Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Wild Horses of the Salt River

It may surprise even the most nature-oriented local to Arizona but there are wild mustangs on the Lower Salt and Lower Verde Rivers. Seriously. In fact there are close to 100 wild mustangs that roam the Tonto National Forest, an area about the size of the state of Connecticut and five times the size of Rhode Island. Arizona’s major water supplies are limited to dam-controlled rivers, two of which hydrate our wild herds year-round. The Lower Salt and Lower Verde Rivers rarely run dry and collect these scattered majestic equine in certain areas, making them easy to spot if you know where to look.

Wild mustang herds and their young foals are often spotted on Desert Voyagers’ raft and Funyak tours. The river provides an ideal destination for the horses with cool, clear waters to drink and bathe in, fresh shoots of cattail to graze on and peace and quiet away from the rush and rumble of state highways like the Beeline and Bush Highway.

Arizona’s historic and wild western past brought about the beauty and majesty of these horses. In the 19th century settlers, ranchers, miners, cavalry, conquistadores, Native Americans and other explorers of the harsh desert used horses for all transportation. Getting caught out on the open desert floor without a horse meant certain death. The sweltering heat could reach 120 degrees in the shade and the circling vultures only added to the hopelessness many a man must have felt before they retired themselves permanently to the ground with the scorpions and rattlesnakes. A horse was a lifeboat in a land with no ocean.

As you might imagine, horses used for transport or for cargo sometimes ran off, were set loose or somehow found themselves away from a pen and alone in the wild. With no natural predators (coyotes and mountain lions aren’t pack animals like wolves or lions, and even a very large and very desperate mountain lion would think twice before trying to take down a full-sized mustang) and an ample supply of year-round green vegetation and water from the rivers, these horses sought each other out and created herds of 10 to 20 horses each. These herds often have one dominant stallion with several mares that produce the offspring. Male offspring will often come of age and split off from the main herd to form his own family with him as the dominant stallion. Due to this constant supply of mating partners and Arizona’s temperate climate and gentle winters, very young foals are seen year-round, sticking close to their moms and learning the ways of life in the desert.

Protected by the Tonto National Forest and treasured by those who know how to find them, these wild mustangs of the Lower Salt and Lower Verde Rivers will be beautiful wild attractions for years to come. They remind us of a not-so-distant past where Arizona was run by the rough and tumble group of settlers that made calling the Sonoran Desert home possible for us today. As a herd of mustangs crosses the river, the riverside observer can hear the call of the great blue heron, listen for the sound of river otters playing nearby, and watch a blazing orange sun set behind towering saguaros.

Written by: Megan Evans
Visit desertvoyagers.com for more information

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