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Salt River Wild Horses: Arizona's Beloved Icons of the Old West

Mike and Dorothy are avid birders and nature lovers. Dorothy is a former newspaper reporter who has written several nature-related books.


Wild Horses Are Considered National Treasures

The wild horses in the area of the lower Salt River in Arizona are considered by the people of that state, and much of the rest of the United States, to be nothing short of national, historic treasures. They are adamant about keeping these horses, who have been free to roam in the Tonto National Forest, safe from harassment, harm, or annihilation.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey made it possible for those people to breathe a collective sigh of relief when he signed legislation in 2016 that would prevent their removal after the public outcry over a July 31, 2015 notice was posted by the United States Forest Service stating that the horses would be impounded and removed. Plans were to use riders and helicopters to round up the horses, which would then be sold at public auction. Many were expected to end up in slaughterhouses.

With only seven days until the planned roundup, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group of volunteers had to work quickly. They alerted both the public and the press to what looked like a certain fate of doom for the cherished horses. They held rallies, lobbied legislators, filed a lawsuit, and negotiated with the Forest Service, along with the American Wild Horse Campaign, their coalition partner.

The public, as expected, became vocal and outraged and turned into the protective voices for the iconic horses, resulting in a 120-day temporary delay of the roundup. In December 2015, the continued pressure caused the Forest Service to completely rescind the impound notice, and as of this date, the wild horses are alive and thriving, just as they have for centuries.


Where to View the Wild Horses of the Salt River

Visitors to the Salt River area in the Tonto National Forest can usually find the animals at the following recreation sites:

  • Butcher Jones Recreation Site
  • Granite Reef
  • Phon D Sutton Recreation Area
  • Coon Bluff
  • Blue Point
  • Pebble Beach Recreation Area
  • Saguaro Lake

If you want to explore the entire forest, you will need a day-use pass.

What Exactly Is a Wild Horse?

These horses are untamed and they live on their own, but the word that the Forest Service chooses to most accurately describe most of the 30,000+ wild horses in the United States is "feral." T

o be considered wild (and protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971) they would have to be descendants of the millions of wild horses that originally roamed the country, but the service contends instead that the wild horses today are descendants of once-domesticated animals, and debates have raged for years on what to do about them.


The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group

The end goal of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (located in Scottsdale, Arizona) is to prevent the annihilation and ensure humane management of the beloved herd of horses that occupy the lower Salt River area. They are doing so daily by keeping records on each horse including their migrating patterns, birth rates, death rates, and herd dynamics. Each day, however, the volunteers must remove bags of garbage and buckets of nails as well as downed barbed wire in order to keep the herd safe (as well as the public who love to view and photograph them).

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The members actively conduct scientific research by closely studying the horses, as well as their natural habitat; and work tirelessly to identify safety hazards of the area. They work with local, state, and federal agencies trying to find cost-effective solutions to any problems or shortcomings they run across in regard to maintaining the safety of the herd.

Another purpose of the non-profit organization is to educate people on the safety of wild horses, as well as the safety of people when they are around the horses, and they welcome participation by anyone who has an interest in those same goals. You can send e-mails with questions or comments to

Wild Horse Freedom Federation has this emblem on their website.

Wild Horse Freedom Federation has this emblem on their website.

Wild Horse Volunteer Groups

There are many volunteer groups across the United States devoted to the preservation of the wild horses, and I urge you to click on the links below to visit their websites and learn about the great work they have been doing to preserve the icons of the Old West. Some of them include:


USDA Forest Service

The ultimate responsibility for managing the nation's wild horses and burros on National Forest System lands falls upon the United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. Currently, they administer 34 active territories, which include herds in Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.

Some of those territories, but not all, are jointly managed in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for 26.9 million acres of public lands. The main concern has been the environmental degradation of the land caused by the increasing population of free-roaming horses.

Other Places to See Wild Horses in the United States

There are over 30,000 wild horses in the United States alone. This is a list of some of the places where they can be viewed.

All of the photographs within this article were taken by Kelly Lemen, who lives near the Salt River area, and we appreciate her willingness to share these great images.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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