NATURE NARRATIVES: The wild horses of Wash Basin

By Melissa Walker
       At first, I saw only expanses of sage and dry washes. No fences, no barns, no stables-none of the trappings associated with the horses I grew up with. But the horses out here are different. They're wild.
       “Out here” is the northwestern corner of Colorado. Last week, I went on a long-awaited field trip to look for wild horses with my brother Winston, who has observed them for several years. About 75 miles west of Steamboat Springs, we left Highway 40 and the bright green Yampa River valley and turned north onto Road 318, where a sign read, “Next Services 120 Miles” and the colors of the landscape faded. In about 15 more miles, we turned onto a dirt road at the south edge of vast BLM lands where the wild horses roam. The light sandy soils, low rocky outcrops and pale green sage reflected the morning's bright sunlight and the sun's rays began to intensify.
       We lurched slowly along in the pickup, scanning the landscape. Suddenly, Winston called out, “There are the ponies!” Four sleek horses were knee deep in a muddy pond, pawing the water, the backlit splashes framing them in sunlight. We watched from a distance, taking care not to disturb them.
       Winston had observed, photographed and named this equine family last year, in June 2012. With their distinctive colors and patterns, the horses were easy to identify. He had named the yearling with the bright white splotches Speckle Paint, the stallion Big Red, and the black mare with three white socks Three Socks. And, there was a new colt with them. Right away, I was ready to name it Blaze.
       After splashing for about five minutes, the horse family left the pond, found a dry spot to lie down, rolled vigorously in the sandy soil, then got up and shook off the sand. They walked into the low sagebrush, slowly browsing on new shoots of grass growing near the base of the shrubs.

Wild horses come over a rise in the Wash Basin area.
Winston Walker photo

       I was surprised that the wild horses looked as healthy as domestic horses. Their coats gleamed and they appeared strong and well nourished. Clearly adapted to the dry wide-open spaces, these wild horses are able to range far enough to find adequate grasses and water and somehow endure the bitterly cold winters.
       By late morning, a relentless wind began to blow. For three more hours, we searched the treeless territory and spotted several more widely scattered bands of horses in groups of three to ten. We saw palominos, pintos, paints, roans, grays, bays, reds, black and white horses. Some were only 200 yards away, others barely visible with binoculars. Other wildlife along the way included horned larks and pronghorns-signature bird and mammal species of expansive grasslands.
       An approaching storm cloud ended our day's excursion into the harsh lands of Sand Wash Basin. As we made our way back south, four horses began to gallop near our truck, their tails held high, as they seemed to relish and race the wind.
       For more information, visit the BLM website: blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/lsfo/programs/wild_horse.html.

Walker, a long-time area naturalist, posts regular entries in her online blog at naturenarratives.com. She has given her permission to reprint selected pieces in the Westside Pioneer.