Photographing Wild Horses: an Icon of the West

January 15, 2024

Wild horses or Mustangs as they are commonly called are an icon of the west. These horse herds bring back the nostalgia of better days when cowboys road the range, natives still lived wild and free and there were no barbwire fences. Wild horses are one of the most popular animals to photograph and for good reason. Finding wild horses is not as hard as you might think. There are free roaming bands of horses in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. People travel from all over the country and even the world to see the wild horses of the western USA. Many bands of these horses can be found just off the road or after a short drive from the pavement.

Wild horses are generally feral horses from domestic stock that have been released to fend for themselves. Many of these horses trace their genes back to the Spanish mustangs that escaped or were released as far back the late 15th century. Combined with a mixture of other horse breads such as quarter horses, Arabians, and even draft horses, the wild horses of the west come in all sizes and colors.

wild paint horse feeding in the snow

Photographing these amazing animals can be as easy as spotting them off the side of the road and photographing from the seat of your vehicle. In fact, I find this way to be one of the best to capture images of wild horses because the vehicle acts like a blind hiding you from the view of the animals. Even though these horses come from domestic stock they are wild, and if approached or spooked can be very dangerous. Never approach wild animals, always stay back and photograph them using a long lens. I prefer my 150-600 mm lens on my crop sensor camera body when photographing animals. The trick is to photograph the animals in their natural environment without changing their behavior by your presence. Staying in the vehicle is often the easiest way to accomplish it. If you need to get out of your vehicle use it as cover to hide your main body, lean across the hood to photograph and keep the vehicle between yourself and the animals.

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Free ranging horses have a hard life. Harsh winters, lack of food and water, and the hot summer sun all take their toll on the herds. Notice the clipped ears on the mare in the above image? That is caused by frost bite from the harsh Wyoming winter winds. I found this mare and her new foal with a small herd just outside of Farson, Wyoming. It was March 17, 2023 and it had been a long hard winter. She was the first mare to foal in this group though there were three others ready to foal. I could tell the whole band was struggling to survive so I kept my distance and remained in my car photographing from the opposite side of the road.

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The image above is of the newborn colt in this band. Notice how in all three of these images, I exposed for the shadows which blew out the highlights? This technique is a great when photographing animals in the snow or very bright conditions. I also used a wide aperture setting to keep the background out of focus helping to separate the horses from the background. Use the lighting to your advantage by keeping the light behind the subject if possible, this backlight effect helps the images look more like portraits in a studio rather than pictures off the side of the road.

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One of my favorite places to photograph wild horses is on the Salt River in Arizona. Winter is the best time to find these herds. I like going there in January and February. The best time of day to photograph animals and landscapes is around sunrise and sunset. As the sun gets lower in the sky the low light casts long shadows, the colors begin to stand out and the magic starts to happen. Make sure to get to your location with hours of time to spare so you can find the horses, watch and wait for the light to get perfect.

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Watch for the horses to do interesting things. In this case the herd stallion lined up with a mare and her foal to feed among the river rocks. I like this intimate family portrait which highlights the little foal. Finding moments like this one can be perfect even though there is no action.

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Here is another intimate moment. This little foal kept behind its mother as I patiently watched. Finally she poked her head out and I was able to snap this peekaboo portrait in the last bit of evening light. The trick is to always be ready. Have your camera set to be ready to quickly focus, compose, and shoot. The more comfortable you are with your camera gear the faster you will be at capturing the perfect images. Practice with your gear before you ever go out into the field. When I get a new camera I will play with it for days, even while I watch tv to become comfortable with the feel of it in my hands, learn where all the controls are and quickly access the menus.

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Do not be afraid to get creative! One of my goals when I went to the Salt River was to get the above photograph. Not an easy goal to meet considering wild horses cannot be told what to do or even forced to move on demand. Photographing any wild animal is about waiting for the action to happen and being ready when it does. To get a motion blur image like this one, you need to use a slow shutter speed and then pan or follow the subject as it is moving. The trick is to follow through, keep moving with the horses as they run and do not stop while you are shooting. I had set up on the riverbank and was watching this herd for hours waiting for any kind of action. I had my camera set and kept monitoring the light as the sun was sinking into the desert. The horses were calm and did not seem interested in moving. Then the stallion raised his head and snorted looking upstream, then he stomped... I got ready! He ran up the river bed and back down, I kept waiting, then he turned around and ran back again, I still waited. On the third pass the mares joined in and he turned around and ran into the light... then I started shooting! I captured this image on the first frame. It was a little bit of luck, but having my settings ready and knowing how to capture the shot was what made this image possible. It was only after I got the shot and the herd moved away that I realized some riders on domestic horses rode across the river upstream that caused the stallion to get excited.

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I like to stick around even when most people would have left. For the image above it was almost too dark to see, but the full moon was rising and I hoped I could get another abstract motion blur. I could not find the horses anywhere but using my binoculars I scanned the riverbank and finally found a herd upstream. I walked up to where they were just as they were crossing the water in front of me. I quickly set up my tripod and photographed this horse crossing in the moonlight. I could not believe this magical moment just happened! I looked at my view screen just after I got this image and actually laughed out loud in the dark!

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Wherever you go in the west to see the wild mustangs remember these are wild animals and they can hurt you if you get too close. Enjoy photographing them from a distance and watching them as they interact with each other and fight to survive. The beauty and majesty of horses has always enthralled me, but I learned at a young age to respect them for their size and weight. I grew up around horses and find them to be some of the most intelligent and caring animals if they are treated with respect. When photographing the wild horses of the western USA make sure to have your camera ready, watch for the action and have a wonderful time photographing these amazing animals!

Here is a video of me photographing the wild horses near Farson, Wyoming!

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