Salt River Wild Horses – Mesa, Arizona - Atlas Obscura

Salt River Wild Horses

These free-roaming horses were once destined to disappear from the land. 


Wild horses running freely beneath a great, open sky is an iconic symbol of the American West, though seeing the powerful animals in person isn’t always a guarantee. Catching a glimpse of these particular horses feels like an extra special treat, as they were once destined to disappear from the land.

The hundreds of horses that live within the Tonto National Forest and roam along the banks of the Salt River are technically feral, as they’re the descendants of horses the Spanish re-introduced to North America during their conquests of the New World. However, as with most of the feral horses in the United States, they’re referred to as “wild.”

According to state records, the Salt River herd has been roaming the land freely since before the Tonto National Forest was designated in 1902. But though they’d been living on the land for at least a century, the horses’ fates were uncertain in the early 21st century. In 2015, the United States Forest Service issued a notice declaring the herd as “unauthorized livestock” and announced a plan to capture, remove, and auction off any unclaimed horses.

The apparent end of the Salt River horses spurred local advocates into action. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group was formed and successfully reached an agreement with the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Now, the nonprofit group manages the horses and attempts to control the population by darting the animals with a birth control vaccine.

It’s possible to rent kayaks near the start of the river and paddle through their territory, which creates a high likelihood of seeing the horses in or along the river. (Please be careful not to disturb them, and take only pictures from a safe distance.)

Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of any elusive equines, the river itself is beautiful, particularly early in the morning. Many other animals including blue heron, bald eagles, and river otters frequent its banks. It is for the most part a gentle river, although there are some class 1 rapids in sections.

Know Before You Go

The early mornings are the best time to see the horses. Kayak rental and a shuttle back to your car is provided by Saguaro Lake Ranch near the top of the river (this is where the GPS coordinates lead to). Two and five-hour trips are available. Be ready to get wet and bring sunscreen. Call Saguaro Lake Ranch at (480) 984 2194 to make a kayak reservation or visit their website.

In partnership with KAYAK

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