from winter and looking for fresh shoots among the barren scraggy land.... Where are the others, do they roam alone? And then a soaring, spurting dust cloud and a thundering rumble, as a band of raging stallions - eight at least - chase down a mare and a new-born foal, clear with violent intent - a disturbing, adrenaline fueled scene in total contrast to the laid back first encounter moments before - this was the going to be a highly charged, edge of your seats trip after all!
“... A soaring, spurting dust cloud and a thundering rumble, as a band of raging stallions chase down a mare and a new born foal, clear with violent intent....”
April and May are notoriously the time of year to encounter these testosterone filled dominance battles - captivating, quick and terrifyingly intense... Mares are foaling and within ten days they are ready to breed - cue fierce stud battles with mare-stealing high on the prize-fighting bill.
Amidst the wild stallion warring, there are some incredibly moving family moments on show as young foals, on impossibly long legs, chase after their mothers for milk and sibling colts play rough and tumble, early training for the struggle for dominance they will take on themselves in years to come.
As I was readying to set off back to Denver, I spied a stunning painted mustang with a bay mare and what appeared to be a 'dark palamino' grazing on the top of a hill. Even from a distance, I could see the paint was the perfect mustang specimen - little did I know at the time, this was none other than Picasso, 29 year old 'icon' of Sand Wash Basin, who has recently rediscovered his youth in the affections of a two year old bay mare, named Spirit Dancer, only to find himself incessantly challenged by long term stallion rival, Voodoo.
I spent the next 15-20 minutes watching in wonder as Picasso danced and pranced, postured and pounded the ground, signaling to Voodoo that Spirit Dancer was off-limits... But, Voodoo is no faint-heart and battle ensued - hooves battering the ground in front of me as the feuding stallions barged for superior position before rearing towards the sky and lunging for each other's necks. These battles are fleeting but hugely draining for the combatants and it's surreal when they disengage and re-commence gently grazing side by side as though the fight had never happened... I took my cue and left them to it, delighted I had captured the truly wild spirit of the American mustang.
DRIVING, SHOOTING and SLEEPING....
A decent 4x4 with ground clearance is strongly recommended for Sand Wash Basin. There are some steep inclines and the unpaved track is very rough in parts. It will turn to 'slick' in seconds when there is even a short burst of rain, so it's highly advisable to check the weather before you make the journey... I watched a really robust 4x4 descend a downhill track sideways after only ten minutes of rain. You have been warned!
If you are planning a photography trip, a 300m or 400m lens is ideal - the faster the better, some of the moments are split second bursts of action. I started out with a 600m lens, which I soon found to be too long (you can approach the horses to 100 feet). In the end, I was lugging around a D4/400mm, mounted on a tripod, and a hand-held D4/70-200m - heavy work, but a great way to cover all angles. Friends have produced some wonderful images with 100-400mm lenses. I'd also recommend a pair of binoculars and plenty of water.
I stayed at the Victory Hotel in Maybell - friendly, basic and comfortable - as long as you are okay with huge wall-mounted elks! The hotel is just 17 miles from the entrance to Sand Wash Basin and the owner, Woody, is a character. There are other hotels in Craig, between Maybell and Steamboat Springs.
I have met some great people dedicated to protecting and preserving the wild mustangs at Sand Wash Basin. If you want to learn more, then tap into some of these resources...
THE SAND WASH ADVOCATE TEAM and GREAT ESCAPE MUSTANG SANCTUARY
The Sand Wash Advocate Team (SWAT) is an on-the-range project of the Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary and supports the Sand Wash Basin (SWB) land and wild horses. Working in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, SWAT focuses on herd documentation, fertility control and raising awareness of the challenges facing mustangs in the wild. The program is 100% volunteer-driven and support is provided through donations. You can learn more here https://greatescapesanctuary.org/sand-wash-advocate-team/
WILD MUSTANGS GALLERY
I've set up a new Wild Mustangs collection in the gallery shop on this website which will be regularly updated with new work. Proceeds from all sales of wild mustang prints will be shared with the Great Mustang Sanctuary to help support their good work. You can visit the gallery directly by clicking the link here.... https://www.wilsonaxpe.com/wild-mustangs