Wild horses are synonymous with the Old West. But they are still around. Find out where to see wild horses in the USA and why some may still disappear forever.
Free-roaming “wild” horses live in many areas of the American West, but their continued existence is controversial. If you want to see large herds of North American wild horses roaming freely, you might want to make plans to do that sooner, rather than later.
And you might want to speak up right now if you want to see horses continuing to roam in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the future. See more below or jump to this news article for a quick overview and info for commenting is here. Comments are due January 31, 2023! (If you miss this round, there will be a chance on the final plan this summer, but it seems pretty clear that preserving a viable herd in the park is NOT going to be the recommended alternative.)
A few facts about “wild” horses
Depending on where you live, your first question may be “Are there still wild horses in the US?”
That seems like a simple question. However, the answer depends on who you ask and what you mean by wild.
What is a wild horse?
What most people call wild horses in North America are the free-roaming descendants of horses brought to the continent by early Spanish explorers, soldiers, missionaries, and settlers mixed with a bunch of other European breeds brought by later adventurers and settlers. They live pretty much like any other wild animal, but many people insist they are not wild animals. “Free-roaming” is the defining term — and the only one everyone seems to agree on.
Native wildlife or feral livestock?
Legally, all “wild” horses are “non-native feral livestock.” That’s true whether you’re talking about an old saddle horse someone chased into the countryside last week because they couldn’t afford to feed it or a horse that has lived as a wild animal its entire life and is descended from many generations of horses that have lived as wild animals.
Even though horses originated in North America, they are classified as non-native livestock because they seem to have gone extinct here about the same time a prehistoric group of skilled hunters called the Clovis people appeared and the climate changed. That was probably more than 10,000 years ago. (Some research now suggests horses may have been around at least a few thousand years longer).
But horses survived and were domesticated in other parts of the world long before they returned here. Spanish soldiers and explorers began reintroducing horses to North America late in the 15th century. These Spanish horses were the beginnings of the great herds seen in “Indian Country” in the 19th century. Herds we can still see remnants of today.
Because horses originated in North America, an argument can be made that wild horses ARE native to this land and that horses are the world’s most successful reintroduction of an extinct species.
However, government officials who determine the fate of most wild horses are adamant that horses are non-native invasive pests that should be eradicated from public lands to protect the environment and to make more land available for “useful” livestock or game for hunters.
What’s your definition of “wild”?
Free-roaming wild horses survive pretty much on their own from day to day, but only to a certain point:
- Most are only allowed to live in very specific areas.
- Supplemental food and water are sometimes provided during periods of drought or to draw them into another part of their range.
- Humans restrict herd sizes through equine birth control or by rounding up and removing “excess” horses.
A few herds are managed even more closely, with vet checks and a low level of selective breeding.
But humans often intervene to control the population size and health of large native wild animals too. Take deer as an example. Population growth is controlled through hunting and supplemental food and water is often provided if there is a natural shortage or simply to improve the stock for better hunting. Despite human intervention, deer are still considered wild animals.
Are there still wild mustangs?
Yes, there are still wild mustangs. But there aren’t a lot of them. And there’s a lot of disagreement on what is or isn’t a mustang.
The word “mustang” is a corruption of the Spanish words mesteño and mostrenco, both of which referred to stray livestock that lived as wild animals. In the Americas “mustang” originally applied to free-roaming and Native American horses with bloodlines that went back to Colonial Spanish Horses with mixed North African/Arab and Iberian heritage. Over time, the term became associated with pretty much any free-roaming horse in the American West.
Today few wild horses have bloodlines that make them true Spanish Mustangs. But some do.
Wild herds of Spanish Mustangs include the Kiger Mustangs in Oregon and the Pryor Mountain Mustangs on the boundary of Montana and Wyoming. (Below I’ll tell you how you can see them for yourself.)
For detailed information on Spanish Mustangs past and present, see the North American Spanish Horse at the Center for America’s First Horse.
Where do wild horses live in the USA?
Herds of free-roaming wild horses live in every state west of the Great Plains, with particularly large numbers in Nevada.
Free-roaming horses also live in a few places on the east coast of the USA, as well as on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico and a remote area of Hawaii’s Big Island.
While free-roaming horses are found on private and tribal land, most wild horses in the American West live on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the Forest Service. So, if you are a US citizen, many of North America’s wild horses belong to you!
How many wild horses are there?
