South Steens HMA

Certain HMAs, such as South Steens, hold a reputation.  With so many flashy horses, it’s a popular spot for many photographers that’s been on my wild horse bucket list for a while. This President’s Day weekend, I had a chance to make my first visit. Also a first, visiting a HMA in the winter.

As a Minnesotan, I was concerned. We had heard there was “above average snowpack”, but this was also the Pacific Northwest. I was hoping the snow would be minimal, but I had also heard mixed reports from other Western HMAs. Starting off at Palomino Butte HMA, we quickly discovered that although the amount of snow was manageable, there was too much water underneath.

Not sure what to expect, but needing to give our boots a chance to dry, we headed to South Steens HMA. We arrived to no snow on the ground, and the mud was manageable. Horse sign was more abundant, and it didn’t take us long to see our first horses.

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One of the amazing views in South Steens HMA

Our next few days at South Steens we would spend hiking. A portion of the road was closed, so it became a challenge to see how far we could get. As a pleasant surprise, we were able to see horses on every hike we went on. The conditions felt more like visiting a HMA is May, than winter, and South Steens had some stunning landscapes.

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There are a lot of opportunities to see landscapes in South Steens.

When we weren’t in the HMA, we were frantically trying to ID the horses we did see. As it turns out, since the horses we saw were backcountry horses, it left us with more questions than answers. Since we were unfamiliar with the range, we weren’t sure if we’d even seen the area referred to “Hollywood”. Noah and Liberty were referred to as “backcountry” horses, but they seemed at ease with our presence. Even the horses that responded to use seemed more surprised and curious, than wary.

Based on where we were seeing horses, it didn’t seem like we were in the backcountry, but it still made it harder to know for sure which horses we saw. Regardless, even when we weren’t seeing horses, we saw plenty of wildlife. Raptors, mountain bluebirds, mule deer, and scat from canines all dotted the landscape. It helped keep us motivated to keep looking.

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I’m intentionally only posting landscapes for this post. More about the mustangs will come later.

South Steens is truly one of the more unique herds I’ve ever visited. There’s a lot of photographers that visit, but I have yet to hear of an advocacy group specifically for them. I hope there is. The horses in OR are well-known. They are popular for adopters. There can be a feeling that they will be there forever.

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Obviously I had a hard time deciding which photo to include.

I don’t think the herds are going anywhere soon, but I also want to make sure the herds are being managed for the right reasons. it seems like a healthy herd now, now but my understanding is that South Steens is primarily managed for pintos. A few years ago, stallions were rounded up only to be released as geldings. Some would feel that this is an appropriate management tool, but when a stallions’ purpose is to reproduce, you’d be better off adopting them out.

Especially since the information about genetics isn’t known for all the horses, nor all the horses known, color is not an appropriate way to manage the herd. It’s not a great way to manage any herd, but especially in this instance it could risk ending genetic lines. It’s defiantly a herd I’m going to keep an eye on. No matter how well-known, I think it’s important for all herds to have their management decisions based on science.

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2 Comments »

  1. sp Said:

    Nice post! . Care to explain what do you mean with the term backcountry herd?
    Also i agree with you that colour should not be the determined factor for the population management, since genetics doesn’t work straightforward like that, for instance if the genetic pool shortens too much, then despite the horses having a prefered colour they might develop some other serious health issues. In any case i like the pictures!!!

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! That’s a good question. I’m still working on researching the herd, but my understanding is backcountry horses aren’t seen very often. They don’t see people often either, thus making them a little more wary. I think that might contribute to some confusion about genetic lines too. If I find more info, I’ll be sure to share it here.


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