The Wild Horses of the Yakama Nation

Thousands of acres, hundreds of horses.

Yesterday, I flew my helicopter back to the Wenatchee, WA area from some maintenance done in Hillsboro, OR. In a perfect world, the weather would be clear and the air calm and I could fly a direct route that would take about 90-100 minutes. But as we all know, the world is not perfect and, once again, I had to take a longer route, this time to skirt around the edge of some very nasty rain showers that stretched west/east from Mt. Saint Helens to route 97 and north/south from Mt. Rainier to the Columbia River.

A direct route, which I’ve done twice back in 2012 (see video), takes me between Mt. Saint Helens and Mount Adams. Yesterday’s route had me following the Columbia River from Vista House east of Troutdale to just past Hood River. From there, I headed northeast, right on the edge of the rain, keeping a sharp eye out for lightning that would indicate thunderstorm activity. Although I didn’t see any flashes, radar in Foreflight and my RadarUS app clearly showed some very dense cells off my left shoulder all the way and the rain was intense. The air I flew in was remarkably calm, though, and I only flew through rain as I followed the route of Route 97 northeast of Goldendale, where it goes through a pass. From there, I cut away from the road, aiming for Sunnyside. I modified my route to go around the south-east corner of the restricted area northeast of Yakima and fly home along the Columbia River from Mattawa.

Hillsboro to Wenatchee Route
Here’s a rough sketch of my route, drawn in Skyvector. The red box is a TFR for firefighting; oddly, the rainstorms were centered right over that box.

It was over the Yakama Nation (not a typo), between Route 97 and Route 12 that I saw the wild horses. I knew they were out there, of course. You can often see herds from Route 97 between Toppenish and Goldendale. But east of the road is where most of the horses seem to live.

The land forms there remind me of the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, long, flat, finger-like mesas stretching to the southwest, where the land drops off in a steep slope. The horse herds are dotted mostly along the mesa tops, although I did see a few herds in between. I flew over them, perhaps 300 feet up, and was close enough to clearly see the coloring of the horses I few near. Most herds seem to include a youngster or two who took off, running back to mama, when he/she heard me coming.

When I say there were herds of wild horses, I’m not talking about two or three herds. There were at least that many herds on each of the mesas I flew over. Each herd had 5 to 20 horses in it and I must have seen at least 20 herds. That’s hundreds of horses.

Wild Horses
I had my GoPro “nosecam” going while I flew. Here’s one of the shots captured along the way. The video clips show how some herds ignored me while others took off running at the sound of my approach. And no, unlike other pilots — a famous Phoenix area news pilot comes to mind — I don’t chase the horses with my helicopter.

Now some folks who see the horses along the road seem to think that they’re not wild. They confuse a new fence likely erected to keep open range cattle off the roadway with a fence to keep the horses on someone’s property. But having flown over the area, I can assure you that these horses are not fenced in. I flew for miles, covering thousands of acres of land, and didn’t see any homes or ranch buildings, no feeding stations, few two-track roads, and no additional fencing. These horses don’t belong to any one person. They’re wild.

Like the wild horses on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Or those along the Verde and Salt Rivers not far from Phoenix. Or the ones along the Gila River, west of Chandler, AZ. And in who knows how many other places?

Seeing things like this is one of the perks of being a helicopter pilot able to fly in some of this country’s remote areas. I’d love to do tours to show off the wild horse of the Yakama Nation. Unfortunately, like so much of the incredible scenery I get to fly over on long cross-country flights, it’s just too far away to be affordable to the typical Wenatchee sightseer.

8 thoughts on “The Wild Horses of the Yakama Nation

  1. Interesting that those feral bands you saw can get by on the hard-to-digest plants of the Mesa tops. I hear that the ranchers don’t much like the feral horses as they argue that they compete with their cattle for food. But those horses can survive on land where cattle would starve or die of thirst. Perhaps there are no cattle in those valleys?
    In the First World War the fine British cavalry horses and thoroughbreds could not cope with the harsh conditions on the battlefield. They lasted only days before going lame or being spooked by gunfire. So the Brits bought all the American and Canadian feral horses (Mustangs and quarter horses) they could get their hands on.

    The smaller, more nimble and far hardier US horses out-lasted any of our British stock. My personal opinion is that they are both more comfortable to ride and turn faster. They are strong, good stayers. Those ‘wild-living’ horses have their origins in the Spanish horses bought to Mexico. They were popular with the Comanche and the Nez Perce. Peoples you probably know from your stays further south?

    • I only saw a few head of cattle in that area, and they weren’t anywhere near the horses. What amazes me, however, is that there wasn’t a drop of water to be seen up there. I suspect they might migrate down into the valleys for water and that there’s a lot more edible grass up top that a 300-500 foot away glance might have you think.

      • Horses can range fast and free. They can face a longer ‘commute’ to water than slower cattle. I suppose there might be a few temporary ponds on the Mesa tops, but your photos make it look pretty arid up there.
        I came across an article by Jaymi Heimbuch called “Vanishing Mustangs”. She says that in NW Nevada the state has a policy of ‘removing’ all wild horses and burros.
        In the UK our wild ponies are illegally sold for as little as £10 a head. They are killed for their meat in Spain. There is a scam whereby the horse meat is then rebranded as ‘beef’ in Holland and returns to the UK as pizza topping. The Brits have a ‘thing’ about not eating horses.

        • We also have a thing about not eating horses.

          Arizona was actively rounding up wild burro herds — using helicopters, in fact — until they ran out of money. Now there are herds throughout the state. I’m pretty sure those herds got some new blood when the big economic crisis hit in 2008 and people who couldn’t afford to feed their horses let them go.

          Normally, when wild horses are rounded up, they’re put up for auction. Not sure how often that’s done anymore. I’m pretty disconnected from the horse crowd of the southwest these days.

          Yes, those mesas were dry. But there’s FINALLY some rain moving through Washington; I bet it will be studded with good sized puddles and ponds soon enough.

          • Just east of me, there has been a ongoing problem with feral burros.

            Unfortunately several burros and a few drivers have been killed by burros crossing the roads and being hit by cars.

            The other problem is encroaching home and business growth, and people feeding and watering the burrows which is discouraged.

            Not much can be done as of now as they are Federally protected.

            • Burros are a big draw in Oatman, AZ. Tourists are encouraged to feed them — which keeps them around, in the downtown area. Sometimes it’s tough for shopkeepers to keep them outdoors!

What do you think?