In 2022 BLM estimated at least 65,000 (others estimate 80,000) wild horses live on the land they manage the US. (BLM thinks that is way, way too many.) At least 50,000 more live in BLM funded off-range holding pens and pastures, many in states far from their home range.
Those numbers don’t include horses on other public, private, or tribal lands or herds found in other parts of the country. If you add all those together, some recent estimates put the total number of “wild” horses (including those BLM is holding for adoption) at 300,000 or more, with the single largest number living on Tribal land.
The tumultuous history of wild horses in the USA
While wild horses are not legally classified as “native” wildlife, the fossil record proves that a huge number of primitive horses once lived on North America’s vast grasslands. But they disappeared about the same time both humans with excellent hunting skills arrived and the climate shifted. About 10,000 years later Spanish ships brought domesticated horses to the Americas. And, just a few hundred years after those Spanish horses came ashore, enormous herds once again roamed the continent.
Horses originated in North America
The genus Equus (which includes horses, donkeys, and zebras) originated in North America 2-3 million years ago.
Those prehistoric horses began as relatively small creatures the size of a dog. Over millennia these ancient animals evolved, with one line becoming the ancestor of modern horses.
Primitive horses of varies kinds lived in North America for millennia before declining and finally disappearing from the fossil record (along with many other creatures) around the last ice age. They seem to have become extinct (along with other large animals) about the same time the first humans are thought to have arrived. Those humans, known as the Clovis culture, seem to have been skilled hunters. It’s very possible that they ate the last native horses.
Fortunately, horses didn’t disappear everywhere.
Every horse in the world has North American ancestry
All modern horses trace their ancestry to those prehistoric North American horses. That’s because people weren’t the only creatures crossing the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.
Horses also made that journey, first moving west into Asia and then back and forth over millennia. So, while horses eventually disappeared from the Americas, they continued to live in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Today we know their descendants as true horses (all breeds of domestic horses and Przewalski’s Asian wild horse), zebras, and donkeys.
Breeding programs like the one at the Minnesota Zoo brought Przewalski’s horse back from the brink of extinction. It’s been reintroduced in its native Mongolia.
Zebras are not true horses, but they are closely related, sharing a family and genus with true horses.
Some of those prehistoric or “primitive” horses ended up in what we know today as Spain. We know that because 25,000 year old cave paintings on the Iberian Peninsula clearly depict horses. Over time, those native Iberian horses were bred with North African Barbs to develop small, strong horses with a smooth gait. By the 15th century, Spain’s military relied so heavily on these horses that they were often loaded onto ships to accompany Spanish soldiers, explorers, and missionaries as they ventured into the “New World.”
Domesticated horses return to North America
Columbus didn’t carry horses on his first trip to the Americas. But the cargo for his second trip in 1493 included included 25 Spanish horses. Unlike the highly-trained horses later voyages brought, Columbus purchased less-expensive work horses from peasants living along the Guadalquivir River in southern Spain.
Horses like those Columbus brought to the Caribbean in 1493 still roam in southern Spain.
It’s not always clear which voyages carried horses or where the all of the horses that came to the New World ended up. But in 1503 about 70 horses were reported in the colony on what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The first Spanish horses on the North American mainland came with Cortes when he arrived in Mexico about 1520. (Either 1519 or 1524, I’m not sure which.) Horses first arrived in Florida in 1538.
Spanish explorers, soldiers, missionaries, and settlers relied on their horses for transportation, agricultural and other heavy work, and to militarily dominate the Native American population. Horses were very valuable. So, from the very beginning, the Spanish bred the horses they brought to the Americas in order to get more of them.
They also made every effort to keep their horses from escaping or being captured, but enough were lost to start forming wild herds. And those herds quickly settled into their new/old home. It’s thought there were already 10,000 free-roaming horses in Mexico by 1553.
The rise of the Horse Nations
Initially the Spanish used horses to subdue the native population. Never having seen a horse or anything like it before, the first native people to encounter mounted soldiers (especially soldiers in full armor) must have been terrified at the very sight of these very large, very odd creature.
“In the islands of the Caribbean, Taíno people were the first to see the horse, and the sight inspired fear—animal fused to sword-wielding conquistador—the legs of the rider blending with the galloping extremities of his mount as it rode down Native people, while the metal of rein and bit and stirrup clanged with the fury of war.” José Barreiro (Taíno), NMAI, 2009
But it didn’t take Native Americans very long to figure out what was going on. The Spanish knew it would be hard to control the native population if they also acquired horses and learned to use them. And, for awhile, severe penalties ensured the Spanish kept their horses far from the native population. The Spanish were right to worry, but soon there were too many horses for the small Spanish population to manage without help. They needed Native Americans to help care for all those horses. And the Native Americans fully understood the advantages horses offered. Once they became familiar with horses it took no time at all before they were capturing and breeding horses their own herds to use in attacks on the Spanish invaders.
