Home on the Range: A Guide for Viewing Wild Horses and Burros

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Mary Koncel, AWHC

We all agree – our wild horses and burros are magnificent animals.  Seeing and experiencing them in their natural habitat, whether it’s the valleys, canyons, and steep ridges of northern Nevada or the rolling hills and slopes of central Wyoming, is truly the opportunity of a lifetime.

But with this opportunity comes a responsibility – to minimize our impact on these animals.  As a sign at the BLM Salt Lake Field Office in Utah explains to guests entering the Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area (HMA), "Please help ensure the future of America’s wild horse herds...The special character of wild horses can be changed by too frequent and close contact with humans. Help us keep them wild...”

If you’re planning on visiting any of the BLM’s 177 HMAs to view these national treasures, please follow these simple guidelines. They’ll not only make for a memorable trip but also keep everyone safe – including the wild horses and burros.

• Check in with the BLM field office that oversees the HMA that you’re visiting for maps, road conditions, and other information.  Staff can also help you locate where the herds may be found.

• Every HMA has its own set of rules, but generally the BLM requires that you stay at least 100 feet away from the horses and burros.  Some HMAs may require to you maintain even greater distances.  Be sure to ask. 

• Don’t harass the horses or alter their behaviors by, for example, chasing them to make them run or clucking to get their heads up for a photo.  Think slow movements and soft voices.  By being sensitive to their presence, you’ll see more of them in their natural state. 

• Never feed or try to pet the horses.  Human food – and domestic horse treats – can make them extremely sick.  Regular handouts can also cause them to lose their fear of people, causing them to become a “nuisance animal” and endangering them.  Equally important, feeding or touching wild horses is unsafe.  They are big and unpredictable.

• Stay on designated roads and trails. Forage for wild horses and burros is precious and limited.  You don’t want to destroy what food they have out there by driving across it or trampling it down with foot traffic.

• Turn off your vehicle when you stop to watch the horses.  You’ll not only prevent a fire if the grasslands are dry but also reduce the release of harmful emissions into the air.

• Practice waterhole etiquette.  Sometimes wild horses and burros have only one chance a day to drink, and you don’t want to interfere with that.  Never park near waterholes and limit your time by them.  Also, keep your distance – remember at least 100 feet!

• Horses and burros always have the right of way.  If they come close to you, move away.  And you don’t want to obstruct their passage to water holes.

• Always be aware of where the horses are and in what direction they’re going.  Wild horses move fast – particularly if they’re startled.  You don’t want to get in their way.  Important too – never get between a stallion and his mares, or a mare and her foal.

• Young horses and burros can be very curious.  No matter how cute, don’t encourage them to approach you.  If they begin to come near you, walk away and don’t engage with them.  And photographers – never leave tripods, chairs, or other equipment unattended. Foals can easily get tangled up in them.

• If wild horses approach your vehicle, roll up the windows and wait for them to move along.  Also, if you leave your vehicle, close those windows.  Some horses have been known to stick their heads into vehicles. 

• Keep dogs leashed.  Better yet, don’t bring them.  Wild horses and burros are afraid of dogs.  HMAs are their homes and therefore no place for our canine companions.  Also, locking dogs in a car isn’t fun for them and puts them at risk during the hot summer months. 

• Please don’t fly drones on HMAs.  They can frighten the horses and cause them to stampede, perhaps causing foals to get trampled. 

• Leave no trace of yourself.  Carry out any food, papers, and other trash.  HMAs are valued lands, and it’s important to keep them pristine and undisturbed – for our wild herds and other visitors.

From her many years on the range, Kimerlee Curyl, wild horse photographer and advocate, shares this sage advice: “In certain areas, the horses, especially youngsters, are curious and get accustomed to visitors – the gift is being there, honor that, be respectful. You don't need a photograph or selfie with a wild horse.  It's not worth endangering them.  It’s our responsibility to protect them and keep them wild.” 

Enjoy your time with these living legends and symbols of our Western heritage on our public lands.  Share the word about their grace, beauty, power, and spirit.  Most important, think of yourself as a “special guest” of wild horses and burros and do your part not to intrude on them or their habitat by being mindful of these guidelines.