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Web_Approaching Group_2007

Wild Mustang Gather: Rock Springs, WY

Accounts and Photos of My 2007 Experience.


First…The Back Story

Web Approacing the Trap 2007


In 1972, Congress passed Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act (Public Law 92-195) The quote below comes from the introduction

To require the protection, management, and control of wild free- roaming horses and burros on public lands. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

Web Pilot Butte 2006

Wyoming has 16 Wild Horse Herd Management Areas (HMAs), plus the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. In terms of Wild Horses, Wyoming is #2. Nevada is #1.

The White Mountain HMA and the Little Colorado HMA are located NW of Rock Springs, WY, with no apparent fence or boundary between the two. From Jackson, WY, it is about 180 miles to the north entrance of the Wild Horse Loop. Pilot Butte juts out of the landscape as seen in this 2006 image. The information immediately below comes from the BLM web site.

White Mountain HMA – Administered by:  Rock Springs Field Office

Location:  NW of Rock Springs, WY
Acres:  over 393,000
Elevation:  6,300 ft. – 7,900 ft.
AML:  205-300
Colors:  bay, sorrel, red roan, black,
gray & paint

Little Colorado HMA —Administered by:  Rock Springs Field Office

Location:   west of Farson , WY
Acres:   over 632,000
Elevation:   6,300 ft. – 7,900 ft.
AML:   69-100
Colors:   bay, sorrel, brown, black & gray

AML is an acronym for Appropriate Management Level. That’s key in all of this! When numbers go above the AML for that particular HMA, the area is required by law to thin the herd down to meet the numbers. Typically, they thin the herd of horses to something close to the lowest number to allow for a 15%-20% herd reproduction rate. If you do the math, the two combined areas above total over one million acres, and after an extensive gather, there “could be” as few as 274 horses left on them. Besides the threat of overgrazing by the horses, the BLM also leases much of the same range lands for sheep and cattle grazing.

For quite a few years prior to my 2007 experience, the BLM had neglected to do the gathers necessary to meet the Appropriate Management Levels. That year, Wyoming Governor Freudenthal demanded it be met—as defined by law—however almost all of the holding pens in Wyoming were already filled with horses. Horses are always in the regional BLM corrals awaiting adoption and being fed whether anyone drops by to adopt them or not. I’ve been told only the young foals get quickly adopted. Older stallions seldom get adopted. To meet the AML mandate, horses from Wyoming were shipped to pens in Canon City, CO. A total of 570 horses were to moved from the two HMAs in Wyoming. Other Wyoming HMAs were scheduled to have reductions later in the year. From what I understand, it is common to have to do a gather about every four years in most of the Wyoming HMAs.

My Access

Web Wild Horses 2007

I love taking photos of Wild Horses!   I spent quite a few days driving the roads around Rock Springs looking for them and taking photos. I spent the weekend there several times a year for two or three years in a row. There’s a Wild Horse Loop Road at a point about 12 miles north of Rock Springs. It’s a well maintained gravel road—loaded with sharp, tire puncturing shards of flint. The Wild Horse Loop Road takes people south along the edge of the butte and eventually dumps them out in Green River, WY. Of course, they can start at Green River and work north. Cell phone service is good, but there are no services, bath rooms, or water. The photo above was taken in the late evening light earlier in the year.

I mentioned to a friend I was hoping to take photos at a “gather” or roundup sometime. Luckily, that person knew the regional director at Rock Springs and vouched for me (not a trouble maker). Eventually, I spoke with the director. I magically showed up to the gather on the right weekend and was introduced to the contractor.

Contractors get paid for the horses they bring into the corrals. They are incredibly focused on that task. The old guy in charge was a bit cranky and I don’t think he ever understood why anyone would want to take photos in the first place. It was very clear that they didn’t want one single horse to bolt from capture as a result of me being there. I don’t think I would have had any better access to the scene if I had National Geographic credentials. Still, they let me stand with my tripod inside trailers (above the fence lines), and far out of sight during the height of the action. Between the runs, I could walk around about anywhere. The group of wranglers and contractors were friendly, but I always got the feeling they’d just prefer I wasn’t there! I really can’t blame them.

While I could be wrong, I don’t believe “just anyone” could drive up to the site and get access. It took me about a year to go through the hoops to drive into the area. Besides the actual contractors and BLM agents, there were a couple of County Sheriffs, a Wyoming Brand inspector, and a couple of Wyoming Veterinarians. The County Sheriffs were there to keep the peace in case protestors showed up. I assumed that could be anyone that didn’t get the correct permission and invitation in advance.

The two images of the mustangs running directly at me near the top of the page are what I “saw in my mind’s eye” as I was driving down to the gather. Maybe, throw in some dust! I’d be set up just to the right of the pen and the horses would be approaching fast! Both of the images are very tight crops of a much larger image. They work fine to illustrate what I had hoped to see for this blog post, but would be much too small for printing of any size. In reality, I was always a hundred yards off or farther. Still, the images with the copter directly over the herd could be “better” than just the horses running full speed. There was a lot of waiting around, followed by bursts of incredible, heart pounding action!


Web_Copter and Horses_2007

The copter pilot flew the remote regions of the HMAs and began moving bands of horses towards the pens. Of course, that was miles away. I was told he was careful to let the horses walk or trot to the pens, instead of having to bolt for miles over rough terrain.

Web Copter Ballet 2007

Copter Ballet: The pilot was skilled at prodding the horses to go the direction he wanted to go.