The 1680 Pueblo Revolt greatly accelerated the use of horses by Native nations. With hundreds of horses left behind as Spanish survivors fled Santa Fe, Pueblo nations suddenly had plenty of horses to trade with others. As a result, horses quickly spread north from New Mexico across the Great Plains and northwest.
Horses transformed the lives of the those who had them. Horses made it easier to hunt for food and resources or to pack up and move to better location. By the 1800s, horses were deeply embedded in the daily life and culture of many Native people and thousands, if not millions, of horses filled the landscape.
An 1893 painting on fabric by Strike the Kettle portrays Lakota life before Custer’s defeat. (Displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian.)
Within a year of their victory over Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, nearly all the American Indians in the west were on reservations. As they lost their freedom, the great herds of horses that once brought power, wealth, and freedom were taken from them. Some of the finest were captured for use on ranches or in Wild West shows, but many were simply shot or driven into the American West’s ever-shrinking wilderness.
The end of free-roaming horses almost comes in the 20th century
As the 20th century began, wild horses were still in demand for use on farms and ranches and for transportation. Thousands were rounded up and shipped east to work in farms or cities or set to Europe to haul military equipment during the “war to end all wars” (WWI).
But by the 1920s, tractors and motor vehicles replaced horses almost everywhere. With no demand for horses, wild herds grew ever larger, eating grass on the open range that cattle and sheep ranchers wanted for their own animals. The horses, like the buffalo and Native people themselves, were seen as a remnant of the past that needed to be removed in the name of progress. But the horses had no financial value, so removing large numbers of them usually took more time and effort than it was worth.
Then, in 1923, Phillip M. Chapel saw a business opportunity in a failing meatpacking plant in Illinois. His plan was simple – he’d take the wild mustangs ranchers wanted to get rid of, grind them up, and pack them in cans to sell as dog food. His Ken-L-Ration plant turned out to be a highly profitable business. So profitable that others quickly got into the business, opening more plants to turn Western mustangs into canned pet food and other products.
Within a few decades virtually all the million or more horses roaming the west when Chapel opened his factory were gone.
Wild horses gain legal protection in the USA
At the very same time that a million or more wild horses were being brutally captured and slaughtered to make pet food, a slew of popular novels and movies created an insanely popular mythology around cowboys, Indians, and wild horses. Pretty much everyone loved the myths of the Old West and the idea of wild mustangs running free. But no one seemed particularly interested in what was really happening to wild horses in the 20th century.
But, once they knew, they wanted things to change.
Wild Horse Annie
In 1950 a secretary in Utah got stuck behind a stock trailer on a narrow road. Like anyone in that situation, she probably just wanted to get around it and be on her way. However, at some point she realized blood was dripping from the trailer. Thinking the driver would want to know that one of his animals was injured, she followed the truck until it stopped at a stockyard. Peeking inside, she saw the trailer was filled with horribly battered and bloody mustangs, including a dead foal. But the driver assure her it was ok because the horses were headed to the slaughterhouse.
Although she’d acquire the nickname later, that was the day Velma Johnston turned into Wild Horse Annie. She spent the rest of her life working to save the remaining wild horses – first from brutal aerial roundups and then from slaughter.
She started small, working to end aerial roundups on the Virginia Range where she lived. By writing letters and working with journalists, she built a network of people who wanted to see wild horses protected. In 1955 the state of Nevada banned mechanized roundups, but only on state land. And almost all of Nevada’s wild horses lived on federal land.
In 1959 Johnston’s ever-growing network of wild horse supporters got a federal ban. Without an easy way to round up wild horses, she expected most would be protected. But, of course, BLM and ranchers found ways around the ban.
But attitudes but wildlife and wild places were rapidly changing by then. The conservation movement was a growing national force and laws to protect the environment, save endangered species, and reduce pollution passed in the 1960s.
So, Johnston wasn’t working alone when she headed to Washington DC again in 1971 to push for full protection for wild horses. Not that she didn’t continue her own organizing work – before she headed east she’d made sure that thousands of school children made their love of wild horses known to both their parents and Congress.
