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.
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.
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.
A bachelor might follow a particular band, waiting for his chance to challenge the band stallion for his mares, while other bachelors roam solo or with another bachelor until they establish bands of their own.
Dulce and Chama are typical bachelors, finding security and companionship in each other. Their gentle personalities are so addictive that we’re content spending much of the morning watching them interact with each other and their homeland.
We break for lunch high on a hill, at a makeshift camp set up by Dan Elkins, a wrangler contracted by the government to round up wild horses and haul them to holding facilities where they can be adopted. A fifth-generation New Mexico rancher, Elkins grew up on Mount Taylor, home to one of the few remaining free-roaming Colonial Spanish Horse herds in the United States. An advocate of the wild horse, Elkins has spent most of his life studying their routines, educating the public on the animals, and ways to humanely capture and treat them, as well as implementing safe, effective population-control methods.
Although it pains Lynne to see bands of horses rounded up, she says she rests assured that they’re handled properly under Elkins’ guidance. The reclusive man sets out inner tubes filled with salt to attract the horses. Using wireless infrared technology, he monitors the horses at the feeding areas during the night from a computer screen in his camper. When the government declares that a roundup is imminent, Elkins sets up portable pens with electronic gates around the feeding area. At the push of a button, he can close the gate, corralling the horses without stress or harm.
Applying his knowledge of band behavior, Elkins next loads the horses into a trailer, free of injury. Once he drops the animals off in town, they’re in the hands of the forest service.
AFTER LUNCH, WE TREK FARTHER INTO THE PRESERVE, following hoofprints in the sandy ground. The road becomes steeper, narrower and rougher, but wild-horse sightings become more frequent.
There are anywhere from five to 15 horses in a band, and DNA testing shows that the Jicarilla herd is of mixed ancestry. As mechanization developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, horses were released onto the range, where they’ve roamed freely ever since.
Most of the Jicarilla horses have deep, glistening brown or bay coats, but through the years, color has infiltrated the herd. It’s not uncommon to see sorrels, liver chestnuts and Paint coat patterns. The horses are larger and stouter than I expect, standing between 14.2 and 15 hands, with straight legs, dense bone and thick, healthy hooves that are maintained naturally by the terrain the horses travel. Many of the horses have the conformation to be decent ranch or recreational mounts.
SCOUTING WILD HORSES requires hours of slow driving and good eyesight. If someone spots what appears be a horse in the distance, the caravan comes to an abrupt stop. Some of the horse sightings turn out to be real; others are mirages.
We scour the hills within Chicosa Canyon, Bancos and Cabresto Mesa. As co-pilot, I keep binoculars pressed to my eyes so I can catch any sign of horses, such as tracks or manure piles. I’m so focused in the distance that I almost miss the action occurring in front of me.
Wide-eyed, with his mane blowing in the wind, a stallion breaks from behind the trees at blurring speed and gallops across the road, nervously squealing for his band. Lynne promptly slams on her brakes, and everyone jumps out of the vehicles, quickly focusing lenses on the social situation unfolding before us.
Soon, a second stallion bolts from behind a hill and chases the first. Lynne speculates that the latter, younger stallion has just taken over the first stallion’s band and is running him out. The pair aggressively kick and shake their heads while whipping back and forth across the road several times, then they disappear over the horizon.
Moments later, the younger horse emerges, but there’s no sign of the first stallion. We can only assume he retreated before suffering dire consequences.
That afternoon and the following day, we forge deeper into forested terrain up to Carracas Mesa, where we observe spectacular high-desert scenery, meadows dotted with wildflowers, fowl and wildlife, including a bear cub and several more horse bands. Lynne points out that each band not only has a stallion, but also a lead mare that the rest of the horses trust and follow. The dominant horses and bands eat and drink before the others.
Communication within a band, or between bands, is subtle, constant and crystal clear. Inconspicuous body language, such as nuzzling, tail swishing, head nodding, ear flicking and pawing, speaks volumes in a wild-horse herd, and elicits immediate actions.
Each band we encounter seems so different from the others. Some allow us to meander nearby for a closer glimpse, while others erupt into a thunderous fury at the sight of humans. At Elkins’ camp, we spy a band with an inquisitive satellite stallion named Brazos. As we slowly step toward him, he begins to approach us, nodding his head and snorting. Lynne removes a plastic grocery bag she carries in her pocket to deter brazen horses from coming too close. As soon as we stop, turn our backs to the stallion and take a few steps back, he also stops. Lynne says this approach-and-retreat method is the least threatening way to get a closer look at the horses.
THE FINAL DAY OF THE WORKSHOP is about reflection. Everyone shares her favorite images and recollections. Joanne and Rachael are motivated more than ever to find homes for the horses standing in holding pens. Lynne, who wrote in her book, Among Wild Horses, “the horses changed my life,” will continue her crusade to preserve the animals and their habitat. As for me, I hope my written and photographic journey sparks others to join the woman in her quest, and to witness, up close, the enduring beauty, courage and independence seen while wandering with wild horses.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. For information on Lynne Pomeranz’s educational workshops, call (505) 897-4108, or visit wildhorseworkshops.com.