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Captured as the sun was setting over a ridge on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, these fighting stallions are part of a herd of 150 free-roaming mustangs and feral horses known locally as "wild horses." Located adjacent to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area 80 miles south of Billings, Mont., the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was established in 1968 as the first protected refuge for mustangs and only the second area for feral horses in the United States. The recreation area straddles the northern Wyoming and southern Montana border while the Pryor Mountains continue through the Crow Indian Reservation to the east and Custer National Forest to the west. A group of federal agencies led by the Bureau of Land Management administer the wild horse range, consisting of more than 38,000 acres of land. Most of the horses live on the eastern side of Pryor Mountain and are very accessible, while some stay on the desert lowlands of the range near Lovell, Wyo., along Highway 37. A low-range, four-wheel-drive vehicle and excellent tires are necessary to gain access to these horses.
With an average elevation of 8,700 feet, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is home to a variety of terrestrial environments, including alpine meadows, expansive high desert plains, mountain ridges and slopes. Rainfall can vary from an average of only five inches in the foothills to as much as 20 inches at higher elevations. Snowfall occurs from September through May, at an average rate of three feet a year, while summers are mild, with temperature averages at around 70 degrees.
A telephoto zoom lens is essential when photographing the mustangs. The telephoto lens gives me the ability to stay at the required distance of 100 feet from the horses to respect their space and privacy. My favorite is the Nikon 80-400mm with the vibration reduction feature. I carry a Tamrac backpack to hold extra equipment, water and snacks, as I may be in the field for up to 10 hours at a time. There are no accommodations on the range, so a warm sleeping bag and rainproof tent are essential for staying warm and dry. Thunderstorms are common, and temperatures may drop as low as the 40s at night. If the horses are active—fighting, running, playing, etc.—I'll use a fast shutter speed to capture the action. If they're inactive, I'll experiment with different apertures to blur the background and foreground. And, at other times, I'll strive to capture a scene of the mustangs in the beauty and vastness of the area using a smaller aperture for larger depth of field. In low-light situations or when using slower shutter speeds, I always use a tripod.
I typically shoot in the early morning and late afternoon for the light; however, sometimes a beautiful silhouette can be captured after the sun has set, especially if the horses can be caught on a ridge. It took me four years to finally capture the scene you see here. The middle of the day can be good for close-ups to capture intimate shots of the loving interaction between families, too. Roads on the range are impassable in wet weather and in the winter months, so June through September are generally the best months for visiting. July is typically a favorite time to visit. Wildflowers are in bloom in July, and the many different colors make a magnificent backdrop when photographing the mustangs.
Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Montana/Dakotas, (406) 896-5000, www.blm.gov/mt.
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