The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971
President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act PDF into law in on December 18, 1971.
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.”
The law as it was passed (pdf)
What seems to be the current law, as amended in 1976, 1978 and 2004 (pdf)
A well-meaning law with unintended consequences
So now we should have a happy ending. A federal law protects existing wild horses on most public land in the American West.
If only it were that easy.
The law itself had problems from the beginning, mostly because no one passing it really understood how fast horses reproduce or how thoroughly their only natural predators (mountain lions) had been exterminated from even the most remote parts of the country. In hindsight, the idea that only a few horses would need to be removed from the wild to “achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance” (especially given the need to share those lands with cattle) was absurd. And giving responsibility for implementation and enforcement to agencies with missions focused on squeezing the most economic value out of public land probably wasn’t the best idea either.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about what went wrong and how to even think about what needs to be done. There’s just so much and there’s no single answer.
For the time being, I’m going to direct you to the story and video report the New York Times first published in 2013. It covers many of the biggest issues pretty well, although the scale is even greater now.
But right now, BLM is under tremendous pressure to do something to out from the financial burden of caring for thousands of horses they’ve removed from the range. But over all both BLM and the Forest Service generally seem blind to options that don’t involve helicopters and holding pens.
The best places to see horses in the wild
Wild horses live on public land in many parts of the United States.
The sites listed here are NOT the only places where you can find wild horses. Instead, these are some of the BEST places for ordinary people to see wild horses. They are easy to get to places where you are very likely to see wild horses without traveling on unmaintained roads or hiking far from your car. It is a list of the best and easiest places to see wild horses in the US.
Most wild horses roam in the American West, but there are a few herds in other places too. Click to see some of the easiest places to find wild horses.
Still, there’s no guarantee you will see horses at any of these locations on any given day or at any particular time of day. However, you are very likely to see wild horses if you give yourself some time and check at a couple different times of day. Although horses have routines and regular patterns of travel, those can change from one day to the next. Ask around to find out when and where horses were seen recently. If your time is limited, book a guide or tour. And always watch horses responsibly!
A few herds on this list are almost entirely true mustangs descended from colonial-era Spanish stock. Others may be mostly a mix of ranch horses that have run free for many decades now. Most are probably a genetic mash-up of mustangs and former ranch horses.
While I have visited several of these sites, others remain on my own travel wish list.
The best places to see free-roaming wild horses in the American West
This is a list of the easiest places to get to where you are also very likely to see wild horses. It does not include places that have lots of horses, but require a 4×4 and backcountry navigation skills to see them. Nor does it include locations where BLM has removed a large portion of the herd in the past couple of years. Those two factors mean that several “best” places to see horses included on many other lists are not included here.
The best place to see wild horses in Arizona: The Lower Salt River in Tonto National Forest (Phoenix)
One of the nation’s easiest to view herds of free-roaming wild horses lives along the Salt River just east of Phoenix, Arizona.
(This is also the herd I’ve spent the most time following over the years.)
Wild horses in the Salt River near Phoenix.
The Salt River herd currently consists of 400-500 horses living in a portion of the Tonto National Forest near the Superstition Mountains.
While the Salt River horses were documented early in the 20th century, they weren’t documented under the 1971 law. Thus, they are not protected by it. Nevertheless, dedicated volunteers operating as the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG) got the state of Arizona to put the herd under state jurisdiction, ending US Forest Service plans to eliminate the entire her. Once that was accomplished, SRWHMG volunteers stepped up to take on much of the responsibility for managing the herd for long-term survival. To do so, they have instituted a fertility control program that, given more time, will reduce the herd’s size by about half. They also manage a rescue program for injured horses and, when absolutely necessary, provide supplemental feed. And, of course, they still spend a lot of time trying to reason with the Forest Service.
The Salt River wild horses once roamed in a very large area on both sides of the Bush Highway. However, recent Forest Service fencing to keep horses from roads and recreation areas reduced their range significantly. This wasn’t good for the horses, but it does makes it even more likely you’ll see them in the riverside locations they can still get to.
Arizona has a handful of wild horse herds, including BLM’s Cerbat Mountain mustangs and the embattled Forest Service Heber herd where someone has been shooting wild horses for years now. But the Salt River herd is by far the easiest to find and watch.
The easiest places to see the Salt River horses
Since the Forest Service’s fencing project, the easiest and most reliable places to see the Salt River horses are along the river and around the parking areas at the Goldfield and Pebble Beach/Blue Point Recreation Areas or while floating or paddling on the lower Salt River. Sometimes horse can also be seen at the Coon Bluff Recreation Area.
