Photo Credit: Wild Horse Photographer Maria Marriott
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Spoiler alert… this blog has nothing to do with Mel Gibson or his movie.
For the past 3 years I have made an annual trek to the McCullough Peaks Horse Management Area (HMA) in Northern Wyoming, just outside the town of Cody. Over a couple of weeks, from this base of operations, I’m able to make day trips to Yellowstone National Park, Bighorn Canyon, and several herds of wild horses. The photographic images I’ve captured have become the basis for my series of wild horse art called The McCullough Peaks Wild Horses.
The rugged natural beauty of the landscape keeps pulling me back to this spot, which is matched by the rugged beauty of the mustangs. The vast lands to the East of Cody contain not only dramatic mountain peaks, snow-covered for much of the year, but also majestic buttes, lush meadows, streams, and the imposing badlands. Roaming these lands are two primary herds of wild horses that are as rugged and tough as the terrain they inhabit.
Following the Herd
“If you don’t like the Wyoming weather, just wait 10 minutes.”
Looking back over notes taken during these trips, I’m reminded of the unpredictability of the Wyoming weather, which results in the unpredictability of daily activities. The weather forecasts seemed to be as much wrong as right - even within a given half hour - the weather changing frequently and suddenly. As a friend there joked, “If you don’t like the Wyoming weather, just wait 10 minutes.”
This unpredictability meant that the day’s activities could only be loosely planned. Rain predicted on one part of the range often meant that it was sunny there, with the storm actually occurring on a different part of the range. So, each day we started off in the general direction of the wild horse herds, not really knowing what we would find.
Capturing beautiful images of the mustangs that can be transformed into wild horse artwork is my goal with wild horse photography and already a challenge as is. The shifting weather makes it even more of a challenge. It is necessary not only to find the herd in a vast area with few roads and an attractive background, but also to have the right light at the right time, and to be in the right position to get the shot. To top it all, it's best to see some sort of interaction between the horses as there are only so many images you can create of mustangs munching on grass.
It's is not unusual to find horses wandering the range alone. Under the right light, it creates great opportunities. Most days, however, we were able to find one of the herds, either through extensive search or dumb luck as horses can travel many miles over the course of a day or night. Driving up on top of a tall butte and scanning the landscape with binoculars for any sign of horses frequently paid off.
The other challenge with the unpredictability of the rain was the ground. McCullough Peaks is not welcoming to just any vehicle. The range is cross-crossed with deeply rutted two-tracks that sometimes wind off in unexpected directions or simply end. And, when the rains suddenly come, the tracks become pits of mud. Even with our Jeep Rubicon, which is lifted and has 35” mud tires, we got stuck on more than one occasion. The problem with the ground, we found out from the locals, is the presence of bentonite in the soil.
Apparently, bentonite is not only good for making diapers (very absorbent) and as a natural remedy for all sorts of ill. When combined with rain, it also completely fills up the treads of a tire, causing a Jeep to have absolutely no traction.
The sequence went something like this every day… we observed storm clouds coming across the range, but decided the clouds made a great background for photographing the horses. So we stayed to get the shot; too long, it turns out, as the rain poured on the range. The rain quickly absorbed into the ground, combining with the bentonite to make a dangerous clay that clogged our tire treads and mired us in the mud. We would spend the next hour getting unstuck and clearing the tires. Next day, same story…
Persistence Pays Off
After searching most of a day and driving far back onto the range, we crested a small hill and saw a beautiful herd. Finally, a convergence of the factors we needed to create a great piece of wild horse artwork… we had found the herd, the light coming through the clouds was muted and even...the stars were finally aligned.
The Stories That Inspire Us
As we observed the horses, now for over an hour, a particular gray stallion of very small stature drew my attention.
His body and face were covered in scars from past fights with other stallions. In fact, the biggest scar ran from just under his right eye to the bottom of his face - almost as though his entire face had been laid open at one point - a testament of survival and resilience.
Throughout the years I came to hear many stories about this small but mighty gray stallion, called "Running Bear" by many. These are the stories I love to witness in the wild, the stories that resonate so deeply because they inspire us. The diminutive underdog who is severely beaten, his face ripped open and deeply scarred in the process. The months of recovery, probably combined with the self doubt that comes from almost being killed. The determination to come back and transform into one of the fiercest fighters on the range, never backing down from a challenge. The persistence in defending what is important in daily battles, despite (by all appearances) not being the biggest, the strongest, or the smartest… only more determined. This is true heart.
This is "Braveheart."
About Maria Marriott
Her work following and photographing wild mustangs across the Western states has provided her with a platform to bring attention to the pressing issues faced by the American wild horses. She works with several nonprofit organizations giving back to help with the preservation and safety of mustangs and promote the use equine therapy for healing.