While the eagle might be our national symbol, the wild horse seems just as fitting. “It’s a very iconic American ideal. Wild horses represent freedom. There’s definitely a romantic vision,” says Darley Newman, host of the Emmy-award winning PBS series Equitrekking. Many of the herds descend from horses brought by early settlers, but are feral, having thrived on their own for centuries. Newman shares some favorites, both here and abroad, with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Waipi’o Valley, Hawaii
The 50th state typically conjures up visions of palm trees and hula dancers, but the Big Island’s Valley of the Kings is also home to a wild horse herd. “They just roam through the valley. They’re not huge, but they’re super hardy,” says Newman, who rode on horseback to get a glimpse. “It’s neat to see them in this tropical valley with waterfalls.” naalapastables.com
Some believe the wild mustangs in Wyoming are descendants from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And they certainly look the part, Newman says. “The horses are gorgeous, buckskin, palomino, strawberry roan.” Plus, the setting’s just as striking. “It’s almost desolate scenery. There are cliffs and canyons.” yellowstonecountry.org
Cumberland Island, Ga.
This national seashore doesn’t allow cars, so visitors must take a ferry to the island, and get around on foot or bicycle. Newman says it’s worth the effort. “It’s a unique wild setting. You’ve got old plantations and you can see horses grazing around the ruins.” The Park Service says some of the horses may date to Spanish missionaries, who settled the area in the late 1500s. nps.gov/cuis
Tonto National Forest, Ariz.
When Arizona’s last major wild horse herd was slated for round-up and removal several years ago, local advocates successfully rallied to their defense, and the effort has been suspended. Visitors can often see the animals at recreation sites near the Salt River, but must purchase a day-use pass to park and explore the sprawling forest, northeast of Phoenix. fs.usda.gov/tonto
Perhaps the nation’s most famous wild horses live on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Every summer for nearly a century, so-called Salt Water Cowboys from the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department round-up the ponies to swim them across a channel at low tide, a ritual made famous by the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. Many are auctioned off, and the rest are returned to the wild. If you can’t make the July 26 swim date this year, the horses can still be seen year-round. chincoteaguechamber.com
Virginia Range, Nev.
This wild herd just east of Reno is celebrated because their ancestors inspired Velma Johnston, known as Wild Horse Annie. She led efforts to create federal acts in 1959 and 1971 that called for the humane treatment of horses on federal lands. Newman took a guided tour to see them. “There’s something special about getting an insider’s point of view,” she says. renowildhorsetours.com
Perhaps it’s fitting wild horses now live along the route once used by the Pony Express, about 40 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The herd, thought to have descended from escaped ranch horses, dates back more than a century. Visitors can see pintos, roans, bays, sorrels and more. exploretooele.com
Gower Peninsula, Wales
Instead of picturing cowboys, visitors coming upon this herd are liable to think of King Arthur, who once roamed this dramatic, windswept region. “You can ride up from the beach and start venturing to the hills and find these wild ponies,” Newman says. “You’re in an area known for its myths and legends, and you’ve got these legendary horses running around as well.” visitswanseabay.com
Horses have roamed this region of Provence for more than 1,000 years, wowing visitors with their grace. “They’re big strong horses, white and beautiful,” Newman says. The animals live in wetlands and marshes not far from the Mediterranean. “You might see horses with pink flamingos nearby, which would be a wonderful photo.” us.france.fr
Sable Island, Canada
One of Canada’s newest national parks, a remote Atlantic island located more than 100 miles off the Nova Scotia coast, protects a wild horse herd that has lived there for more than 250 years. The hardy, pony-sized horses can be seen on beaches and marshes, sharing the island with grey seals and seabirds. Visitors, who arrive by charter boat and plane, must be prepared for weather delays, which can strand travelers for days. pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ns/sable/index