The Salt River wild horses feast on eel grass when the river is flowing. It’s usually easy to get a good look at them at the Goldfield Recreation Area.
Wild horses are often seen across the river at Blue Point Recreation Area even in mid-day.
Wild Horses gathered at Coon Bluff looking for food during the drought.
You can hike as far as you want from any of these sites to look for or follow a band of horses. But you often can see anywhere from a small family or bachelor group to a herd of a hundred (or many more) at any of these sites without hiking much beyond a parking lot.
You can hike back into the desert to see the Salt River wild horses, but you don’t have to.
Wild horses along the road near the Salt River.
You can read about my first visit to see the Salt River wild horses here. You can no longer see horses in this particular area, but they still roam nearby (you can hike out to look for them) and is representative of the landscape these horses call home.
The best place to see wild horses on the Montana/Wyoming border: The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (Lovell, Wyoming)
Located in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area on the Montana/Wyoming boundary, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was established in 1968. While that was before the 1971 legislation protecting existing herds of American wild horses, it too is managed by BLM.
This is one of the areas with Spanish Mustangs. Both genetic testing and their unusual markings indicate that the Pryor Mountain Mustangs are largely descended from Spanish horses. Notably, the herd includes horses with dorsal and zebra stripes and bi-colored manes and tails. These unusual patterns are associated with more primitive horses and very old breeds like Andalusian Mustangs and Spanish Barbs.
Although the herd has gotten up to about 300 horses, BLM tries to keep it about 120 animals.
The Pryor Mountain horses are the only BLM-managed herd in Montana. On the other hand, Wyoming has 16 BLM horse areas, although many are quite remote.
The easiest place to see the Pryor Mountain wild horses
The Pryor Mountain horses live in high elevations, hidden canyons, and in the desert lowlands. However, they also often graze within sight of State Route 37 (Bad Pass Highway), making them relatively easy to spot from the road, although they scare easily. The National Park service has wayside markers along the road with information on the horses. BLM also has a brochure with information on viewing the horses (pdf).
The Pryor Mountain Mustang Center in Lovell (northeast of Cody) can tell you where the horses have been seen most recently. They also offer tours out to see the horses in more remote areas of the refuge.
The best place to see wild horses in Nevada: The Virginia Range (Reno)
Nevada has a lot of BLM wild horse areas, however, the Virginia Range is NOT one of them. But it is one of the easiest places to see wild horses in Nevada. It’s also the herd that inspired Wild Horse Annie (Velma Johnston) to protect America’s wild horses — which led to passage of the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971. Ironically, most of the horses are now on private land. (In part because of big chunk of their range on public land was transferred to a private owner while Johnston was trying to get laws passed to protect the horses.) But for that reason, most of the range wasn’t protected under the 1971 law. And, just to be sure, in 1983 BLM rounded up all the horses they could find on federal land in the Virginia Range, hauled them away, declared the area “wild horse free,” and removed it from their jurisdiction. The herd is now under the jurisdiction of the state of Nevada.
This herd recently had around 3,000 horses. A birth control program run by the American Wild Horse Campaign is reducing the herd’s rate of growth with the goal of eventually stabilizing the herd at an acceptable size. Until that happens, the Nevada Department of Agriculture rounds up excess horses for adoption or sale.
Lots of organizations claim to work on behalf of the Virginia Range hoses. A couple that seem to be making a difference are Wild Horse Connection Range Management, which works with the state to address safety hazards, provide diversionary water and feeding, adoptions, etc. and Return to Freedom, a small wild horse sanctuary that also does advocacy.
The easiest place to see the Virginia Range wild horses
The easiest place to see the Virginia Range horses is around watering holes along the trail east of Reno. But you can see horses in a lot of places here, including on the road. (Be very alert anywhere in this area.) You can also book a tours that will take you out to look for horses.
Nevada has a lot of places where you are likely to find mustangs and other wild horses. You can even book any number of wild horse tours to take you to the best spots to watch for horses. Check Wild Nevada for a list of tour and trail ride options across the state.
The best place to see wild horses in North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Medora)
Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is (currently) a fabulous place to see wild horses. There are enough horses for bands to spread out across the park and they are often easily visible from (or on) park roads.
A band of wild horses crosses the park’s scenic loop drive early in the morning.
