Thursday, August 9, 2012

Photography Class and Stallions in Nevada

Last summer, my wife, Lisa shared that she was thinking about taking a writing class at the University of Washington. She mentioned that there was a photography class too. So, for nine months, we went back to school. To anyone thinking about doing this, if you’ve been out of school for say 30 years, it’s hard even if it’s “just photography.” I heard that description occasionally from someone taking a real writing class. It was nice though. Every Tuesday we had date night with dinner at a little Thai restaurant near campus. My class also met on Thursday nights and with additional darkroom time on the weekends, the schedule was time intensive. But, I loved it …most of the time.

I signed up for the class to make better images and to focus on photography beyond life’s other distractions for an academic year. I’ve been playing with photography for years. My first serious camera was an Olympus OM-1 that I bought in 1980. Going to Japan in 2010 to photograph and document the dolphin hunt and following the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers, made me realize the power of a strong image and the impact it can have on viewers.

HomeDepot security watching day laborers make breakfast
while they wait for work
The photography class had homework and darkroom assignments. We were to pick a project and work on it. I started to photograph the day laborers who wait in front of Home Depot. I spent mornings and lunch hours with them, winning their confidence until they allowed me to take a few photos. I wasn’t able to get close like I wanted and I was hearing and seeing things that were best left undocumented. Next, I thought I’d play with rain in Seattle. It didn’t rain for weeks. After winter break, I showed the class some photos I took in Nevada at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mustang roundup. My classmates made it pretty clear to me that I should be concentrating on horses and helicopters and, with over 2000 photos, I had plenty to work with from my winter trip.

Wild mustangs being driven into the trap.
Wranglers hide, waiting to chase and close them in
The Tri-State Calico Complex is over 1 million acres at the intersection of Oregon, California, and Nevada. The days I was the there, the roundup targeted horses north of Winnemucca and west of Denio Junction, a big chunk of land that butts up against the Sheldon Wildlife Reserve. Our caravan of BLM PR people, Rangers, and two animal advocates arrived after they had already driven in the first horses into the trap. For this trip, I splurged and rented a 600mm lens and it was a good thing I did. The viewing area was setup approximately one half mile from the trap. The other challenge was that we had to shoot into the sun. Not the best situation but the big lens helped.

Horse obscured by exhaust
I had the honor of standing alongside blogger Elyse Gardner. She’s witnessed many roundups and it was an opportunity to learn. Be sure to check out her blog, Humane Observer. There’s a lot of standing and waiting at roundups. You can hear the helicopter working a band of horses over the ridge before you can see it. My goal was to capture the fear and exhaustion of the horses and to give the viewer insight to what is happening on public land. What is more difficult to capture is the compassion the horses show for one another and their defiance against the helicopter. After a group was driven into the shoot, I relaxed but then heard a crash. By the time I focused the camera back on the trap, a stallion had jumped out. He didn't run far. He turned and waited for his family to follow. They didn't. He worked his way down the hill toward us and actually got quite close. I didn't know why a wild animal would seek us out. I wanted to think he was asking for help.

Calico Escapee
This photograph received honorable mention and won the people’s choice award in an equine photo contest. It’s now part of a traveling exhibit along with my talented classmates’ photography. I also sold two copies in an auction to help a friend. This stallion means a lot to me. Looking into his eyes and being in the presence of his strength were humbling and I could only mutter, "I’m sorry." On a subsequent drive, he was captured. He’d been chased for hours that day and his head was hanging as he entered the trap. It was difficult to watch. Days later, as I edited photos, I hoped he was the one that stood up to the helicopter or the one that walked alone over the hill at the end of the day but in reviewing the details it was clear it wasn’t him.

Calico Complex Burros
The next day, I arrived ahead of the caravan to photograph burros. The burros were scheduled for removal the next week. Joining Elyse and me was Laura Leigh of Wild Horse Education. In recent years, Laura has been to more roundups than anyone else including BLM employees. Laura works hard on the legal side for the horses. The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was enacted to protect the horses and give them land to live on. The 2004 Burns Amendment changed enough language that the horse population is now suffering and the BLM continues to remove horses. It’s estimated (because there is no census) that more horses exist in holding facilities than in the wild. It's wrong when laws are manipulated to serve a special interest and not held to the spirit that drove the original law into being. Conrad Burns, the Senator that wrote the amendment, is a cattleman.

Trap Site in the Tri-State Calico Complex
On my last day at the roundup, they moved the trap. The viewing area was closer to the trap and the sun was behind us. Perfect, except much of the area was behind a mountain so our view was limited. The sweaty horses made the slow death march from behind the mountain to the trap, their heads hanging low. I believe the helicopter had the first couple groups exhausted and staged for our arrival, waiting to just push them over the hill. After the first few drives the horses were less cooperative. A stallion escaped at the mouth of the trap. He followed the trailer, containing his family, down the dirt road. When the helicopter returned, he ran toward it. It was the thing that took his family. I have huge respect for these animals.

Stallion pacing, trying to gain access to his family
Driving home, I took a wrong turn and drove through the Sheldon Wildlife Reserve. I saw wild horses not being chased by a helicopter. They were beautiful in the evening light and so tender with each other. I was thrilled to find these healthy equines and to spend a short amount of time with them. I was so happy that these horses were safe in this reserve. I was wrong. On August 4th, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began removing these horses from Sheldon. FWS plans to remove all them in five to ten years.

Horses of Sheldon
For more information on the issues and roundups, I recommend American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. They also do a great job with letters and petitions and are supportive of my travels and photography. Laura Leigh has been an invaluable resource in planning my trips. My fellow photography classmates have been tremendous supporters of my work. They often ask, “Where are you going next?” I’m not sure. Sadly, wild horses and burros are continually rounded up, the Japanese dolphin drive starts September 1st, and our government persists in eradicating wolves, buffalo, sea lions… There is no end to the suffering of wild animals or photo ops.

On a happy note: Elyse stayed until the Calico roundup ended and witnessed the release of our captured stallion, Calico Escapee, and his return to the range.

Special thanks to Lisa Lorden for the editing help


  1. Wow Mike this is an awesome piece!!! I am so glad he was returned to the range. What is happening to our Mustangs and Burros (and all wildlife in this country for that matter) at the hands of the BLM is sickening and criminal IMHO.

  2. You have some great photos Mike! I can't get enough of the sorrel stallion, he is magnificent. As someone who didn't live through the horror like you did, forgive my asking what are the approx dates of the various roundups and photos?

  3. Mike this is incredibly moving, heart-wrenching story of what is happening to our wild horses and burros. I am so glad this beautiful stallion was returned to his homeland, but it breaks my heart to think of the thousands and thousands who are not. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  4. Thank you all for the kind words. The roundup photos are from my trip January 3rd through the 5th. Here are a few more photos from the 3rd.

  5. If you have interest in witnessing a roundup, the BLM publishes the schedule here

  6. Geez you totally captured that sorrel stud! His proud stance. His defiance! That look that just says Why?

    I could also ask why? This horse is in sensational condition. Really good body weight, no apparent injuries. This horse is the kind that shouldn'tve ever been rounded up in the first place. And they took his family? The one thing that these horses prized next to freedom.

    There is just no end to the suffering man perpetuates upon animals for no other reason that they can. It just isn't right.