Wild Horse Photography in Public Lands

On the first weekend of June, I went with a friend to Mono Lake to see and to photograph the mustang herds in that area. It was a sunny, warm couple of days. Although we woke up early and went to bed very late, trying to take advantage of the angled sun and cooler hours, the light was still harsh. The featured photograph series above was taken around 7:20 p.m. The shadows, more visible on the foals’ pale coat, are still very strong. This is the kind of light I would expect from a powerful strobe without any diffusion. Despite frustration in photography, we had a good time. It is always a good time with horses.

Mustangs are feral horses that roam in the Western United States’ public lands. For the most part, they descend from horses brought to the Americas from Spain around 1600. Although the original mustangs were Colonial Spanish horses, other breeds and types of horses have contributed to the makeup of the modern mustang herds. This includes stray horses used by the United States Cavalry and escaped ranch horses or animals that were purposedly released into the wild. 

Only occasionally do I endeavor to photograph animals in the wild. I am not equipped to do it well, and I lack the necessary patience and creativity to produce out-of-the ordinary wildlife photos. I do, however, get a little more enthusiastic when it comes to horses. I learned to ride when I was three years old, and I spent most of my childhood and teenage years on the back of a horse. Today, I do not have the financial resources and the time to ride anymore, but I still enjoy the presence of these magnificent animals. 

Lonesome Dove

Location: Eastern Sierra Nevada near Mono Lake, California, USA;

Equipment: Featured Image: Nikon Z50, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm F2.8G; Lonesome Dove: Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G

Settings: Featured image: f/8, 1/800”, ISO 750, at 200 mm; Lonesome Dove: f/8, 1/800”, ISO 100, at 70 mm;

Tips: as tempting as it might feel, do not get close to the horses, do not feed them or pet them. They are wild and if they hurt you because you were careless, they are the ones that will suffer the consequences. A 300-600 focal length and fast lens is what you need (I shot at 200 mm but my images are cropped very tight). I like to shoot at f/8 to get more in focus. I set the shutter speed between 800s and 1250s and leave the ISO in the automatic to get the right exposure. 

I uploaded two short videos showing some of the open space the West is famous for, the light conditions for photography, and the herd.

Published by Alessandra Chaves

Photographer with a preference for nature photography in black and white and other abstractions.

19 thoughts on “Wild Horse Photography in Public Lands

  1. Interesting post. I didn’t know about the horses at Mono Lake, although I’ve been there often. I’m just learning to ride here on NZ hoping to trek in Wyoming some time when I can get back to the States. The hard bit for me is not knowing how to relate to horses …

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    1. Hi there, do you want to relate with the horses that you will ride in WY, or with the wild horses? With respect to the latter you only need to take your distance and shoot away. Beautiful photos on your blog. New Zealand is a place I always wanted to go, but it may take a while until anyone can get in or out of the island…

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      1. I think at the moment I’m needing to understand the domestic horse, so that I can learn to work with the animal. However, I love to photograph wild animals even though there aren’t really any mammals here in NZ. Yes, it will be a while before we can travel again, I think. I have a Jeep in Colorado that I’m keen to join up with again to go exploring and photographing.

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  2. The Latin word for ‘horse’ was equus, from which English gets the fancy term equitation, meaning ‘the art or act of riding a horse,’ as you know from Portuguese equitação; the female has also survived in égua. As languages evolve, some words go out of fashion, and that’s what happened to equus as Latin turned into the Romance languages. Gradually equus got replaced by descendants of Latin caballus, which particularly denoted a riding-horse or pack-horse, and that’s why you have cavalo.

    Your triplet of pictures reminds me of the old stereopticon cards, with their side-by-side pairs of pictures that our brains would fuse into a 3-D image.

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    1. Good to know, but then where does the word “horse” come from? And how about mare? I recall the triplets you mentioned. Gosh, the world has changed. I bet the younger generations never saw one.

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      1. The core English vocabulary, including a familiar word like horse, is native. English is one language in the Germanic language family, which also includes Dutch, the Scandinavian languages, and German. German has Ross as its cognate (i.e. counterpart) to horse, though the German word is poetic and literary and is not that language’s normal for a horse. Horse and Ross originated in the Germanic language family. Other familiar words go even further back, to the Indo-European language family of which the Germanic branch is merely one descendant (other descendants being the Slavic family, the Italic family, the Greek family, the Indo-Iranian family, etc.). A word like native English mother has counterparts in Latin mater (whence Portuguese mãe), Russian mat’, Greek mitera, etc.

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  3. I think that these pictures are very beautiful. I also love the way that you describe the process of taking the pictures and talk about elements that I’d never considered before like the shadow – you clearly are very passionate about photography and I enjoyed reading about it. I also enjoyed learning about your love of horses. They are indeed beautiful creatures and I’m happy that these ones were in the wild.

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