New Mexico’s high desert is an unforgiving land, one of climatic extremes, sparse water and dry forage. But to the bands of wild horses lurking within the juniper, sagebrush and pines, it’s a place of freedom and peace.

As dawn breaks over the hills of the Jicarilla Wild Horse Territory in northwestern New Mexico, a bay stallion stands alert on the horizon while his band of mares contently graze below. But when triggered by a mere rustling of a branch or crunch of a fallen leaf, the stallion abruptly leaves his post to guide the fleeing herd through a labyrinth of dense brush. Framed by a hazy, gray-green panorama, this scene represents the West’s strength, spirit and boundless freedom.

Located 40 miles east of Bloomfield, the Jicarilla Wild Horse Territory consists of 76,000 acres within the Carson National Forest, bordering the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. The land was one of 303 areas set aside for the horses in 1971 with the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Today, 186 designated wild-horse territories remain, and, according to the latest Bureau of Land Management census, approximately 25,689 wild horses and 2,874 burros roam these lands.

The Jicarilla’s topography ranges from high-desert hills to lowland valleys, with elevations reaching about 8,000 feet. From afar, the land appears dry, rocky, desolate and largely uninhabitable. But within the vast isolation, cool springs quench the thirsty land, and pockets of nutrient-rich bunchgrasses, sage and berries flourish, sustaining diverse wildlife populations and an estimated 300 wild horses that roam there.

Headquartering at a hotel in Dulce, New Mexico, I’ve come to this area for a three-day wild-horse photography workshop with Lynne Pomeranz, a fine-art photographer and the author of Among Wild Horses: A Portrait of the Pryor Mountain Mustangs. Lynne has made it her life’s mission to chronicle America’s wild horses and share with others their effect on the human spirit. Her workshops introduce the horses to the public, and attract horse people, photographers of all levels and those who simply love viewing nature.

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Acclaimed equine photographer and filmmaker Rachael Waller from Aqua Dulce, California, and avid horsewoman Joanne Fairchild from Las Vegas, Nevada, will also participate in this expedition. Rachael, who spearheads equine rescue efforts in Southern California, has come equipped with an array of photographic and computer equipment, while Joanne is packing only a modest point-and-shoot, because she’s more interested in observing the horses’ behavior.

Lynne promises ample opportunities to marvel at the beauty of the wild horses, and to witness rarely seen examples of herd behavior and social dynamics. Her only rule is that we get to know the horses “at a distance, and on their terms.” Considering the coy nature of wild horses, as well as the abundance of brush and trees that camouflage them, I wonder if we’ll spy any horses at all.

Piling into two vehicles well before dawn, a camera in one hand and coffee in the other, we set out on our search.

THE WELL-MAINTAINED LOWER ROAD leading into the wild-horse territory is frequently traveled by rigs from oil and natural-gas companies. The occasional pipeline, metal tower or oil wells are reminders of the scars humans can leave on the open range. Despite the encroaching presence of humans, however, some of the area’s 33 horse bands can be seen alongside the road on any given day.

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We’re greeted first by two bay bachelor stallions Lynne guesses to be about 3 years old. Creeping closer to the animals, I’m amazed by their docile natures. Defying stereotypical mustang behavior, the horses aren’t fazed by our presence or our cameras. In fact, they seem almost accustomed to having their photographs taken. We name the horses Dulce and Chama, for two nearby towns.

Delving into the subject of herd hierarchy, Lynne explains that wild-horse herds are made up of tightly knit groups called bands. A band may consist of one stallions, a younger satellite stallion, a mare or harem of mares, and their offspring. Between ages 2 and 3, fillies leave their home bands to become part of another stallion’s harem. Young stallions are kicked out of the herd by the band stallion when they’re between 2 and 4 years old, and become bachelor stallions.

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