Web_ Running Mustangs 2007

Approaching the Pens

Web On The Run 2007

Full Speed: As the horses approached the pens, they broke out into a dead run.

Web Judas Horse 2007

Judas Horse: Near the opening of the Jute fence, a wrangler would be hiding beside a haltered horse called a “Judas Horse”. They’d release the horse and it would run to the pens, enticing the wild herd to follow it.

Web In The Jute Fence 2007

Jute Fence: I always envisioned a very wide funnel for the fence, but it was incredibly thin at the opening. Between the natural contours of the hillside and the Judas horse, the narrow chute worked well.

Web Judas Horse2007

Judas Horse Approaching the Enclosure:

Web Jute Fence Wranglers 2007

Entering the Pens: The three people seen near the fence were hidden as the horses approached. They closed in after the horses passed to prevent them from backing out. The far one would have released the Judas Horse earlier.

Web Old Fashioned Way 2007

The Old Fashioned Way: Occasionally a couple of horses would break away from the rest just before entering the funnel of the jute fence. Instead of wasting gas in the copter, the wranglers would take off on their horses for an old fashioned horse round-up.

Web The Operation 2007

The Layout: Looking South. Gathers are usually held in the fall. Mares drop their foals in May and early June, so not many are ever held early in the year.

Web Wide Holding Pens 2007

The Pens: This shot should give a good idea of the layout. Off to the right, and out of sight, are a couple of large stock trailers with semi-trucks ready to haul off the first batch of horses. The jute fence is seen on the far left, with a holding pen at the mouth of the corrals. One horse at a time was brought through the processing chamber (not sure what they called it). After processing, they’d be put into either the large pen in the lower left for mares and foals, or the pen in the upper left for stallions, and a third pen in the upper right. That lucky group was selected to be released back onto the wild sagebrush prairie.

Web Holding Pens 2007

Detail of the Corrals:

Web Processing Area 2007

Processing: As a horse was advanced to this chamber, it was inspected by the State Vets and given shots. Each one was “aged” by looking at their teeth. Some were labeled with spray paint, and I believe most were “freeze branded” with some sort of numbering system.

Web Waiting Wranglers 2007

Waiting: The wranglers spent a lot of time just waiting around between flights and while the inspectors and vets did their work on the current group of horses in the holding pens. At some point, the helicopter would fire up again and take off into the North. A while later, he’d radio ahead letting people know to be ready and it’d all play out as before. I was there for at least three sessions. Before I left, one of the semis backed up to a loading chute and a large number of the horses were loaded for their direct route to Canon City, CO. I’d have loved to stay for a lot more, but felt I had what I needed. Besides, I had to get to town and get a flat tire fixed.


JH Guide 2007: This appeared in the local newspaper a couple of weeks following the roundup.


And Now…The Rest of the Story

Web Chico 2006

Chico / El Mariachi

While watching this wild horse gather, I realize they are necessary in order to keep the horses from overgrazing their environment. That’s what the Government tells us anyway. The cold reality is they reproduce faster than the adoptions, so there is always an issue to resolve. It is not always pretty. Back in 2006, I spent quite a bit of time along the Wild Horse Loop near Rock Springs. One horse always caught my eye. I called him Chico—for no particular reason—but I liked it and it seemed to fit. I hiked miles to try to get shots of him, but he would never let me get too close.

wild horses, white mountain

At some point I had quite a few wild horse photos.  I created a web site dedicated to only Wild Horses. I called it Spotted Horse On the masthead of the site, shown above, I used a photo of this horse…the one I called Chico. I had always hoped Chico was in the “release pen” or possibly he was in a remote are of the HMA and didn’t get rounded up at all. I wished him the best even if I didn’t know his fate when I left the site that day.

A few months later, I received an email from Pam Nickoles. She also loved seeing and photographing the same horse while in the wild. After the gather, she managed to describe him to the BLM agents in Canon City and was able to adopt the horse out of the Canon City facility.  She picked him up in Canon City and moved him to a private ranch. I don’t remember all of the details but it took a few attempts to finally get the horse to a proper home. You can read all about it in her blog posts below. One of her friends had seen my site and let her know Chico was displayed in the masthead. Pam had always called him El Mariachi. After the adoption, El Mariachi it is!

Rescuing an American Icon | Pam Nickoles Photography

El Mariachi | Pam Nickoles Photography

Not all horses gathered off the prairie have a happy ending story, but at least it’s nice to know some do!

Lastly, watch for an independent film called Wild Horse Wild Ride. It was filmed and produced by a couple of film makers from right here in Jackson Hole. It documents several groups of people that spend 100 days training a wild horse before going to a competition where the horses are auctioned off. The film has a long list of awards. There are numerous, heart wrenching success stories in the film.


I realize this post isn’t exactly about Jackson Hole or Grand Teton National Park, but many people travel through Green River and Rock Springs to get here if coming from the South. This post might prompt some to visit the area in search of some of Wyoming’s Wild Horses. Wyoming has a lot to offer!

Prairie Warriors

If you’d like to see a few of my Wild Horse photos, click the links below.

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Comments (3)

  1. Jackie Irleand

    Thanks Mike, enjoyed the post and info. I have a sister that might be able to make it up to that area this summer.

  2. Tonya Montgomery

    Can I buy some pictures?

  3. Tonya,
    Check out, or if you see one on the blog you’d like to buy, ask and possibly I could add it to that site. Thanks! Mike Jackson

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