Walking With Wild Horses: Thoughts and Tips on Human / Wild Horse Interaction

Those of us who spend a large portion of our lives photographing horses living wild and free are always concerned that our images may encourage undesirable interactions between these animals and people visiting them. I’ve had the pleasure to spend a bit of time with some very talented photographers with wild horses as a primary subject. It really doesn’t matter whether they photograph the animals living in the western United States, Iceland or Argentina, these artists know their subjects well. They understand when a horse is “on alarm,” “profiling” or “stressed.” They recognize the body language used by these animals and know what to expect based on what they see. Each of these photographers is careful to not put the animal or them self at risk.

Many if not most people see photographs as glimpses of truth… a realistic documentation of what transpires in front of the lens. What they fail to understand is that the world seen through the camera lens is distorted. Telephoto lenses, the lens choice of wild horse photographers, tend to compress distant objects included in the photograph, making them appear much closer to subjects in the foreground than they really are. For example, an image of a nature photographer with a wild horse in the background may make it appear that the animal is nearer the human that it actually was. How distances appear are very dependent upon the perspective of the lens used, the position of the photographer as well as a number of other factors. It is difficult to accurately estimate distance in a two-dimensional photograph.

Telephoto lenses are also used by photographers to make intimate portraits of horses from safe distances. (The images below are examples of this.) To make a similar image a tourist using a cell phone or simple point and shoot camera would have to get well inside the animals personal space. That’s a recipe for disaster. Viewers also need to keep in mind that the finished photo you see is not a simple copy of what was recorded by the camera. Photographers use software to crop, and enhance their photos. They take a raw image and shape into the artistic vision in their mind. That process can also result in an image appearing to have been taken from a shorter distance than it actually was. In fact if you check-out most serious photographers smart phones you’ll find they even have apps installed to enhance, crop and zoom on images taken with the phones. When you look at a photograph what you see is an artist’s vision, not a slice of reality.

There are some pretty simple rules to following when visiting the wild horses living within the boundaries of the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve and the Cape Lookout National Seashore. In fact violating those rules can result in a ticket, fine and possibly even jail time. Perhaps more importantly, failing to follow these rules could result in serious injury or even death being inflicted by one of these beautiful but powerful animals. It’s important to remember these horses live a wild life, they are not tame pets. Even domestic horses can be dangerous for folks that don’t know how to properly behave around them!

When visiting the wild horses do not approach closer than within 50 feet of them. If you’re not sure of what that distance looks like simply envision a full=length school bus. There will be times when the horses might approach closer to you than you’re allowed to approach them. If they do so move away slowly if possible. In some instances it may not be possible to move away. When that happens simply remain calm and still until you are able to slip back to an acceptable distance. Under no circumstances should you ever feed one of these animals. While you may think you’re being nice by offering the animal a treat the food you give the horse may actually be harmful to it. There is never a situation where touching or petting one of these animals. A course can go from calm and peaceful to a 1000 pounds of rapidly moving danger in the blink of an eye. They can bite, stomp and kick ferociously. Don’t do things to try and make the horses run. They get all the exercise they need on their own. Forcing them to burn-up energy reserves only places their health at risk.

Observing horses in the wild is a wonderful experience. All I’m asking is that you be respectful and use a bit of common sense when visiting these amazing animals.

Portrait of a wild horse.

Wild horse, an intimate look.

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