A Horse is a Horse (Of Course, Of Course)

I have mentioned in past posts — whined, even — that while most people have been successfully seeing the wild horses that live in the Tonto Forest near Saguaro Lake Recreation Area north of us, the horses have remained elusive to Bill and me. It was particularly frustrating this year, because the rain and chilly winter has resulted in the horses being particularly healthy and active. We would hear about literally herds of horses putting on a show for the masses. But not for us.

Until last Thursday.

Because on that glorious day, our friends Randy and Denise (we call them the horse whisperers because of their ability to charm the horses into visiting them) took us horse hunting. And the hunt, my friends, paid off in spades…..

At long last, we saw the wild horses.

According to the Salt River Wild Horses Management Group, these horses have been hanging around the area now designated as Tonto National Forest for centuries. One theory is that in the late 1600s, a Catholic priest — Father Kino — was developing missions and stockyards around Arizona, and left horses in his wake. These horses eventually became wild, relying on their own senses to find food. At their peak, there may have been as many as 500 wild horses or more, grazing alongside the bison.

In its own inimitable style, the United States government, at the behest of farmers and ranchers, actively began eliminating the horses. The Forest Service organized shoot-outs to help with controlling the numbers. Fun times.

Now, according to a volunteer with whom we spoke on Thursday, there are guesstimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 to 150 horses. One of their biggest challenges is keeping the interested tourists from feeding the horses. In order to maintain their “wild” status, the horses have to be completely self-reliant. The volunteer recently stopped a family from feeding the horses the watermelon that they had brought with them for that purpose.

The reason the horses are so accessible to interested visitors, by the way, is that they graze on one side of the Beeline Highway, but find water on the other. So nearly every evening around sunset, you have a good chance of seeing horses crossing the highway at spots where there is a V in the fence so they have easy access.

The horses were everything I had hoped for. I was afraid this hunt was going to be unsuccessful because we drove up to the lake midafternoon. When there was not a horse to be seen, I got somewhat despondent.

“Never fear,” Randy told me. “We’ll find them after beer.” He consoled me with that statement so often that we began to refer to BB (before beer) and AB (after beer).

The Saguaro Lake marina has a boat dock that features gift items and, well, beer. The four of us enjoyed a cold one while we waited for the sun to make its way across the sky towards sunset…..

While we waited, we laughed at the birds that awaited some morsels of food. They were so confident that we figured their patience must often pay off. Denise and I thought they looked like a choir, and she began calling them the Do Re Mi choir…..

It finally became AB time, and off we went on the hunt. It didn’t take long before we spotted the cars along the side of the road, the universal sign for there’s a wild animal in the area. We got out of the car just as the people began leaving. The horses were there, but they’ve gone back into the trees, a woman told us. I was dismayed, but Denise and Randy remained confident.

For good reason, because it was only minutes later when we began to see the horses emerge from the trees once again. At first we saw only a couple of tails, but soon, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 horses made their appearance. I asked Denise to stand by me to document this historical moment. See the horses in the background?…..

We had a wonderful day, one I won’t soon forget. The wild horses, my friends, are not akin to the jackalope as I had begun to suspect. They are real, and they are beautiful….

Close, But No Cigar

We owned our AZ house a good five or six years before I ever learned that a herd (or maybe herds?) of wild horses romped and grazed and procreated a mere 15 miles from our back yard. And since learning about the existence of these wild horses, I have wanted to see them for myself.

With this in mind, yesterday morning I asked Bill if he had any interest in driving the 15 miles or so to the area near Saguaro Lake where the wild horses reside. It will require a bit of a hike, I warned him. He found that fact not the least bit daunting, and we set off on our adventure. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that we would spot the wild animals because everyone who had talked to me about them had seen them. We knew exactly where to go.

The area where the horses live is a straight shot north of us, where the Salt River meets the Verde River. When we drive between Denver and our AZ home, we get on back highways that not only are quicker, but are amazingly beautiful. When heading to Mesa from Denver, just outside Payson, AZ, we take Hwy 87 – the Beeline Highway – until we exit on to the Bush Highway which takes us through the gorgeous Tonto National Forest, home to Saguaro Lake and the wild horses.

We parked at the base of the trail and set off in search of the horses…..

The Salt River is where the herds come to refresh themselves, and the tourists come to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

The scenery was stunning, and we saw amazing birdlife almost immediately. An egret was not the least bit disturbed by our company…..

After 25 years of marriage, you think it wouldn’t surprise me that hiking with Bill McLain and hunting for wild horses was like setting off with Lewis and Clark. He led the way, and would stop occasionally to study the footprints.

“You can see they were here because this is clearly a hoof print,” he said. And it was. I missed it for the simple reason that I was looking for horseshoe-clad prints.  Wild horses = no horseshoes. I am neither Lewis nor Clark. Hey! Mom wouldn’t let me join Girl Scouts, so haters, don’t hate.

He stopped again to point out the existence of fresh horse dung…..

It was true that we walked through more horse dung than is collected during the entire National Western Stock Show, but much of it was old and dried. Fresh dung = horses nearby.

Except they weren’t. We saw a lot of birds, many different kinds of cacti, a hole in the wall that looked to be a cave (though I wouldn’t let Bill get any nearer than this)…..

…..egrets, enormous bumblebees, and picnic tables buried under sand from a long-ago haboob…..

….. but unfortunately, no wild horses.

As far as I was concerned, the day wasn’t a waste of time because we spent the morning enjoying the desert scenery in an area we hadn’t explored.

As far as Bill was concerned, the day wasn’t a waste of time because, while we didn’t see a single horse, we did see a naked sunbather.

In case you’re wondering, here is what the horses look like, from a photo taken by someone named Brian Curtice, who apparently DID actually see the horses……

We will try again, with better luck we hope.