Wild & Free
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography Courtesy of Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and Ciolim Gallery
When Cave Creek’s Ciolim Gallery hosts a weekend-long fundraising event Nov. 17 and 18, the true beneficiaries will be the historic Salt River herd of wild horses who once numbered over one million strong. Now it is believed that fewer than 600 remain in Arizona.
Two brushstroke classes with winter themes will be offered: “Holiday Candles” and “Cactus,” a depiction of cardinals perched among snow-covered cacti. No past artistic experience is necessary to participate. Outside the gallery, there will be special product sales, a silent auction and information about Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG), the beneficiary of funds raised, throughout both days.
The gallery’s owner, Victoria Reins, and her daughter, Ann Reigns, the gallery’s business manager, were inspired by their own passion for horses. Ann frequently competes around the country on her Arabian sport horse, Kaydence. The pair is confident that Cave Creek’s horse-loving population will respond enthusiastically to the cause of the Salt River Wild Horses.
“You can’t live in Cave Creek without being involved with horses,” says Victoria. “They ride though our parking lot and even have the right of way in town. Ann has a love of horses and a heart for animal rescue. I’ve read so much about the efforts of Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and we want to support them.”
“Many of our gallery clients own horses and want to be involved,” says Ann. “Hosting an event to benefit this cause seemed a natural fit.”
The band of wild horses, or mustangs, is believed to be descended from Spanish, or Iberian horses brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers in the 17th century. The term mustang comes from the Spanish word, mustengo, meaning “ownerless beast.”
Their presence in Arizona has been documented since at least 1790, but mass extermination in the mid 1800s and again in the early part of the 20th century nearly wiped out the population, threatening to send them the way of the American bison.
These horses live in the Tonto National Forest and migrate from late summer into early fall from the river beds to deeper into the hills and forests. By December and January, they are firmly ensconced in the backcountry, where streams and pockets fill with rain water for their sustenance. When those pockets dry up beneath the hot Arizona sun, the horses make their way back to the Salt River to drink, as they have for centuries. To survive, they must consume approximately 30 gallons of water each day.
“Something unique to Salt River wild horses is that they eat the eel grass that grows in the river,” says SRWHMG administrator Debbie Mykitiak. “It’s not a normal diet for a horse, but they’ve adapted to it because of their location. They actually dunk their entire heads into the water and snorkel to get to the grass. It’s fun to watch.”
In August 2015, the herd was once again threatened, and SRWHMG was born of the crisis. There were plans to round up these rare, majestic horses for an unknown fate.
“Some say it’s because the horses were believed to be damaging the environment or ecosystems,” says Mykitiak. “The U.S. Forest Service believed they were a danger to the public. The horses visit popular recreation areas and people can be injured if they approach the horses. We were motivated to change legislation to protect the horses and to keep them wild and free in their own environment.”
Those efforts paid off when, in May 2016, Governor Ducey signed a protection bill. In 2018, the group was chosen to enter into a public-private partnership to humanely manage the herd, maintain range stewardship, improve traffic safety, educate the public, and work with the U.S. Forest Service and Arizona Department of Agriculture to address recreational, environmental and public safety concerns.
SRWHMG’s major efforts right now involve humane birth control—darting by trained veterinarians—to help control the population, and a special, temporary feeding and watering program to help the band get through the recent drought, which significantly reduced levels of wild forage.
This is done with a team of over 100 dedicated volunteers who maintain and respond to an emergency hotline, monitor horses on the river, fix fences to keep horses off the roads, organize fundraisers, appeal to legislators, and even muck stalls at the organization’s facilities. Volunteers participate in training to learn techniques to carefully guide horses off the road and slow down traffic when horses cross. They also pick up trash and conduct regular river clean-ups.
“Our volunteers always take trash bags and participate in natural restoration efforts,” says Mykitiak. “We clean up old bonfire areas as well. The nails from palates being burned can seriously injure the horses.”
Now, there are multiple, solar-powered horse crossing signs, rumble strips, and “Watch For Horses” painted on roads close to where the horses are known to cross.
“At the beginning of 2018, we lost five horses in one week to traffic accidents,” says Mykitiak. “We’ve been working with different agencies to make improvements for people and horses and our partner organizations have really stepped up to help.”
When injuries are reported to the hotline, a process begins to first monitor the horses in question. Meticulous records of birth rates, migrations and members of bands are kept in an extensive database. If horses can get by without human intervention, they are left alone.
There are those who must be taken into the sanctuary; its location is closely guarded for the safety of the horses. The ultimate goal is to heal the horses, not to tame them in any way, which would prevent them from returning to the wild.
“Our goal is for the horses to remain wild and free,” says Myktiak. “The Ciolim Gallery event is a great way to support that mission.”
Salt River Wild Horse Safety Tips:
Maintain a distance of at least 50 feet from horses.
Do not feed or try to tame wild horses.
Observe with a calm and quiet demeanor.
Keep dogs on a leash and away from horses.
Park at least 100 feet away from horses or fence openings.
Don’t use a camera flash or flashlight.
Observe speed limits and posted signs.
If horses are in the road or seem to be in distress, call the hotline at 480-868-9301.
Lend a Hand
Ciolim Gallery Salt River Wild Horse Fundraiser
Saturday, November 17 & Sunday, November 18
Silent Auction All Day 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
Brushstrokes Classes 1:00–3:30 p.m. each day
6710 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek