Fear and Trust

Over the years I have spent a considerable amount of time around wild horse bands photographing them and observing them. I am by no means any kind of horse expert. I grew up riding and owning horses but not delving into their psychology or behavior puzzles. I love horses, their beauty, power and social structure are endlessly fascinating to me now and I know I am not alone in this interest. Horses have elicited that feeling in humans probably from the beginning of time.
One aspect of their behavior has proven both alarming but ultimately gratifying for me. That is when they switch from fearful animals exhibiting all the behaviors you would expect from prey animals to trusting, curious beings that want to get to know me better. This switch happens so quickly that I can imagine how our ancient ancestors made that mental leap to tame these beasts.
It happens a little differently each time depending on the band make up and the individuals in it. Bachelor bands have always been the most bold. These bands are made up of young stallions who have not formed their own family yet by stealing another stallions mares. They roam around together like most adolescent males looking for trouble, harassing each other, play fighting, making half- hearted attempts to challenge herd stallions they encounter and getting chased off. They are fun to watch.
They usually approach me slowly gathering courage from each other. I have to back away and sometimes shoo them off as I do not want them too close. I am very aware of how I could be hurt or my equipment damaged. I have the lessons and yes, scars, from encounters with domestic horses to temper any sentimentality I may feel. I never forget these are wild animals.
Herd stallions protecting his band of mares and offspring need special care. They can be aggressive and you must be on your guard. I watch his body language carefully and gauge my movements based on his reactions. The horses I usually photograph have seen a lot of people so there is not too much to be worried about.
I visit a stretch of the river that the Nature Conservancy has set aside a lot, and recently a small band of wild horses has taken to frequenting this area. It consists of a flaxen chestnut stallion I am going to call Arod. I don’t usually name the horses I encounter but a friend suggested that name from the Lord of the Rings after seeing photos of him. There are three mares, one is a seal brown, I have named Broken Star for the star on her forehead that is broken in two, and two bay mares without any distinguishing marks. There are two young horses with the band. A colt that looks just like his dad and a bay with a big white star on his or her face. Arod’s Son seems an apt name for the colt. He is devoted to the stallion. He follows him everywhere and copies his behavior. They seem to have a close bond.
Anyway, I took photos of this band on Thanksgiving and I ran into them again yesterday in more open terrain. The stallion was alarmed to see me. I think the camo I wear confuses them and adds to their wary behavior. He charged out of the group toward me in a wide arch coming at me from an angle. I took a few photos and decided to back off and continue on my way.
After a fruitless search for deer I decided to take pictures of the horses on the hike out. I approached carefully making a wide angle around them and sat down on a fallen tree to set up to take pictures. Arod and son came charging out together followed more slowly by Broken Star. At first the body language is highly alert and aggressive and I am on notice as well prepared to do what I need to do to fend him off if need be. Waving my arms and shouting have always been enough in these situations in the past. He eventually slows down and stands off in the distance for awhile. Broken Star joins him and the colt. Arod moves ever closer to me now with a different attitude. The wide eyed, whites showing look is gone. He holds his body and head differently. He seems to want to interact with me up close and personal. He keeps walking in so close that at times my long lens is rendered useless. I wave my arms gently and speak to him and the others in low tones telling them that they are close enough. I can’t risk them getting into my space. They seem to understand that. I have had this happen countless times.
They then relaxed into a family grooming session that illustrates how very relaxed they had become. This sequence of events never fails to amaze and please me. They seem to know they can trust me.

17 thoughts on “Fear and Trust

  1. Great images. I used to go and visit the herds of wild Konik horses at the Oostvaardersplassen (Netherlands) pretty often – you’re right, better show respect and keep your distance as they will protect young. Mostly the just walked off though…

  2. Great how you can get so close to them. I guess with sufficient time and exposure the familiarity will happen. Saw some bachelor stallions in action last June and I had a wonderful time watching them.

    1. Thanks Lori. The answer to your question can be controversial. Most of the wild horses of the west are not true mustangs. Most are ranch horses gone wild, horses not needed anymore turned loose. Some a long time ago, some more recently. It is a mixed bag. A few herds like the Kigers in Oregon and some other places can still trace their heritage to the Spanish Mustang but not that many now.

  3. I always enjoy your excellent pictures of the wild horses you encounter. However, it is your stories, gosh, what great stories, that always set the mood and keep me spell bound. Thanks

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