Wild Horses Mobile Size - Wild horses run together

Fill Your Hankerin’ for the Old West With Utah’s Wild Horses

Oh tell me the home, where the wild horses roam, and the mares and the stallions all play.

By Kathleen Clove
January 02, 2024

Anyone familiar with Westerns can tell you, a cowboy needs a horse. In fact, it’s pert near impossible to git along without one. Together, they travel from town to town in pursuit of the dastardly outlaw who shot their pa/betrothed/dog. Or maybe they’re just searching for a job; near ev’ry place is in need of a new sheriff, for some reason.

Most folks don’t live that way anymore — if they ever really did — but our hankerin’ for big open spaces and fine steeds lives on. While there’s nary a saloon or hitchin’ post in sight, there are still wild horses in Utah, thriving in that tough but carefree life. If you’re willing to launch a search party of your own, you can catch a glimpse of ‘em, maybe even take a photo or two.

Born to Be Wild

The ponies you’ll see in the west desert won’t be as clean-cut as the movie variety. They don’t have shiny coats — hard to when you are always playing in the dirt — and many have scars. Utah wild horses generally are a bit smaller, too; but what they lack in stature, they more than make up for in resilience.

The herds are descendants of horses brought to the Americas centuries ago, which technically makes them feral, not wild. But the name fits, since they are free-roaming, unbranded and unclaimed.

Apparently their wild ways kicked in early: These equines were runaways that never looked back. Natural selection kept the sturdiest and now, generations later, the mustangs may be healthier than their pampered, still domesticated cousins. A study from the University of Kentucky determined that wild horse populations have tougher hooves and are less affected by bone disease. They’re also much more genetically diverse than any you’ll find at your local stables, according to the researchers.

Hungry Games

The eating habits of free-roaming horses are much different from domesticated ones. There are no piles of oats and alfalfa served up daily in the wilderness, so wild horses spend much of their day grazing — about 16 hours, in fact. 

Depending on where they live, they may eat a combination of grasses, weeds and sagebrush. An adult typically eats between 5 and 6 pounds of plant material a day while on the move. All that travel not only benefits their gut health, but it’s also how wild horses maintain their hooves. 

Utah is a desert, which means fresh water can be scarce. Eating all those plants, however, is an easy way for wildlife to add water to their diet. So while you may not think chewing on a bush is a good way to quench your thirst, horses rely on them.

You can lead a wild horse to water, of course. Streams and spring runoff provide drinking water, but that can be severely limited during dry years. To help, there are rain-collecting “guzzlers” — storage tanks and troughs — for all large wildlife in the area to use, including the horses, elk and deer.

All in the Family

Free-roaming horse herds behave like a large nuclear family. One stallion is the leader; you may spot him standing at the back of the group. A lead mare is responsible for guiding the group to food and water. Basic mom and dad duties.

Shades of Bay

The Bureau of Land Management, which is tasked with caring for the 19 Herd Management Areas in Utah, makes a concerted effort to keep the herds diverse. In the early 1990s, for instance, wild horses from an HMA in Wyoming were introduced to the Onaqui herd in northern Utah. Then in 2005, 10 more stallions and as many mares were added from other HMAs across the West. Every three to four years, an additional three to five join from herds in Idaho, California or Nevada.

As a result, among the mostly brown and bay-colored mustangs of the Onaqui, you’ll also see palominos, pintos, sorrels and roans (names you may recognize from any Louis L’amour adventure). Having more diversity keeps the herds healthy, the BLM says, but also increases the horses average size — and their chance for adoptability if the herd needs to be thinned.

Same, But Different

You know how great-grandpa’s nose keeps showing up in the family? Dominant characteristics stick around in wild horses, too. Take, for example, the Sulphur Springs herd, which lives in the Indian Peak and Mountain Home ranges of Iron, Millard and Beaver Counties. 

The wild bunch has inherited traits from escaped ranch livestock that joined the herd over the years. Still, the traits of their 1500s Spanish explorer bloodlines continue to assert themselves; many have striped legs, a dorsal stripe and bi-colored manes and tails. The University of Kentucky calls the herd a zoological treasure, with unique and irreplaceable genotypes.

Nature Calls

Mountain lions are considered the only serious natural enemy of wild horses in Utah, mainly because other large predators live in different areas. Instead, starvation and dehydration are considered the biggest threat to the herds, particularly when the population becomes larger than their territory can support.

To keep the numbers from getting too large, the BLM takes two routes. One is to inject some mares with PZP, an immunocontraceptive vaccine; it works by creating an immune response to prevent fertilization, and it does not affect fetuses in already pregnant mares. Activists consider this the most humane way to control the population, although the BLM says it is not always feasible because some herds live in extremely remote locations. 

The BLM also uses roundups to reduce numbers. Those horses are then rehomed — the public may adopt them or they are moved to open pastures.

Home on the Range

Where are there wild horses in Utah? The roughly 2,000 ponies and burros live in the mountains and valleys around the state, a territory that encompasses about 2.5 million acres. Some of the HMAs here are relatively close, so you may be able to wrangle a two-for-one deal on your search.

Horse Management Areas

Keep in mind, some of the herds live in remote areas. Road conditions can change quickly due to weather, even becoming impassable at times. Be sure to stay on existing roads and trails. When you head out, bring water, food and additional fuel, in case you become stranded. Remember to tell someone where you’re going, too, as cell service can be spotty.

