By Laurel Strohmeyer
Join us for our Arizona Wild Beauty…series, an intimate journey into the lives of an Arizona Wild Horse family. Photographer/videographer Laurel Strohmeyer has spent the past four years studying many of the bands of wild horses along our Arizona rivers, but one family in particular captured her heart and thus her natural curiosity for wildlife. Witness the ongoing stallion battles for territory, battles for mating rites, the wild horse family dynamic, social hierarchy, the roles each family member plays,. Through Laurel’s work you’ll learn to interpret subtle behaviors and maybe even fall in love with our Arizona Wild Beauties yourself.
Meet the Family – Watch Slide Show
Part One. First Encounter
For me, it started in 2012 when I went out to the river in search of bald eagles to photograph. I was a newcomer to the area. I couldn’t wait to get out with my camera and explore the wild side of Arizona. I had no idea that I would encounter something so powerful.
On my first trip down to one of our rivers, I happened upon a small family of wild horses. A big dark and powerful stallion (I now call him “Blaze”) was grazing at the water’s edge. The moment our eyes met, he began thrashing his head, spraying water droplets all around him, while stomping his hoof and splashing mud from the river bed, all the while glaring at me with an intensity I will never forget. His message was clear…”Back Off.” Moments later a foal emerged from behind the bushes along with two mares. I immediately retreated and went further down river to leave them alone and give them space to feel safe. That stallion was so intimidating; it wasn’t difficult to understand I wasn’t welcome.
A few hours later and about a half mile away, the dark stallion appeared again and positioned himself right in the middle of the pathway as if to block my access. I decided in that moment to try to silently communicate with him and ask him to move aside so that I might pass. The fierce look in his eye remained and set my heart pounding; it was just the two of us on a narrow trail in the woods. Further beyond, through the dense mesquite bosque, I spotted his family, safely tucked away. I closed my eyes, stilled my heart and silently asked him to move. To my surprise, he stepped aside with a grunt. I breathed an exhilarating sigh of relief and knew I was hooked!!
My extensive study of nearly five years and countless hours following this family has afforded me a look into their world and their life in the wild. I have experienced both their joy at the arrival of new foals and their devastating and profound sadness when a foal is lost. Over the years, they have come to accept my presence in the group allowing me to move somewhat freely among them. It was two years before this beautiful dark stallion, “Blaze,” decided to make physical contact with me.
He took me by surprise one day, when over the course of 20 minutes, he approached as I sat perfectly still, head lowered in submission, his breath on my ear, his nose nuzzling my hair. Two more years would pass before the mares (Ellie and Dakota) and the young fillies (Breeze and Stormy), finally all made contact on the same day. The entire group walked straight up to the camera and each took a turn touching the lens, touching my hands and feet while taking in my scent. I am sure I didn’t breathe for over a minute for fear I would spook them. I am eternally grateful for the time I have been able to spend studying them and documenting their lives. It is my hope to capture the essence of these beautiful creatures both through my photography and videography so that others may respectfully enjoy their incredible beauty along with me if not alongside me.
When asked I do not reveal their location because it is not in the spirit of honoring them. To send hordes of humans into their territory, where they feel safe would be a terrible betrayal to a very special relationship. This and many other of our wild horse families are not accustomed to humans and will flee at the sound of a human voice or the sight of a human approaching.
Our river systems are rife with wildlife and if you happen upon these or any other of our wild horse bands, please respect their space. Before taking another step in their direction, stop and assess the situation and try to follow these very basic rules:
1) First identify all of the family members. Understand which foals belong to which mares. Find the stallion, it won’t be difficult; he’ll be the one staring at you, standing erect with his ears forward. Notice their posture, are they erect and alert, or are the comfortably grazing.
2) Never, ever come between a mother and her foal.
3) Never, ever come between a stallion and his family. If the family is separated, they can easily become very frightened and very confused. The mares rely solely on their stallion for protection and rarely are they out of eyesight of him. They feel extremely vulnerable and distressed when they become separated. Sometimes so much so that they may run causing the foals to become separated from their mothers and putting them at risk.
4) Never, ever cause them distress. They don’t get to bed down at night in the safety of a barn. They don’t get handed a bucket of grain and a bale of hay at bed time. Instead, they have to fight for their family’s safety, fight to maintain their family territory and on any given night they must run from predators like mountain lion and packs of coyote in their own battle for survival. Wild horses do not sleep more than 20 minutes at a time. While one family member sleeps, the others gather round to offer protection. They must stay on the move all day and all night in order not to become predictable and thereby vulnerable. If you encounter them in the daylight hours peacefully grazing, respect that and let them be. We never know what they might have faced the night before or just how tired they might be. Without adequate rest during the daylight hours, they are vulnerable to attack in the evening. If the stallion is injured, the entire family is at risk.
5) Never approach or follow a band of wild horses. If they flee at your approach, then you have failed. Learn from it, and let them be. If they happen to flee toward the river at a section of it that is too deep for the babies to cross, one can easily drown. If they flee toward a road, well, you know that story.
6) Never intentionally cause them to spook or run for the sake of photography. Karma is a funny thing. They won’t forget you and they will never trust you. Wild equine photography is not an endeavor for the faint of heart; it requires extreme patience and slow and diligent perseverance.
7) If you love them, honor them by giving them adequate space to feel unthreatened in your presence.
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Laurel Strohmeyer’s Photo Website, https://laurelstrohmeyer.smugmug.com/ Visit Website