I've visited the Onaqui HMA, near Dugway, Utah, twice now. The first time was in June of 2016. It was such a successful wild horse photography outing that I wanted to go back almost immediately. I was finally able to make that second trip happen in January of 2017. Unfortunately, the second trip was akin to what I'd call a bona fide disaster. It makes for a good story though so here goes.
On an HMA like Onaqui, where there are limited water sources, the various bands of horses clump together in large herds. Because there are two main water sources at Onaqui, there are two large herds of horses. Each herd tends to congregate near one of the two watering holes. While I didn't make a head count, both herds had at least a hundred horses. Imagine that each of these herds of a hundred horses is made up of about 10 bands. Each band has its own stallion. Each stallion has his own harem of mares. Beyond that there are the satellite, bachelor or "retired" stallions. Those stallions all want their own mares too. They don't have any because they are still too inexperienced to get any or they've become too old and weak to keep them. That's a lot of mares and a lot of stallions so things get crazy at Onaqui.
In June, it's mating season so picture this: A dozen established band stallions spend their days battling it out over their mares, who are in heat (if they aren't already pregnant). The upstart bachelor stallions make additional trouble as they too try to steal mares from the established band stallions. The established band stallions go ballistic teaching the upstart bachelors firm lessons about stealing mares. Repeat these stallion dramas in an endless loop but add in the delightful antics of the young colts and yearlings who are trying to learn how to be stallions too. And then, because it's springtime in the desert, add in the ooey-gooeyness of fuzzy, newborn foals.
If you can imagine all that, it's wild horse, picture-making heaven. Fighting stallions, playful yearlings and protective mommas with newborn babies all set against a golden-hued, desert landscape, rimmed in mountains and blue sky. Sign me UP!
I tried to get back to Onaqui ASAP but you know, July is a holiday month and I prefer to spend that holiday right here at home. August, September and October are big work-travel months for me so they were out. At the end of October I went back to the Salt River in Arizona. In November I went to Cumberland Island in Georgia. December is another holiday month. I finally made it back to Onaqui for a few days in January, after my trip to Ely, Nevada. You can imagine that my expectations of Onaqui were sky-high. After having seen hundreds of horses there in June, all within easy sight of the roads and never more than a 1/4 mile trek from the roadside to a close-but-safe shooting location, I was envisioning masses of huddled horses, dusted with snow, whickering gentle wild horse greetings... That was pure fantasy. We saw one horse. ONE.
Even getting to Onaqui was an issue. We got up at dawn and dressed in multiple layers of softshell, down, polar fleece, goretex and thinsulate so that we would be warm enough to spend the whole day outside in 15 degree fahrenheit temps. We packed our camera gear, snacks, water and coffee, gassed up the car and headed off to Dugway. Dugway is the easiest entry point to the HMA from Tooele, where we were staying. There are a few ways to Dugway from Tooele but the first route we tried - the shortest one - was blocked by a freight train that was FROZEN to the train tracks. This, you might casually mention to me if we were chatting in-real-life over coffee, would have been the sign to you to call off this day trip. And you're right. But I'd been trying to get back to Onaqui for SIX MONTHS so you know, we kept driving. We took UT-36 North all the way back to, and past Tooele, and hopped on I-80 West, finally exiting for Dugway at UT-196 South. It was a long (oh-so-long) drive just to reach the HMA.
Even back in June, once we finally reached the HMA, it was probably 45 minutes before we spotted the first herd of horses. Normally we'd see a few pronghorn and then, once we turned onto Simpson Springs Road, the magic would happen, and the wild horses would appear. If you're an urbanite (like I am), when I say "road" you might be picturing paved asphalt. Maybe even plowed, salted, paved asphalt. My fellow city kids, you can go ahead and erase that picture from your head right now. These are gravel and dirt roads. Not always graded all that smoothly. Not plowed. Not salted. Not, if I'm honest, all that very safe.
