Salt River Wild Horse Spring 2021 Update

By Sara Goodnick

Finding the Wild Horses in the Warmer Months

The popular Salt River Wild Horses had a very difficult time last summer due to the extreme heat and a couple of nearby large wildfires. However, because they have a unique symbiotic relationship with the eelgrass that grows in the Salt River, they managed to stay well fed until this past autumn.

The area I am describing is the Salt River as it flows downstream from Stewart Mountain Dam. The water behind the dam created a string of lakes. Beginning at Roosevelt Lake, ENE of Phoenix, then Apache Lake, Canyon Lake, and ending with Saguaro Lake, the dams were created for hydroelectric power by the Salt River Project (SRP).

SRP controls the flow of the Salt River, which affects the behavior of the horses. Between the months of May and November, the river flow is much deeper and stronger than during the winter months. Water releases from the dam can vary the depth and flow daily, but there is enough eelgrass then for the horses to feast and cool off in the water. It benefits the river in that the eelgrass doesn’t grow out of control and choke the river. I have had horses for most of my life and have never heard of them eating eelgrass, nor has anyone I know, but these horses grow sleek and fat on it.

You can often find them in the river on hot summer mornings and sometimes all day in various spots between Stewart Mountain Dam and the Granite Reef Diversion Dam at the other end, several miles downriver. There are several spots for parking and easily getting to the river, and most of them require either a Tonto Forest Pass or an America the Beautiful Annual pass, or a Lifetime Interagency Pass.

Safety first! The river is extremely popular for rafting, kayaking, and fishing. Because of this, the horses are accustomed to people, and seem tame. But remember, they are not tame and they can become dangerous if you approach them. The youngsters are curious like any young creature and might approach you. Please do not encourage them, and definitely do not try to offer food to them. Horses can kill people with blows from their front or hind feet, as well as with their strong teeth. A young horse might strike at you with his front feet or try to bite as an invitation to play. You do not want to do that, I promise. A horse, being a prey animal, can go from stationary to 30 mph in one second. Can you?

The best lens to use is a telephoto with a range of 80-400mm. You will want to stay at least 50 feet away from them. Use of a wide angle will tend to distort them if used up close but can help place them in their environment or be used for an exaggerated effect. Shutter speeds of 1200-2000 fps work well. Tripods are not needed, but some people like a monopod. It can double as a hiking stick, too. Patience and observing their behavior will help you predict if there is going to be any action. Most of the time, they eat. And eat some more. Then a lead mare will start moving and the rest will follow. The young stallions play fight, and the older ones defend their mares from other stallions who try to steal them.

Wear good hiking shoes, long pants, and a soft brimmed hat, and be aware that rattlesnakes are in the area. Everything out there can sting, stick, or bite you; that’s our desert wisdom.

Get your camera gear, put on some proper desert hiking clothes, grab plenty of water, and see if you can find them. I’ve also floated past them at various times while kayaking but capturing a good photograph of them while paddling along has been above my ability level so far. Maybe I’ll get a small waterproof camera just for that.

For more details on getting there, search for my other blog post, “Salt River Wild Horse Update Spring 2020”.

Sara Goodnick is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.