By Dan Greeson
Todd Savalox recounts the story behind the Thomas D. Mangelsen photograph "Legends of the Plains": "Tom was shooting into the sun as that band of horses had just stopped to wait for their turn at the watering hole, kicking up dust from trotting in. Tom said to me a lot of photographers don't like to shoot into the sun, but for him it can make for some of the most dramatic lighting." Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen
You can see them coming from miles away, a cloud of dust kicked up in the distance. As they get closer, the thunder of their hooves shakes the earth. They disappear behind a ridge, then reappear at the top a moment later, bands of horses each led by a stallion. These are the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin.
In 2019, Tom Mangelsen, Todd Savalox and Nadja Rider visited the basin, 50 miles west of Craig, to spend two days photographing these wild horses. Rider, an expert on the Sand Wash horses and a volunteer for the nonprofit Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin, led the expedition. Mangelsen, the legendary photographer who captured photos of Yellowstone’s grizzlies among thousands of his other well-known shots, employed the help of Savalox, who manages the Mangelsen Images of Nature gallery in Steamboat Springs. “Tom called me the week before, asked what’s been going on in Sand Wash Basin, and said he’s been thinking about those horses,” Savalox says. Within days, Savalox and Mangelsen had finalized plans for an expedition.
The high mountain desert climate of the Sand Wash Basin is extremely harsh. “It’s amazing that the horses can even survive out there given the conditions,” Savalox says. The hot, dry environment requires the horses to be much less active during the extremities of mid-day and watering hole visits in the morning and evening, so Mangelsen made sure to be ready for shooting at those times. This meant the trio had to get up before dawn to leave their home-base in Craig by 6 a.m., and return well after dark at 11 p.m. One day in the basin, the group’s car got a flat tire and they had to change it in the mid-day heat. “It was brutal,” Savalox chuckles.
The horses, being natural herd animals, move in “bands,” which vary in size from about 3-15 horses each. These bands stand separately on the ridge surrounding the watering hole, waiting until they get the go-ahead from the leader of the group – the band stallion – that it’s their turn to drink. “I didn’t have much affinity for horses until I went out there,” Savalox says, “but when you go out there, you see how family-oriented and loyal these horses are.”
The 250-square-mile Sand Wash Basin has a wild horse population of over 800, which the Bureau of Land Management considers overpopulated for a piece of land this size. “These horses over-populate very quickly if the population isn’t controlled,” Rider explains. Wild mares foal every year, and though these horses once roamed through Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, their range has shrunk drastically over the years due to human development. “Now they are restricted to smaller parcels of land, so managing the population on those smaller parcels is even more critical,” Rider says.
One way the public can help with the horse overpopulation is by adopting them but, “As we know, that is not an option for many,” Rider says.
The wild horses’ overpopulation leads to a high number of conflicts as mustangs brutally fight each other and protect their bands – sometimes sustaining wounds and broken bones in the process. “Anytime you have stallions close to each other, there are conflicts,” Rider says. “The other problem when you have overpopulation is you get groups of ‘bachelor’ stallions. They pick on the bands and roam in gangs trying to steal the mares.”
By far the most famous of the Sand Wash Basin horses is Picasso, an older, tri-colored wild pinto stallion. Picasso has garnered a fanbase due to his striking, highly recognizable coloring and his age – he is approximately 30 years old. Picasso’s fame has reached the point that Colorado news networks have traveled to the area specifically to report on him.
“It’s not just the horses but Sand Wash Basin as a whole that draws me out West,” Rider says. “The solitude of the basin, combined with the beauty of the wild horses, is simply good for my soul.”
Mangelsen got the shots he was looking for, and Savalox treasured the opportunity to shoot with the iconic photographer. “Being there, you get to see Tom in his element,” Savalox says. “You see Tom’s pics in the gallery, but you don’t understand the amount of time and effort he puts in, waiting in the elements: harsh weather, cold, wind, rain. He is a great storyteller, which is important when you’re waiting around all day together to get the perfect shot. He’s fun to be around, but when he sees a photographic opportunity, his mindset completely changes and he’s zoned in. Tom’s best images are when he has a picture in mind and wants to capture that – those are his most meaningful ones, too.”
As Colorado’s wild places become fewer and farther between, Tom Mangelsen’s photos capture and preserve this piece of the truly Wild West.