Preserving the Last Frontier discusses Moffat County’s Sand Wash Basin herd |

Preserving the Last Frontier discusses Moffat County’s Sand Wash Basin herd

Andy Bockelman
Paul Bonnifield discusses the timeline of the Sand Wash Basin wild horse herd with the group Preserving the Last Frontier Saturday at Sunset Meadows.
Andy Bockelman

History came alive Saturday afternoon during a meeting of Preserving the Last Frontier at Sunset Meadows.

The Northwest Colorado heritage group heard from regional mainstay Paul Bonnifield regarding one of the area’s most well-known living features: the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin.

Bonnifield, who grew up in Routt County and currently lives in Yampa, discussed the details of how many of the equines throughout the state came to be settled, a horse thief named Thomas “Pegleg” Smith figuring into the story as early as the 1840s, introducing more and more of the animals to the spot that became known as Browns Park.

Many domesticated horses became part of the wild herd in the 1860s as a result of disputes between the Overland Stage and the Ute tribe in parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Horses, mules and oxen were prevalent in the years to come as railroad development necessitated their use for moving freight, but the business of horse ranching also began to become profitable, with some ranchers counting as much as 1,500, though numbers are spotty.

Bonnifield said ranchers like Bob McIntosh would allow the animals a lenient range.

“It was a lot different than it is today,” he said.

In the 1880s and the decades that followed, homesteaders came and went through the area, some staying and others moving on to find new opportunities. And, while healthy cattle were gathered up by many of these people, the horses they had brought with them were regularly left to fend for themselves.

“They just abandoned them,” Bonnifield said.

The demand for horses went through an evolution in the early 1900s, with many needed for military purposes in World War I, but it was in the 1920s that Bonnifield estimates the Sand Wash Basin herd would have been at its largest, an agricultural depression leading up to the Great Depression.

The animals could adapt to the environment, but an overabundance of wild horses led to interest from the federal government in the 1930s, with many handlers given the choice between turning them over or paying for grazing permits through the Taylor Grazing Act.

The other option — a slaughterhouse in Utah.

“There were a lot of predators for wild horses, but man was the worst,” Bonnifield said, quoting an acquaintance, Cecil Conner, who spent many hours working with the Sand Wash Basin horses as a teenager back then.

As the years passed, more and more changes affected the herd, which now is considerably smaller than it was a century ago and hasn’t the running room it once did.

Today, the horses serve as a reminder of times gone by, Bonnifield said.

“The most important thing is the stories that they represent,” he said.

Jane Hume was among those in the crowd listening intently to the presentation. A resident of the area since the 1950s, she knew some of the details of the Sand Wash Basin horses, but others were totally new, she said.

“It’s fascinating, I didn’t know all that stuff,” she said.

The objectives of Preserving the Last Frontier — seen in its very name — is what Bonnifield said he hopes to further. The spirit of a rural area like Northwest Colorado fits in with the American ideal of the frontier, which has since moved on from the westward development of the United States territory through the 19th century and early 20th century to apply to all sorts of industries today, among them the Internet.

However, it’s wide, open spaces that Bonnifield considers the frontier he wants to defend.

“We’re connected through the frontier in some way, whether we’re a hunter going out to hunt or just going out to see what we can see,” he said. “It’s the vastness that we see before us that speaks to our soul.”

Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or

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