Salt River Wild Horses

An Encounter with the Salt River Wild horses

I learned about the Salt River Wild Horses several years ago, in 2015. I’ve seen wild horses in the Four Corners area by then, in Mesa Verde, but I didn’t know about the herds near my home. Suddenly, I started seeing news about their impending removal from the area. I was glad they existed, and couldn’t fathom why would anyone want to “remove” them, especially when I realized that removing didn’t mean relocating, but slaughtering them. So, when I saw petitions, and emails to sign protesting their removal, I added my name. Organized by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, the petitions and calls worked. The Salt River Wild Horses are saved (for now at least).

How Did the Salt River Wild Horses End Up Here? A Bit of History

Wild horses are a historic population of free-roaming horses born in the wild. Descendants of horses brought by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, they are also known as mustangs from the Spanish word mustengo, meaning “ownerless beast”. Escaped, or often abandoned, they evolved without the interference of man into the breed we see today.

The Salt River mustangs are most likely descendants of horses abandoned by missionaries, like Father Eusebio Kino. He established several missions in Southern Arizona, including the one at Tumacacori. As he moved around these missions, he left hundreds of cattle and horses at each of them, including some in Phoenix.

By the 1800s settlers and explorers described large herds of wild horses roaming with bison. But soon ranchers considered them competition for cattle and, along with the Forest Service, they organized roundups to shoot them.

The Salt River Wild Horses most likely escaped the massacre by hiding in the thick vegetation near the river. Still, out of half a million wild horses newspapers talked about in the early 1920s, barely 500 survived.

Protection of the Mustangs. The Story of Wild Horse Annie

In he 1950s, Velma Bronn Johnson, who later became known as “Wild Horse Annie,” noticed the ruthless way wild horses were treated on the western rangelands. Driving back to her ranch in Nevada from work one day, she noticed a truck overcrowded with horses, dripping blood as it drove. She followed the truck to a slaughterhouse, when she realized they were free-roaming horses gathered from private and state lands.

Seeing this, she started a campaign to change the way these wild horses were treated, involving newspapers, and school children.

Thanks to her campaign, in 1959, Nevada introduced a law known as the “Wild Horse Annie Act”, banning the use of cars and planes to round-up or hunt wild horses and burros on public lands and poisoning of watering holes frequented by wild horses. Although the bill didn’t include her recommendation that Congress starts a program to protect and manage wild horses, it was a first step in protecting them.

Still, by 1971, the population of wild horses declined further. Thanks to more public outcry, Congress passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros.

Meanwhile, in Arizona

However, this didn’t work everywhere, including in Arizona. Though mandated to establish a wild horse territory to protect them, the state neglected to do so. They called the wild horses “stray livestock” so they weren’t included in the law to protect them.

Still, the wild horses survived in the area, mostly in hiding. Until 2015, when we all became aware of their existence when he USFS published a “notice to impound” them. Thanks to all the petitions, emails, letters, and calls, in 2016 a bill classifies them as “not stray livestock”, which means they are under the protection of the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act”.

So the wild horses are still here, free to roam, in an area surrounding the Salt River, not more than 40 minutes from my house. However, until recently, I never thought of looking for them. I didn’t expect to see them anyway, I was just happy they were safe.

Salt River Wild Horses 6

A Day Trip to the Salt River

But in the recent weeks, we’ve been looking for things to do near town. So I looked up the areas where we might see them. Close to town, it is an area we haven’t explored since we first moved to Phoenix, almost three decades ago. We always thought it way too busy. Which it is. In the summer. After all, it is a river in the desert, only a few miles out of town.

The first time we drove out, we haven’t seen any of the horses, but realized that it is a pleasant area to spend time in, at least if we go on a weekday. On a Monday morning, we only saw a few people on the trail near the river, and several fishermen.

And though we saw no horses, it was a great birdwatching day: we spotted a bald eagle on top of a rock above the river. As we watched her (I was guessing she was female, standing in her nest), her mate flew over. A much larger bird, it truly was majestic flying overhead.

We returned a few days later with our daughter. This time, the horses showed up.

Wild Horses in the River

As we walked on the trail near the river, we heard splashing farther along. We walked close to the shore, and as I peeked through the bushes, farther upstream I noticed a few horses in the middle of the water.

Salt River Wild Horses 4

We kept walking, to get closer to them, when my daughter stopped and signaled me to come near. Near her, in the water, a white horse was eating seaweed. As we stopped, looking at he beautiful horse, she (I am not sure why we assumed it was a mare) looked back at us, as if in greeting, then got back to her meal.

Salt River Wild Horses 5
Salt River Wild Horses 1

Farther along, the heard was splashing and eventually crossed the river and galloped away on the opposite shore.

But while there, we were lucky enough to see them all.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.