Wild, wild horses — right in Moffat County’s backyard
April 26, 2014
Craig — Wild horses hold a majestic, Wild West-like quality.
When most think about a wild horse, an open frontier with thousands of rolling acres in the Old West appears, and a cowboy trying to tame an unruly beast or a Native American capturing an equine for its tribe comes to mind.
The amazing aspect of wild horses is that they still exist right here in Moffat County, giving spectators who visit their habitat at the Sand Wash Basin an opportunity to experience the heart of the American West.
To see the magnificent equines, all you have to do is take a short 45-minute drive west of Craig on U.S. Highway 40, turn right onto Moffat County Road 67 and continue until you see the Sand Wash Basin sign.
If you're lucky, you'll see one — if not several — of the 406 wild horses that live on the 160,000 acres of property maintained by Bureau of Land Management. The horses are fascinating, colorful and simply breathtaking.
"They're beautiful, they're high in color and you can see them pretty easily," said Wendy Reynolds, field manager at the BLM Little Snake Field office in Craig. "What makes it so unique is the markings and the colors of this particular herd."
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The Sand Wash Basin and its horses have become a huge tourism attraction for the county — an alluring treat for those who crave a taste of an untainted part of Colorado.
Foaling season and stallion fights
Spring is foaling season, making it a perfect time to see mares and their newborn horses roaming their natural surroundings in the high desert plains of Northwest Colorado.
The foals are small, fuzzy and sensational. Most who visit the Sand Wash Basin this time of year are able to see the young horses with their parents.
It's also sparring season for the stallions that fight one another to either keep their bands together or steal another horse's band along with its mares. Many of the males have bands — a family of horses — which they mate with each year.
But bachelor horses also exist, and each year, they fight with the stallions to take over their bands.
It's often a brutal fight between the male horses, where they stand on their hind legs and battle one and other by pitching blows to various parts of the body with their front legs. They also bite each other, kick up dust and buck around like a wild bronco.
Unfortunately, sometimes the equines get badly hurt, forcing the BLM to euthanize those that come out of a fight with a broken leg or shoulder, Reynolds said.
BLM only puts down a horse if it's severely hurt, she said, adding that it's not a common occurrence. Other than that, it's up to the horses to take care of themselves, their bands and their young.
Population control and grazing concerns
Although the horses are splendid and noble in their own right, BLM has the difficult task of trying to control their population in order to maintain the Sand Wash Basin habitat.
The horses share the habitat with ranchers and sheep herders whose animals also thrive on the desert sand brush grass and goodies that flourish in the area.
The more horse population increases, the more grazing takes place. Therefore, BLM and volunteers have been administering birth control for the mares so that they don't continue to reproduce at such rapid rates. Last year, 60 foals were born.
The herd is currently at 406 horses, but BLM would like to see that number dip to 200 — a number that could take years to sustain.
"Our goal is to maintain a wild horse herd population to a level that is manageable and sustainable to the habitat in which they live," Reynolds said, noting that many of the ranchers in the Sand Wash Basin area have worked diligently with BLM to help care for the habitat.
"It's also been a hardship on those ranchers," she said. "I have to give a shout out to those folks. It's been a balancing act."
To keep the horse population manageable, BLM in the past has administered horse gatherings where it rounds up horses and puts them up for adoption in order to maintain the population. But controversy surrounds the gatherings, and BLM is trying to sustain birth rates instead of administering another gathering. The last roundup was conducted in 2008.
"At this point, we're not doing any wild horse gathers. We're not in a position to do that," Reynolds said, adding that birth control is the best option at this time.
Yet birth control for wild horses can be tricky, as volunteers have to go out and dart the mares with a PZP vaccine that prevents them from becoming pregnant. They also have to keep track of what mares were darted in order to see if the birth control is working.
"It takes two shots to get those mares to stop reproducing," Reynolds said.
Social media and photographers capturing wild horse beauty
Splendid landscape and colorful horses warrant stellar photography, and local photographers flock to the area year round to snap photos of the Sand Wash Basin herd.
Their work has gained huge popularity on Facebook.
Photographers share their photos on the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horses Facebook page that currently has nearly 17,000 followers.
"People have a passion about these horses," Craig photographer Patti Mosbey said. "People are passionate about Sand Wash."
So passionate that the photos of horses have been used as banners along the main streets of Craig, highlighting the beauty of Moffat County's prized herd. Additionally, one always can find a photo of wild horses for sale at any of the local art and craft fairs that happen throughout the year in Craig.
Photographers also name the horses and document the foals on the Facebook page. The rule of thumb is that whoever takes the first picture of a new foal and posts it on the Sand Wash Wild Horse Facebook page gets to name it, local shutterbug Nadja Rider said.
The Facebook page not only captures the new foals at Sand Wash, it also shows descriptive photos of stallions fighting, highlighting the brutal ways wild horses try to hold on to their mares.
The page has an album called "Sparring Stallions" that depicts just how merciless the fights can be among the males. The photos are graphic in nature and highlight what it's like for the herd's bands to maintain control.
BLM invites tourism in a responsible way
The Sand Wash Basin herd is no doubt a huge tourism attraction for Moffat County. Many don't even know the horses exist.
Yet BLM kindly reminds spectators that the horses are indeed wild.
"Feeding is an absolute no-no. First of all it's dangerous. It encourages the horses to become human-friendly, which is something we don't want to happen," Reynolds said.
She encourages people to visit the horses while respecting their habitat and wild nature.
"People need to respect these horses by not getting close to them. Particularly in the foaling season — the stallions can become really aggressive," she said.
So if you have the opportunity to view the amazing creatures, do so at a distance, Reynolds said.
Reach Noelle Leavitt Riley at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.