Nothing evokes Western nostalgia and symbolizes cherished freedoms more than wild mustangs running free against the wind, amidst the sagebrush strewn hinterlands of Wyoming's high desert. Add to this the images of hard-working cowboys and cowgirls, and you have the raw stuff that the Wild West was made of.
However, much of this is relegated to a timeframe that is but a scarce memory in North America's consciousness — a time when rugged individualism and cowboy code defined the vast yet lawless prairie and rugged mountains. Men were free and horses ran wild. Even today, the cowboy life along with free roaming wild mustangs are fading, relics of simpler times and memories.
Wild Mustangs of McCullough Peaks
In a high plains pocket of rolling hills sparsely covered with saltbush and sagebrush, yet carved by drainages, cliffs, and canyons, it's possible to watch roaming herds of wild mustangs. They are located in a protected area known as the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Management Area, located east of Yellowstone National Park and about 35 kilometres from Cody, Wyo.
This is home to wild mustangs, many reputedly descendants of Buffalo Bill Cody's horses from the days of his Wild West Show. This was recently corroborated after a wild horse was purchased at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roundup sale and was subsequently DNA tested. When the results came back, DNA matching confirmed the horse's bloodline was connected to horses belonging to the Queen of England. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth had gifted several of her prized specimens to Buffalo Bill Cody as a token of appreciation for bringing his tour to England and Europe. After his show came to a halt, it is said that many of these horses were released to the wilds around Cody.
The herds range from about 100 to 150 horses, and consist of a diversity of coat colouration (bay, brown, black, sorrel, chestnut, white, buckskin, gray, palomino, roan) and patterns that include piebald and skewbald. Since habitat conditions are considered supportive, the horses tend to be moderate- to large-size for light horses and are in very good condition.
I had the chance to be part of a small group that got up at an ungodly hour to photograph the grace and beauty of a wild mustang herd. At dawn and dusk, we witnessed the normal sparring that bachelor stallions engage in as they fight for the right to mate. We also saw tender moments between mares and their foals, as they grazed the nubby grasses.
Controversy surrounds the wild herds as BLM debates what number of horses the area can support. The organization recently asked for public comment on baiting, the capturing of horses and putting them up for adoption, as a method of culling the herds. (This is viewed as more humane by many as opposed to helicopter herding of the past.) Some think that a minimum herd size to maintain genetic diversity is 150 horses: BLM maintains that about 100 horses is the proper number for sustainability of the prevailing terrain. The debate continues.
Working Cowboys and Cowgirls
Our next field location was at the K Bar Z Guest Ranch & Outfitters, a small, family owned operation in the high country. Majestically set against the backdrop of the Beartooth Mountains and near Yellowstone Park, this is where we took up residence for three nights, and where we were given an opportunity to photograph working cowboys and cowgirls as they went about their daily chores. From riding and roping to corralling and cavorting, the romanticism of the Old West seemed very much alive as we photographed wranglers at work.
The tools and garb of cowboy culture — iconic elements of the American West — proved to be good subjects for still life photos, from chaps, boots, and stirrups to cowboy hats and boldly coloured scarves tied securely around the neck. Old barns and homesteads were fair game as well.
We headed back to Cody for our last night of shooting — to capture the Cody Nite Rodeo. Known as the "Rodeo Capital of the World" this would test our skills as we set about photographing bull and bronc riding, barrel racing, calf roping, and bulldogging.
I reserved my last day in Cody for exploring The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, since there is no better place to learn about the Old West. This place is like having five museums in one grand building. The Buffalo Bill museum explores its namesake's legacy, while the Whitney Western Art museum displays masterworks of the American West — including Remington and Thomas Moran. The Plains Indian Museum shares the stories of the different tribes that lived on the Great Plains and tells the story of their cultures, traditions, values, and histories. The Draper Museum of Natural History is an excellent overview of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, while the Cody Firearms Museum contains an exhaustive collection of American firearms.