As you step out of your teepee on an early moonlit morning to tack up your horse before sunrise, you wonder if you’re really on vacation. Yet by the second day, as you slowly sneak up on a herd of wild horses using your own mount as camouflage, you realize the reward.
Bobbi and Mike Wade of Blue Sky Horseback Adventures have a permit to access almost a million acres of Bureau of Land Management land a few hours southeast of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
They provide a unique combination of energetic riding partnered with getting up close and personal with herds of wild mustangs in the Great Divide Basin.
We stopped just shy of a ridge. Mike and Bobbi motioned us to stay back. Following instruction, we've been silent for more than an hour, not an easy feat for me.
On Mike's signal, we dismounted and positioned our horses broadside to the herd, hiding behind our horses' shoulders. We slowly approached the ridge, trying not to step on the crackling sagebrush while keeping hidden behind our horses.
We finally rose to view a single cremello stallion. I watched in awe, amazed by his clean, healthy, strong appearance.
The lone stallion stared at us for quite some time, then took off. We feared he'd warn the others. We could clearly view four bands; an additional 9 to 11 were off in the distance.
We approached a herd of eight with baby steps, decreasing the distance by 20 to 30 feet at a time. We stopped intermittently to peer over our horses' necks.
A cremello mare with foal raised her head. Then mare and foal trotted toward us, full of curiosity, and stopped just 50 yards away. Still camouflaged by our horses, we stood our ground, pretending to be just another herd out in this vast openness.
The remaining six wild horses decided to see what the commotion was about. All of a sudden, mares and foals, chestnuts and cremellos, and a few young studs were running full speed toward us.
I tried to keep my camera steady as my heart pounded with excitement. It took all my will not to say a word.
The horses didn't seem to be stopping. Just as I was ready to scream and wave my arms, as Mike has told us they've had to do in the past, the stallion ran to the front of the herd and snaked the galloping horses away from us.
The stallion headed for the hills, taking the larger bands with him. Hundreds of hooves thundered up the mountainside.
After another early morning of eating breakfast burritos on the run, we tacked up and loaded the horses, and quickly got on the road. This time, Bobbi and Mike decided to risk the back roads.
As I galloped along a ridge top on Rooster Reno, I was in my own little world until Mike signaled for us to stop. He and Bobbi took the binoculars and climbed the last part of the ridge.
On their signal, we dismounted and picked a gully for cover. This time, we took only two horses with us to use as a barrier; Bobbi stayed back with the other horses.
We climbed quietly out of the wash to see a herd of about 50 horses less than 300 feet away. They continued to graze; some were lying down in the long grass.
Our strategic approach to use the wind to our advantage paid off. As we inched a little closer, some of the mustangs interrupted their grazing to lift their heads, but still weren't threatened by our mounts.
This herd consisted of mostly chestnuts and bays. We stayed as still as we could, surprised that the stallion hadn't yet roused the mares. In amazement, I watched one horse lie down. Never have I experienced a wild herd so unthreatened by our close proximity.
As all curious humans will do, we eventually pushed the envelope when we were at around 60 yards away. The stallion then motioned for the herd to rise. Within minutes, they turned and headed for the hills.
As we made our way back to Bobbi, we spotted another huge herd coming down off a distant ridge toward her. Excited at first to see another herd, we then remembered she was in the wash with four horses to herself. We picked up our pace, worried that the herd might ambush her. But the mustangs spotted us and headed back up the ridge.
The ride back was one continuous, glorious lope. I rode in and out of the sagebrush and over ridges under a warm sun. On the return ride, we spotted a lone stallion, a chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail.
For more information on Blue Sky Sage Horseback Adventures, call (307) 260-7990, or visit www.blueskysage.com. For more on Bridger-Teton National Forest, call (307) 739-5500, or visit www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf/.
As the owner of Clix Photography (www.clixphoto.com), Shawn Hamilton travels worldwide to cover equestrian events. Her images regularly appear in top magazines. She lives with her husband, four children, and five horses on a farm in Ontario, Canada.