The original idea was to create a national park to honor Roosevelt. But the Badlands area of North Dakota where Roosevelt lived briefly and returned to regularly wasn’t seen as a compelling enough natural area for a national park. So, when the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established in 1947, it focused on the historical importance of the area’s landscape, as Roosevelt claimed he never would have become president if not for his experiences in North Dakota.
But Roosevelt arrived rather late in the westward expansion – he may have come looking for the untamed west with plenty of buffalo to shoot, but he returned for the cattle, the wide-open spaces, and the herds of free-roaming horses. There were likely very few (if any) bison still in the area when Roosevelt was here. But there certainly were none by the time the Memorial Park was established.
But there were horses, many of which were thought to be descendants of Sitting Bull’s fine herd of mustangs. And a few may well have been descendants of Roosevelt’s own horses, since he would have captured his horses from wild herds and probably released them back into those herds when he left.
The park’s wild horses are often easy to photograph with a telephoto lens.
Attempts to remove all horses from the park occurred regularly from the 1950s until 1970, when park policy changed to recognize free-roaming horses as part of the historical setting that so influenced Roosevelt. (The park gained National Park status in 1978.)
In a great many–indeed, in most–localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some Indian or ranch outfit, or else claiming such as their sires and dams, are yet quite as wild as the antelope on whose range they have intruded. – Theodore Roosevelt
Amid efforts to eliminate wild horses, bison were reintroduced in the park beginning in 1956.
Nokota History in Brief covers the history of the area, the park, and horses in the area over time.
Because the US Park Service made sure their lands were not subject to the 1971 law, they have a lot of leeway to manage – or completely eliminate horses as they see fit. And, now they really want to finally eliminate this herd of wild horses. This process is rapidly coming to a close. If you want to see horses roaming the park as they did in Roosevelt’s day, speak up! Public comments (which are extremely limited in scope) are due January 31, 2023. Find more info on commenting on North Dakota Badlands Horse.
The easiest place to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s wild horses
Look for horses in the park’s South Unit. It’s rare that you won’t see at least a few somewhere along the scenic loop drive, although sometimes they may be pretty far away. And keep a close eye out wherever there’s water.
The Boicourt Overlook area is a particularly good spot to check in the morning (not too early) and late afternoon. Horses often gather in the hills above the overlook before coming down to the road to move from one area to the next. They seem to make the trip in reverse in the morning, but in smaller groups and over a longer period.
ALWAYS give the horses the right of way and keep your vehicle as far from them as possible – I’ve seen younger horses rub up against vehicles so hard the car was rocking. Keep your distance on foot as well, both for your safety and to keep from spooking the herd.
Be especially alert if you decide to hike here. There are some nice short trails, but you always risk coming around a bend and discovering a bison in your path!
Want to identify the wild horses you see and learn about their history and relationships? North Dakota Badlands Horse has details on bands living in the park.
The best place to see wild horses in Oregon: Steens Mountain (southeast Oregon)
The Steens Mountain area consists of several different designations under BLM, including two Horse Management areas.
The South Steens HMA is noted for its large percentage of pintos and managed to retain that coloring within the herd.
The Kiger HMA is home to the Kiger Mustangs. These horses seem to pretty clearly come from Spanish Colonial stock. BLM actually moved this herd to Kiger Gorge years ago to give them a more remote range to limit crossbreeding with other horses. Because their Spanish mustang characteristics make them highly desirable adoptees, the herd is managed to maintain those traits.
The easiest place to see the Steens Mountain wild horses
Visitors are most likely to spot horses along the South Steens Campground. Both Kiger Mustangs and other wild horses are also often seen at watering holes along the Steens Loop Tour Route, but one section of the loop requires a 4×4. (The rest of the route is usually passable in a passenger vehicle.) Guided trails rides offer another opportunity to see these wild horses.
This site almost didn’t make the list because all of this area is remote and pretty rugged, but everything I’ve found indicates can drive it in a passenger car (not in winter) and horses are regularly seen from the road and campground. Just be well prepared to be in a remote area before heading out here.
The best place to see wild horses in Utah: Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area (Dugway)
Located about two hours southwest of Salt Lake City, the Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area offers easy wild horse viewing along a scenic National Back Country Byway that provides access to historic sites, recreational areas, and a wildlife refuge.
This herd was up to around 500 horses, but about 300 were removed in 2021. BLM wants to keep this herd under 210 horses and works with advocacy groups to manage herd size using fertility control. They also manage genetics somewhat by regularly introducing horses to increase the herd’s color variations, which make the horses more adoptable.
