Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography by Ann von Pentz

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]orses have long been universal symbols of freedom without restraint. Way back in the days of the Wild West, riding a horse made a person feel as though they could free themselves from their own bindings. Therefore, it is only natural that horses are also linked as symbols of travel, movement, power, grace, nobility and desire.

There are no other horses in the entire world that better reflect freedom than the Salt River herd. Having existed along the Salt River and Salt River Valley for as long as anyone can remember — even well before the Tonto National Forest was created in 1902 — these horses provide hikers, tubers and other nature enthusiasts a glimpse at not only Arizona’s serene beauty but also what it must feel like to know truly unbridled liberation.

Photographer Ann von Pentz first encountered the Salt River horses soon after she arrived in Arizona a little more than five years ago. They quickly became a central focus of her work. She believes that the mustangs — descendants of Spanish Iberian horses brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers in the 16th century — represent the absolute best of the Wild West.

“Like the American bison, these horses were subject to mass extermination starting around 1850,  as ranchers and farmers complained they were competing with livestock for land and food,” von Pentz says. “Despite attempts of roundups and extermination, the Salt River herd has eluded capture, hiding in the desert and among the trees.”

Of course, just as the horses have eluded capture, they are very well-known to elude the camera lens as well. Therefore it is with the utmost quiet caution that von Pentz tracks them. And the moment she finds the herd is as magical as it is exhilarating.

“I might hear a crack of a branch, a rustle in the trees and I stop,” von Pentz explains. “I may have a sighting. I hide and they hide, both not wanting to acknowledge the existence of the other. Quietly I begin my work, photographing the beauty of this moment.

“Wearing two cameras — a 500mm prime lens and a 70-200mm — I make split-second decisions depending on distance, motion, light and composition. Ever so quickly I am ready as adrenaline begins rushing through me. I know any sudden movements could lose this opportunity forever.”

In honor of July Fourth — our country’s ubiquitous celebration of freedom — Images Arizona is sharing with its readers some of von Pentz’s majestic photography of these wild horses with the hope that you, too, can witness their imperial independence.

About the Photographer

Based in both Montana and Arizona, Ann von Pentz’s love for photography has not only led her to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on earth but also provided her with a unique way to witness them.

“I am passionate about photography as it allows me a tool through which I am able to explore my world, moving outside of traditional art forms, inherently becoming part of the experience I photograph,” von Pentz explains. “Through my images, I seek to cultivate or spark a sensation of heightened awareness deep within that is both visceral and magical.”

Von Pentz’s style is frequently described as ethereal and creative. She is known for finding hidden beauty in often overlooked subjects and scenes. Reflected in her images is her ability to connect with her subject’s character, humor, mood and life force.

Von Pentz is usually found hiking trails or forging her own, in pursuit of the unknown. Her love for exploration and adventure is apparent in her work as she aspires to combine her sense of the world and her creativity into each image she captures with her camera.

“Once home, I receive the confirmation of my experience and the everlasting joy of my adventure as I scroll through my images,” von Pentz says. “I choose my favorite moments easily. I am careful in post-processing my images to preserve the authenticity of these sacred moments. I want you to witness not only what I saw but how I saw it. I want my subject to be the focus of your attention, just like it was mine.”