Knowing that winter wild horse photography required a 4WD vehicle, we had rented an Explorer, which is what I drive at home. I felt pretty comfortable behind the wheel but I never broke 20 miles per hour while we were driving through that HMA this January. First, it's important to be safe and not get stuck in such a remote place but second, we were searching for those elusive wild horses. The snow was so thick that it hid the topography we remembered from June. We drove slowly to give our instincts about the land a chance to kick in. I think we knew almost immediately that the horses weren't going to be easy to find. The usual signs - stud piles of manure and hoof prints - were nowhere to be found. As we drove along, it was just a clean slate of snow, snow, more snow and mountains. After an hour of driving we saw that one lone horse. He was far, far away from the road. Here he is. Do you see him out there?
To see more images from Onaqui, click here.
We drove deeper into the HMA to find more horses and I think it was at this point that I said when we had half a tank of guess left - no matter what - we had to turn around and head back out. Forty minutes later, we found what would have been wild horse mecca if we'd only had a little bit of magic on our side. There were thousands of hoof prints in the snow, on both sides of the road. We finally knew where the horses were wintering. We guessed that they were currently in the hills above us and probably came down into the valley once or twice a day but, in 15 degree weather, we couldn't chance waiting for them to come back down. We started back to Tooele and spent the rest of the day photographing the salt flats off of I-80.
It was a sad, disappointing day but not unexpected. Wildlife - wild horses! - don't always make things easy for us and that's part of the thrill of photographing them. Here are a few of my recommendations on visiting the Onaqui HMA. I'd recommend that you go in warm weather months and if you do, let me know how it goes.
Tips on photographing the onaqui hma wild horses
- If you're flying, fly into Salt Lake City, Utah.
- Rent a 4WD vehicle. You'll need it whether it's summer or winter. Note that rental car companies won't guarantee you 4WD so even if you have a contract with one rental company, be prepared to check in with the other rental car companies at the airport until you locate a 4WD vehicle.
- Stay in Tooele. I suggest the Hampton Inn.
- Head to the local grocery or superstore to pick up a cooler, ice, lots of water, lunch fixings, snacks and a few picnic chairs.
- Dugway is over an hour from Tooele so get up early and head out there. It's a LOT of driving to go back and forth so I highly recommend that you don't waste the time and gas driving back and forth twice a day. Instead, plan ahead to stay on the range. In the morning, shoot till the light gets harsh. When it does, set up your chairs in the shade of your car, have a good, hearty lunch, pull your hat over your eyes and snooze. When the light starts to soften, start shooting again.
- There are a few outhouses in the HMA but they won't always be nearby when you have to go. I'd suggest carrying TP and some plastic bags with you so that you can just do your business behind your car, then collect the paper (and solids, ew gross!) in the plastic bag. Hand sanitizer or wipes are a good idea. Make sure to properly discard your garbage bag every night when you return to your hotel.
- Safety is paramount in the HMA, both for you and the horses. Use common sense and be respectful. In your heart, you already know how close is too close so trust your instincts and stay back. Fighting stallions require an even wider berth and so do mommas with new babies. Watch that you don't get surrounded by curious horses while you shoot. It may seem delightful that they are approaching you so closely but you need to be aware of the unpredictability of wild things. If the horses get too close, move away. Last, there are other critters on the HMA too. Snakes come to mind since I almost stepped on one last June. Rodents too, and while they won't hurt you, twisting your ankle in one of their burrows will. Watch where you step.
- Gear recommendations: These horses are some of the closest wild ones you'll ever get to shoot but you still need a long lens. I'd suggest something like the Canon 100-400. A 70-200 or 70-300 (with or without an extender) would work too. If you're a two-camera shooter, bring both so that you can easily shoot close up, intimate behaviors as well as interactions that are happening a field away. A tripod will probably be a burden - the action at this HMA is just too fast - but a monopod and gimbal head would be just the thing to help support heavy gear.
- Good luck out there, shoot me a message to let me know how it goes or if you have any additional tips for shooting in Onaqui.
- My Return trip to the Salt River in Arizona.
- The Wild Horses of Cumberland Island, Georgia.
- The Wildlife of Antelope Island State Park, Utah.
- The Wild Horses of Ely, Nevada.