Where to see wild horses in the USA (and why some may be in danger)

(Last Updated On: January 28, 2023)

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.

photo of a wild bay-colored horse in the desert near the Salt River in Arizona © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation.net

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.

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.

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.

Link to map of the best and easiest places to see wild horses in the USA © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation.net

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.)

photo of wild horses in the Salt River near Phoenix Arizona © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation

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.

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.

photo of a band of wild horses crossing a road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation

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.

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.

Maryland/Virginia: Assateague

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.”)

photo of a herd of Chincoteague ponies grazing on Assateague Island on the US East Coast © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation

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!

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.

photo of Vieques wild horses in a meadow in Puerto Rico © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation.net

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.

See more pictures of wild horses at CindyCarlsson.com

picture of horses with text "Where can I see wild horses in the USA - ExplorationVacation"


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