Hard to miss from the air.
Last weekend, while flying, I spotted three separate herds of wild horses.
The first was on Saturday, on my way back to Wickenburg from Sedona. We were almost all the way back to town when I decided to take a short detour to the Hassayampa River. There were about 8 horses out in the desert southeast of Stanton. I flew almost right over them before I spotted them.
I’d seen wild horses in the area only once before. I’d also seen them several times up in the Weaver Mountains just north of there, in the foothills that stretch down to Waggoner and Walnut Grove. There are a few ranches out there, but these horses were far beyond their fences and grazing areas. Once, I spotted a small herd at at my Weaver Cabins landing zone when I flew by low with a friend to point out the spot. When I land there, there’s occasionally horse manure in the area to prove their presence.
The second recent sighting was the following day, on my way from Wickenburg to Scottsdale to pick up passengers. Although I like to fly in the Lake Pleasant area on my way to Deer Valley or Scottsdale, when the meter is running (so to speak), I take a more direct route. I was just crossing Route 74 (Carefree Highway) when I spotted four horses standing close together near the fence that keeps cattle off the road. Again, this was in open range area, not the typical place for a rancher to keep horses. I’m pretty sure they were either wild or escaped.
Later, the same day, as I flew my passengers from Sedona to Scottsdale, we spotted a very large herd — perhaps 20 horses — on the flat mesas near Cordes Junction. For the life of me, I can’t remember if it was north or south of the town, but I know it was on the east side of I-17. That herd included a few youngsters. (This photo is from Wikipedia Commons. Although it shows a herd in Utah, it’s a good representation of the land around Cordes Junction: high desert grasslands.)
A few years back, one of the Phoenix TV helicopters had been up in the area and had spotted a large herd. The pilot had flown a bit low to get them running so they could get footage for the TV cameras. I watched in horror as the horses galloped toward the freeway. The pilot must have seen what could happen because he pulled away suddenly and the horses, no longer being chased, veered off. I wonder if that hotshot pilot still does asinine things like that.
When I was learning to fly in the Chandler, AZ area, my flight instructor took me out to the Gila River area on the Gila River Indian Reservation. The area is undeveloped with a stream of water running through it most of the year. There’s a large herd of wild horses out there and more often than not, we’d spot them from the air. But I’ve been through there a few times since they built the Wild Horse Pass Casino near there and I haven’t seen another horse. Perhaps they moved on to quieter pastures.
Of course, there are more wild burros (donkeys, asses — whatever you like to call them) in Arizona than horses. They mostly date back to the mining days, when miners used them to haul gear and ore. When the miners called it quits, they’d let their burros loose. Girl burros met boy burros out in the desert and made baby burros. The population boomed.
Nowadays, burros can be easily found near any major water source. The ones in the Lake Pleasant area are almost tame — I think people feed them. I’ve also seen and heard them around Alamo Lake and at aptly named Burro Creek, as well as alongside the Colorado River on the west side of the state. And everyone in Arizona knows (or should know) about the ones that make Oatman, AZ famous.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) periodically does burro roundups in various areas throughout Arizona. They use helicopters to find the animals and move them into fenced-in areas where they’re trapped. They they haul them off for auction or adoption.
Burros are supposed to make excellent companion animals for domesticated horses. One of my neighbors had a burro with her horses. Every time she went riding, the burro would follow along.
Wild or Escaped?
As for the horses, while I’m sure a lot of them are wild and have always been wild, I’m equally sure that some of them must be escaped. Every once in a while, I get a call from someone looking for lost horses and wanting to conduct a search from the air. While I have a kind heart, I can’t fly for free — especially if the search area is a 45-minute flight from my base. When the caller hears my rates, she usually changes her mind. And yes, the callers are almost always women.
Horses are funny. If one of them get loose, it might trot away long enough to get its owner panicking. But it will always either come back (if there are other horses there) or go to where it knows there are other horses.
My horses are a good example. They’ve gotten out, either alone or together, a few times. They always either hang out right by their own corral (that’s where the food goes, right?) or go over to my neighbor’s horses.
A few years back, we were out in the desert with a bunch of other horseback riders doing a moonlight ride. We were twenty miles from anywhere — halfway between Aguila and Vulture Mine Road south of Wickenburg. After the ride, we were hanging out in the parking area. All of our horses were tied to their trailers. Except Barb’s. She’d decided to use a piece of string to create a “corral” for her horse. A piece of string, unless it is electrified, is not going to stop a 1,000 pound animal from going where it wants to. Caleb the horse trotted right past the group of us on his way to freedom. The search, on horseback, lasted close to an hour under the light of a full moon. Then we all gave up and went home. Only my friends Steve and Janet remained behind, camping overnight with their horses. The next morning, they reported that Caleb had reappeared ten minutes after the last truck left.
Horses are herd animals. Caleb needed to be part of a herd.
Of course, if multiple horses get loose and they have a place to go, they’ll go for it. Especially if there’s grass out in the desert to graze on. I think the four horses I saw along Route 74 on Sunday were escapees. The area they were in was just too close to civilization for them to have wandered there from the wilderness.
There’s something about horses that fascinates people. Seeing them out in the wild really thrills my passengers. And even though I’m a horse owner, I admit that I like seeing them from the air, too. It makes me feel that there’s hope for the world’s wildlife, that urban sprawl and overdevelopment hasn’t yet reached every part of the world.
If you’d like to read more about wild horses and burros in Arizona and the west, try these articles: