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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Wild Horses: Pilot Butte near Rock Springs, Wyoming

Wild Horses are icons of the American West. While not specifically native (the current "wild" horses roaming the west originated in Europe and Asia so they're technically feral populations), they are gorgeous to watch and are historically important to those of us in the US and Canada.

Herd stallion at sunrise.

One place to see wild horses is about 5 hours' drive northwest of Denver, just outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming. The area around Rock Springs is home to several herds of horses in four distinct Herd Management Areas. This blog discusses just one of these: White Mountain (Pilot Butte), but check in with the local BLM office for information on the other horse herds.

These horses show quite different behavior from their more domesticated kin. Their behavior is more "wild" - stallions battle frequently for mares. Sometimes the battles are quite violent and may even draw blood.

The herds are almost constantly on the move looking for food and water, and avoiding the more harsh weather conditions. The horses are relatively shy and spook if you try to approach them. Remember, these horses are effectively wild animals and should not be approached. Your best bet is to stay in your vehicle. Your car will act as a blind and at the same time, provide you a measure of safety if the stallions start to battle.

Filly at sunrise.

Horses evolved on the North American continent many millions of years ago and migrated to Europe and Asia well before the last Ice Age. But by about 12,000 years ago, the horses of North America had died out. The Spanish re-introduced horses to the "New" World and some of the horses we see at Pilot Butte probably still carry genes from those original horses. The rest of the horses here descended from a variety of European breeds brought here by the early white settlers and armies.

The horses here display a variety of coat colors, but roans and solid reds/sorrels seem to predominate.  I've also seen quite a few "curlies" - horses with curly hair on their manes and coats.

Small band of horses on the move.

The BLM's genetic analysis of captured horses from this herd show they include a diverse mix of lineages including Spanish, Peruvian Paso, Andalusian, Thoroughbred, Morgan, American Saddlebred, among others.

If you go, enjoy your visit and make sure to bring your camera, batteries, and plenty of memory cards. 

When to Visit: During the summer, your best bet is to scout the area the day before you want to shoot. Locate where the horses are gathering by watching for the most poop piles (seriously). This is where you'll want to come the next morning - most of the horse activity will be where there is the most poop. The next day, set your alarm VERY early. For the best photo opportunities, make sure to get up onto the mesa before sunrise. Yep, that's right, you need to be up on the mesa and with the horses before sunrise. Colors at sunrise on a cloudless day are really spectacular. Midday light here is harsh and washed out, and photography on cloudy days is dismal - the colors in your photos will probably come out gray and boring. Being up on the mesa at dawn is really worth the short night of sleep.

Special Precautions: Make sure you have a full tank of gas in your vehicle. High clearance is a plus but not necessary. If the weather is rainy, or has been rainy, I'd suggest avoiding this area as the road will be thick, slick, sticky mud that will cling to your car and make travel miserable. Also note that there are no services available up on the mesa, so bring plenty of food and water for at least a 1/2 day of viewing.

To Get There: Pilot Butte is in the White Mountain Herd Management Area, north of Rock Springs, Wyoming. From Rock Springs, take Hwy 191 North (Elk Street) for approximately 14 miles. Follow the signs for the Wild Horse Scenic Loop, on your left.

Other Animals: You can also see Antelope, Golden Eagles, and Northern Harriers here while you're watching the horses. Prairie Falcons also hang out along the cliff sides.


  1. This comment is from Rachel Reeves - for some reason the comment isn't displaying correctly so I'll add it here. Some valuable information for folks wanting to visit the Pilot Butte area:

    Great write up! Here are just a couple thoughts and also a question: -The portion south of Pilot Butte will consistently have horses throughout the summer, because there is water in that area year round, so that is a really good place to start/linger in the early morning. -Another really good horse viewing option that your readers may be interested would to be get off at the Bar X Rd exit on I-80 and head North. The roads are much better there, though there is also a lot of oil and gas pads detracting from the "wildness" of the place compared with White Mountain. I would strongly recommend the Bar X option for anyone who might be travelling in cars or low profile vehicles. Getting someone up the mesa when you have vehicle problems is all but impossible, and White Mountain roads can be rough on small cars! And finally one small question: did you happen to see a young black mare with a star on her face with the roman nosed sorrel stallion in the first and second photo? He was the on Quiet Time on the Front Range

  2. Rachel -

    Thank you for the additional information on that area! I'll have to check out the Bar-X area - I didn't have much time to explore last time I was there but want to get back soon.

    No, I didn't see the mare you asked about. I went back through my pics from that day and didn't notice any black mares, out of the 35 or so horses I saw and photographed. Does she have special significance to you? If I spot her next time I'll be sure to take photos and let you know...