It behooves no one’s circadian rhythm to rise before dawn, chase a full moon down I-25 and arrive at the existential crisis that is the Bernalillo exit Starbucks in the bright light of daybreak for anything short of a death in the family—or wild horses. Fortunately, with the onset of summer comes a bit of open-mindedness and the spirit of adventure. So I braved such circumstances one late-May morning for the first day of a four-day wild-horse photography workshop.
Where wild horses fall on your ideological radar—gift of God, ward, nuisance, meat—tempers the appeal of such workshops. But, I mean, horses are majestic, right? Or is this opinion the same as other marketed predilections of mine—smart boots, red food labels and high thread counts.
But who would benefit from such a ruse? In a roundabout way, the horses.
Workshop leader Lynne Pomeranz, a fine art photographer who exhibits currently in Santa Fe’s Rush Creek Editions/Box Set Gallery, has made a living since 2003 specifically photographing wild horses in this lucrative and symbiotic ecotourism market.
A total of five of us, including Pomeranz and three real workshoppers who’ve come from Kansas, Colorado and Canada, set out in two 4-by-4 vehicles. We drive to Placitas and Bureau of Land Management territory in search of the American West—or at least a recognized symbol of it since 1971, when the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act protected them as such [Cover story, Nov. 25, 2009: "Imperiled Icons"].
Barely moments after beginning our ascent into the winding dirt Placitas backroads, Pomeranz gets a call from her friend Patience O’Dowd, cofounder and president of the Wild Horse Observers Association, who bears the jubilating news that she’s found afterbirth. After putting SFR’s camera to good use on this afterbirth (for more photos of afterbirth, stud piles and, oh yeah, wild horses, visit SFReporter.com), we are soon hot on the trail of a baby foal.
The horses here live a precarious existence. They are not among the federal Bureau of Land Management’s 2009 estimate of 114 wild free-roaming horses, which all live in Socorro, thus are not protected under the Wild Horse and Burro Act. O’Dowd estimates there are 100 wild horses just in Placitas.
“Ecotourism is the key to helping the Placitas horses [and] wild horses in the US,” O’Dowd says. “Americans deeply love our wild horses but have been disallowed profit from them; instead they’ve been an artificial tax burden.”
Ahead we find our first band of horses. It is lead by the stallion Juan—alternately called White, a horse straight out of King Arthur’s court—and includes proud first-time mother Jasmine and her baby, an awkward-walking spotted darling. I’m gushing and taking pictures.
In between shutter snaps, I learn that a herd of horses is made up of varying-sized bands, in turn usually made up of one stallion and his harem. Some bands have two stallions, one of which takes a more submissive role in the group. Fillies are traded with those from other bands; colts get kicked out when they are 2 or 3 years old and join up with other bachelors, with whom their play fighting engenders real-life skills.
My co-workshopper Ottowan Heather Swan, who attended one of Pomeranz’ workshops this fall, tells me, “It’s not just about taking pictures; it’s about learning about wild horses.”
And so I did, from someone who knows more than I thought ever could be known about the beasts (“They’re like my family because I’m up here so much,” Pomeranz says).
But it’s definitely also about the photography.
Pomeranz asks that workshoppers be very comfortable with their very difficult-looking cameras, only offering advice lost on those of us thankful that SFR’s camera has a giant red camera for its automatic setting. (“Shutter speed should be at least equal to focal length,” Pomeranz cautions beyond my camera know-how.)
So why don’t these nearly expert photographers save the price of the workshop and set out on their own? There are a number of reasons.
Though Pomeranz doesn’t guarantee attendees will see wild horses, she’s never held a workshop in which participants didn’t. Additionally, Pomeranz is very familiar with not only the horses and their locations, but also their history and the politics surrounding them.
“Lynn really makes it,” Swan says of her instructor, “there’s a story behind every horse.” Swan is doing another of Pomeranz’ workshops, this time bringing her family, at the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Wyoming. Pomeranz says to the concurrence of the other workshoppers: “It’s fun to get together with like-minded people who are crazy about horses.”
After too many photos of what are eerily similar but for some reason continually appealing things (the horses keep doing so many cute things!), we drive off to scout the next band, this one led by the pitch and revered stallion Black.
We find Black and his harem in the decline of a bowl with a view of both the Sandia Mountains and I-25, a surreal juxtaposition. After another bout of photos, we spot Juan’s band on the move and in the direction of his sworn enemy, Black. The air is electrified and, amid the countless photo-ops, Pomeranz illuminates the soap opera that is these wild horses’ lives: They fight, bite, steal mares, get kicked out of their pack, have depression and move on.
“He’s giving Black the evil eye,” Pomeranz narrates.
Today, a conflict is avoided and the bands part ways, the standoff between two warring stallions put on the shelf to be taken down another day.
Black gathers his family at the bottom of a verdant knoll; Juan checks on his new lanky foal who, with Jasmine, has finally caught up to the band.
Amid all the drama and the picturesque scene, a funny thing happens: I keep taking pictures. The horses’ stories bring insight into their every movement. Each bare of the teeth and ruffle of the snout becomes a made-for-TV movie. My memory card fills up and my memory bank wells.
We go on to other bands, and there are more photos to be had, but I leave the pictures to the more experienced and farther-travelled photographers. I climb into the tall SUV, count wild horses and fall asleep.