Cedar Mountain

  • What: pintos, sorrels, blue roans and palominos
  • How many: 200-400
  • Origin: made up of mounts provided for the U.S. Army in the late 1800s, as well as local ranch horses
  • Where: approximately 45 miles west of Salt Lake City; view along both the east of west sides of the Cedar Mountains, from Hastings Pass to Dugway Proving Grounds
  • Road conditions: high-clearance, all-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended; sandy road can be slick or may have deep depressions or puddles

Onaqui Mountain

  • What: browns, bays, palominos, pintos, sorrels and roans
  • How many: 120-210
  • Origin: brought to area by cavalry and early settlers
  • Where: about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City
  • Road conditions: dusty, but usually easily traveled; however, some parts may be impassable in inclement weather

Swasey Mountains

  • What: grays, blacks, browns, bays, buckskins and pintos
  • How many: 60-100
  • Origin: unknown, although many are descendants from local ranches
  • Where: about 50 miles west of Delta in the Swasey Mountains; turn left at Swasey Spring, then drive west 2.5 miles to Middle Pond
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended


  • What: mostly blacks, browns, bays and sorrels
  • How many: 70-115
  • Origin: unknown, but they are generally larger than most wild horses, possibly due to domestic horses joining the herd in recent decades
  • Where: west of Delta, about 90 miles from the Utah/Nevada border; best viewing is early morning or late evening in the foothills of Conger Mountains or at Knoll Springs
  • Road conditions: remote location requires all-wheel drive or an off-highway vehicle


  • What: roans, blacks, pintos, palominos and duns
  • How many: 40-80
  • Origin: unknown; some are descendants of released or runaway horses from local ranches
  • Where: about 75 miles west of Delta; often seen on the slopes of Knoll Springs and benches of Cowboy Pass
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended

King Top Mountains

  • What: blacks, bays and browns
  • How many: 20-40
  • Origin: unknown, although domestic horses have augmented the herd
  • Where: west of Delta; at Probst Pond, head east on Snake Pass Road or continue south to Eck’s Knoll Reservoir
  • Road conditions: dirt road, use caution in wet conditions


  • What: mostly sorrels, browns and bays, but some pintos, buckskins, palominos, grullas and roans
  • How many: 30-60
  • Origin: ranching and mining stock
  • Where: about 15 miles northwest of Milford, HMA encompasses the San Francisco Mountains
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended


  • What: duns, grullas and grays, some with distinctive markings, ears that curve like a bird beak and shorter backs
  • How many: 165-250
  • Origin: Colonial Spanish horses, brought by explorers in the 1500s
  • Where: Approximately 45 miles west of Milford; along State Route 21, when you reach a sign marked Pots Sum Pa Spring, turn south to access a network of roads
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended

Four Mile

  • What: bays, palominos and sorrels
  • How many: 30-60
  • Origin: unknown
  • Where: Approximately 45 miles west of Cedar City; head northeast on Lund Highway
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended

Bible Springs

  • What: mostly bays and sorrels, with some pintos, roans, buckskins and grullas
  • How many: 30-60
  • Origin: mining and ranching stock
  • Where: Iron and Beaver counties, about 45 miles west of Cedar City; travel north from Modena
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive is required, wet weather can make roads impassable; thick tree cover can make spotting difficult

Tilly Creek

  • What: bays and sorrels
  • How many: 20-50
  • Origin: related to local ranching and farming stock
  • Where: about 10 miles northeast of Modena
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended


  • What: wild burros with unique coloring — brown, white, gray, spotted, striped and speckled
  • How many: 60-100
  • Origin: from northern Africa, brought to North America by Christopher Columbus and others
  • Where: in a remote area east of Canyonlands National Park, about 60 miles south of Green River; best viewing is near Hans Flat
  • Road conditions: all-wheel drive recommended

Muddy Creek

  • What: predominantly bays, browns and blacks, with a few pintos, grays and roans
  • How many: 75-125
  • Origin: brought by settlers in the early 1800s, with the addition of nearby domestic horses
  • Where: Justesen Flats, about 43 miles west of Green River
  • Road conditions: paved, then rough gravel road


  • What: blacks and grays
  • How many: 50-70
  • Origin: burros brought by travelers in the early 1800s
  • Where: about 30 miles west of Green River, from San Rafael Reef to Eagle Canyon; view from the rest stop near exit 141 along I-70, or take exit 129 to the Sagebrush Flat sign and head east another half mile to a freeway underpass. Take any dirt road.
  • ​​Road conditions: dirt roads may be slick and muddy

Range Creek

  • What: mainly blacks, with some bays and browns, as well as a few palomines, chestnuts, sorrels and pintos
  • How many: 75-125
  • Origin: semi-wild horses from an early 1900s cattle ranch nearby
  • Where: on the West Tavaputs Plateau, about 28 miles east of Price; access via Nine Mile Canyon, then Cottonwood Canyon

Easy, Easy

Our romanticism for the Old West? It can put a lot of pressure on a wild horse. When you observe a herd, please be respectful. The BLM warns that horses may lose their natural characteristics if they become too comfortable with humans. Stay at least 100 feet away, keep quiet and stand relatively still — they don’t want to worry about you jumping on their backs to ride into the sunset.

No feeding, either. Wild animals shouldn’t consume anything other than what is around their natural habitat. As tempting as it is to offer a carrot or an apple, their digestive systems aren’t up to it. Like eating that second slice of chocolate cake — sure it tastes good, but you’ll be paying for it later.

The Write Stuff

Ready to write your own story? Once you’ve seen the horses, you should probably ride a tamed one — just to give your tale some authenticity. Then visit the places where all those Westerns (and many, many other movies) were filmed, so you can set the scene. Utah.com is always up for helping you create your own adventure.