The easiest place to see the Onaqui wild horses
Bands are often seen right along the historic Pony Express Road, an unpaved Back Country Byway. Seeing them in other areas require a 4×4 with high clearance. For detailed directions, see the Wild Horse Tourist.
Many of these horses are very used to people and cars, so be extra careful to keep at least 100 feet between you and the horses. Give new foals even more space.
Free-roaming wild horses in the eastern USA
The vast herds that once roamed parts of the west and Great Plains formed as both Spanish and American Indians bred horses for work and, especially, for battle. In other parts of the country, especially along the East Coast, horses were left behind when Spanish explorers and English colonists moved on to other places. With fewer horses to start with and less suitable land for them to roam, wild horses remain in very few eastern locations.
See wild horses in Georgia: Cumberland Island National Seashore
Horses likely arrived on Cumberland Island when Spanish missions were established in the 16th century. But the first record of horses here is from 1742. Over the decades, villagers and seasonal visitors like the Carnegies also brought horses to the island. But by the mid-20th century, horses on the island were mostly feral.
Generally, there are no more than 150 horses on the island, although there can be as many as 200.
Unlike other wild horses on this list, horses on Cumberland Island are mostly a mix of Tennessee Walkers, American Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Spanish Paso Finos. It’s also the only completely unmanaged herd on this list, with disease and difficult living conditions limiting the herd’s size.
The only access to Cumberland Island is by boat. Visitors get around the island on foot or by bicycle.
The easiest place to see the Cumberland Island wild horses
The Cumberland Island wild horses are often seen grazing on the lawn at the Dungeness Historic District.
Assateague Island lies off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, with a portion in each state. The island’s horses (they are horses, although they are usually called ponies) are managed by different entities and separated by a fence along the state line.
Although plans to eliminate free-roaming horses from Assateague Island were considered, the ponies made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague,” still live there. (The National Park Service classifies these free-roaming wild horses as a “desirable exotic species.”)
Assateague Island’s Chincoteague wild horses grazing near the sea.
While the National Pak Service has long contended that the Chincoteague ponies on Assateague Island are not descended from Spanish horses, recent research discovered that these horses are very closely related to early Spanish Colonial horses in Haiti. So, perhaps Henry’s tale of Misty’s ancestors swimming to shore after a shipwreck isn’t far from the truth!
Horses on the Maryland side are managed by the National Park Service and can be seen along park roads and on the beach on the north end of the island. This herd is closely managed using injectable contraceptives to limit the number of foals born each year. The herd currently has under 100 horses.
Horses on the Virginia side of the island live in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge’s large enclosures. They are owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The fire department still holds an annual Pony Penning, where the horses are herded into the water to swim ashore on Chincoteague for health checks and where most foals are sold at auction. The Chincoteague ponies are in two separate herds. Together the two herds usually has about 150 horses and more than 50 foals prior to penning.
The easiest place to see the Assateague Island wild horses
The Maryland herd can often be seen from beaches and trails at the north end of the island.
Boat tours out of Chincoteague almost guarantee a view of the horses owned by the Chincoteague fire department. On land, they are also sometimes visible along the main road to the beach. The Chincoteague National History Association also offers bus tours that take visitors up to the larger, but harder to access herd.
You can also visit Chincoteague during Pony Penning to see the Pony Swim (an event that takes 3 minutes and draws huge crowds) and then watch them walk to the fairgrounds where most foals will be sold to the highest bidder. Of course, if you really want to get to know a Chincoteague pony, you can always buy one!
North Carolina: Currituck Outer Banks
DNA testing and unusual physical traits indicate the Corolla wild horses of North Carolina’s Outer Banks are Colonial Spanish Mustangs. The first horses on the island may have been left by Spainards forced to flee the island in 1521 or swam to the island after a shipwreck. Or they may have been left by English settlers who brought Spanish horses to the area and then abandoned them when the settlement failed.
There are about 100 horses in this herd and are often found along the beaches of Corolla and Carova.
These horses aren’t entirely free-roaming. While they once roamed a larger area, they are now confined to northern part of the beach to keep them away from roads. They are also monitored and documented much like the ponies owned by the Chincoteague Fire Department. Veterinary care is provided on an as-needed basis and herd size is carefully monitored.
The easiest place to see wild horses on the Outer Banks
The horses are sometimes visible from the Corolla trails and beaches. Horse tours are available.
