It’s the last weekend in August, and there’s record triple-digit heat in Salt Lake City (stop me when you’ve heard this before). It’s not ideal for wildlife viewing. Or for me, for that matter. But I am determined to find the Onaqui wild horses. They are one of the most accessible (one hour from Salt Lake City) and arguably the most photographed wild horse herd in the United States. These herds totaling about 400 individuals are habituated to people. Unlike where I spent time with far away, wary wild horses in southern Utah, there are signs here cautioning, “No feeding. No petting. These horses are wild.” Petting???
Three days ago, I drove 70 dusty miles on winding, gravel, desert roads looking for these horses. I saw pronghorn. So many pronghorn. Using my car as a blind, I could observe and photograph them. Pronghorn’s defense is their speed. They run from danger. I’ve never encountered pronghorns that were okay with a stopped car so close. Not even in Yellowstone. What a treat!
Further along, I stopped to watch a coyote hunting rodents in the sagebrush. It’s one of my favorite sights; they stand stock-still except for their ears pivoting like a radar dish, twitching left and right, and then they cock their heads to pinpoint the source of the scurrying sounds. Then, like a lightning bolt, they arc high into the air coming straight down on their prey. It’s a bonafide aerial ambush from a terrestrial hunter. This hunt was a success. I can’t tell what kind of mammal he has. It’s huge for a rodent here.
I drove on past the campground and the springs. I saw a herd of horses far from the road—a mirage of horses.
Cool, but too far off to watch their interactions or photograph them. I drove on, stopping at a Pony Express landmark and glassing the desert to no avail before heading home through the pronghorn gauntlet at dusk.
I really thought I could drive the main road, and the Onaqui wild horses would just be here. People who regularly visit say they see them every time they come out. I should know better about wildlife.
“I have yet to travel the 7 mile stretch from Simpson Springs to the Old River Bed without seeing numerous members of this herd — sometimes at binocular distance, and other times immediately beside the road. While most free-roaming horses are understandably shy and wary of encroachers, many members of this herd seem highly habituated to the presence of humans and their noisy machines. That said, you should never attempt to interact with these animals in any fashion. Even seemingly tame free-roaming horses are easily spooked, and can cause serious injury or death without warning or direct provocation. Additionally, your efforts to feed or pet these animals may condition them to allow others to approach whose intentions might not be as benevolent…” – Robert Hammer, Wild Horse tourist
Today I am better prepared. I did some research on The Wild Horse Tourist. I found a side loop coursing around Davis mountain that looks rewarding. First, I’ll check out the Pony Express route, where I saw the distant horses last weekend, keeping the Davis mountain track as my backup plan.
I hurried over the dusty, gravel lane stopping at the dry Simpson Springs watering hole to photograph a golden eagle and watch another coyote trotting through the sagebrush. Despite all of the pronghorn I saw a few days ago; I have not seen a single one today.
As I travel on, I pass horse dung piles on the road. Like they’re taunting me. The next spot to commonly find horses is utterly devoid of life. I drive up the hill and glass the rest of the road before turning back toward Davis mountain. Maybe in the distance, that brown shape is a horse, not a bush. I quickly pull my binoculars to my face and see the large herd not far from where they were a few days ago, except they’re relatively close to the road! I hurry down to where they are, slowing as I get close so as not to spook them.
The first horses I encountered were three bachelors apart from the herd. I approached slowly and stopped, then waited for any sign of concern. They are completely ignoring me, which is the best-case scenario. I rolled down the car window. Still, no reaction as they slowly grazed along. I was smitten with this gorgeous roan known as Loki (OQ13brS).
The larger herd is still far away, slowly moving toward me. There are about 30 mustangs here, primarily stallions, an occasional mare, and one foal. The group is comprised of smaller bands that stay together.
Two stallions postured, pranced, approached each other, and then moved away, only occasionally coming to blows in a choreographed, ritualized display of their strength and prowess.
The other horses calmly shifted out of their way, never lifting their heads from the forage. It doesn’t involve them, and they know it. A third stallion poked the fire here and there but didn’t seem vested in the drama.
All the while, the whole group is grazing closer and closer to me. I’m still safely in my car. It’s still 100 degrees. These two buddies walked behind my car to join the three bachelors that I’d initially stopped to observe.
I’m fascinated by the stallions’ behavior (one moment sparring, the next moment grazing side by side) and surprised at the scarcity of females in the group. I’d expected to find this herd comprised of bands with a lead stallion or two and their group of mares.
I’m curious to learn more about wild horse behavior and get to know some individuals in the north Onaqui herd. Stay tuned.
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