Free-roaming horses on Vieques Puerto Rico
The Puerto Rican island of Vieques is known as the “island of wild horses.” However, unlike the other herds on this list, many of these horses really are better described as free-roaming and not wild.
Largely descended from finely-gaited Spanish Paso Finos bred on the island since the 16th century, most of these horses only think they are wild. Unless they’ve gotten into trouble, they usually have owners (some even carry brands), but are generally left to fend for themselves. Most roam freely in family bands and gather in larger herds just like they would if they were truly wild. They become domestic horses only when someone wants to ride.
Free-roaming horses and cattle egrets on Vieques.
The easiest place to see the Vieques wild horses
Pretty much anywhere that isn’t fully developed.
The number of free-roaming horses is growing too rapidly for this small island. That makes them easy to see almost anywhere, but also means you are as likely to see them digging through a garbage bin as frolicking along a beach or grazing in a meadow.
Guidelines for watching wild horses
Watching horses interacting with each other and their environment as wild animals can be an amazing experience. But please do so in ways that won’t bring harm to the horses or yourself.
The American Wild Horse Campaign has a good set of guidelines. Read them before you go out looking for wild horses.
For more information about wild horses
I’ve included some links within the text, but here are a few more resources for learning more about wild horses and their management past, present, and future. But keep in mind that there is no such thing as an “unbiased” information. Factual information yes; unbiased information no. These are sources I feel present reliable information, even if some have a very strong bias.
The book about wild horses everyone should read
Wild Horse Country by David Phillips is probably the definitive book on wild horses in North America. He begins the story with prehistoric horses and ends with an analysis of what needs to be done right now if we truly want to preserve wild horses – and what makes success unlikely. He is both a meticulous researcher that looks deeply into all sides of an issue and an engaging storyteller with a great eye for detail. (That means he turns tons of facts and observations into a great read.) I found many details on Wild Horse Annie, Chapel and his Ken-L-Ration business, mountain lion predation, etc. here than in any other place. And his chapter on the challenges standing in the way of saving our remaining wild horses should be required reading for anyone interested in wild horses.
You can buy a copy at Barnes & Noble or AbeBooks (affiliate links).
Portions of the book are also the basis for a movie called The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses. The executive producer was Robert Redford and it was narrated in part by Phillips. You might still be able to find it on Apple TV or Amazon Prime Video.
A quick overview of where we are at today and the challenge ahead
The New York Times has a 2013 story on The Wild Horses’ Troubled Rescue that includes a good video on how we got to the present situation. And no, nothing has changed since 2013 – except there are more horses to either celebrate or remove.
Westerners Struggle to Manage Booming Wild Horse Populations (PEW) takes a pretty balanced look a few specific problems and some of the options.
A 2021 article from the Journal of Wildlife Management lays out issues (with links to many studies) and suggests that wildlife researchers and managers apply their expertise to questions around feral horse management.
Current happenings in horse country (and more)
Wild Horse Education is a lot more than a news site, but if you are looking for up-to-date information, highly-regarded journalist and wild horse advocate Laura Leigh’s Wild Horse Education is an excellent place to start.
Native Americans and wild horses
A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures began as an exhibit created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. I saw it in Washington DC in 2011 and the exhibit was amazing. While not nearly as powerful in the form of a rather clunky website, it provides a basic history of wild horses and the role they played in Native life and culture.
Do American wild horses have Spanish ancestors?
If you want to dive into this controversial topic, here’s a relatively easy to understand study that’s available online without a research subscription:
The Iberian Origins of New World Horse Breeds (2006) by Cristina Luis, Cristiane Bastos-Silveira, E. Gus Cothran, and Maris do Mar Om is a scientific paper that presents the results of their genetic research into the original of wild horses in the Americas.
There are gazillions of advocacy groups out there that claim to have the best interests of wild horses at heart. Some do and some don’t, just like some are actually doing things that make a difference and some are just talking for the sake of being heard. Here are a few national groups that seem to be on the right track and working hard to make a meaningful difference.
The American Wild Horse Campaign acts as an advocate for humane management of wild horses on public lands. They also have people in the field as fertility darters on the Virginia Range. Their website includes up-to-date information on government actions and policy regarding wild horses and burros in the American West.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation works to find homes for wild horses and burros through education programs that not only raise awareness, but also work with trainers and the public to ensure that horse adoptions work for both the horse and the new owner.
See more pictures of wild horses at CindyCarlsson.com