Wyoming Photographer Documents Lives & Drama Of Wild Mustangs

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

There’s a lot of drama among the wild horses on McCullough Peak and one Powell photographer has made it his passion to bring it to light through his photos and stories.

Recent activity seemed to focus on stallions proving themselves among the various bands, which professional photographer Tony Douzenis documented in several installments on his own Facebook page and the group Wyoming Through the Lens, accompanied by his stories of the animals. 

In the most recent post Sunday morning, Douzenis’ photos depicted Winchester, a chestnut stallion, waking up to start a scuffle with Osage, another dark bay stallion and head of a neighboring band or family. Typically, Osage delegates his lieutenant, Sundance, to handle his confrontations, which that morning led to a boxing match between Sundance and Winchester.

Based on Douzenis’ photographs, ‘boxing’ seems to be exactly what the two are doing, reared up on their stocky, muscular hind legs with front hooves extended, trading kicks. 

Douzenis isn’t sure what caused the scuffle, but he noted in prior postings conflict has been brewing between the various bands all week. 

Luckily, they all seemed to walk away unscathed from these skirmishes, Douzenis wrote, “once again leaving me in peace with my lovely horse families.”

Until the next time. 

Aren’t Always Fighting

When the stallions aren’t proving themselves in efforts to protect their families, there are also plenty of tender moments between brothers, colts and uncles and mares. Even the stallions show their softer sides in the extended chronicles that the Powell photographer has written for nearly a year. 

Douzenis estimates there are 170 wild horses roaming the 109,814 acres of the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Management Area roughly 18 miles east of Cody. The herds of pintos, palominos, cremellos, buckskins, greys, bays and chestnuts that populate the landscape overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in keeping with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed by Congress in 1971. Throughout October, the BLM is also adopting out a number of these wild horses. 

Few public land management issues are as contentious as wild horses with clear divides between those who see the majestic animals as representative of the Wild West and livestock producers and others who consider them an expensive nuisance.

Douzenis falls squarely in the camp of those who appreciate the beauty of the wild creatures and donates a portion of the proceeds from his photo print sales to the nonprofit Friends of a Legacy (FOAL), formed by a handful of locals in 2005. FOAL’s mission is to protect the wild herds through a variety of initiatives such as preserving reservoirs and other water sources in the high desert prairie as well as other initiatives like darting mares for fertility control to lower birth rates to retain productive rangelands. 

FOAL has also taken it upon itself to name and catalogue the wild McCullough horses.

Douzenis has named a couple of the colts himself in all of his time spent watching the horses. 

He can’t help himself at this point, he admitted. He’s pretty hooked on the animals, which to him have come to take on their own distinct personalities and stories. 

“Each horse has its own personality,” he said. “They have their own world and rules. It’s quite remarkable to witness.”

Where It Came From

It’s hard to explain to people when they ask him about the genesis of some of his posts, he said. He’s so tuned into their world and rules that the stories just start to flow out of his imagination as he’s watching them, as he’s done for months. At this point, the wild horses seem to have adopted him as much as he’s become attached to them, often letting him get close with his camera and looking straight at him as he shoots.

He’s always loved wild horses, he said, and there’s something about the mystique and their way of life that he just finds beautiful and endlessly interesting.

For the past year, his outdoor photography has focused almost solely on the horses after he got hooked pretty much the first time he drove out there, a roughly 30-minute drive from his house.

“I was in awe watching them,” he said, rattling off memories of the first time he saw Tecumseh and Washakie, two of the horses who factor prominently in his stories which he is now turning into a book. “Just their raw power and untouched beauty and the way they communicate with another. I felt drawn to them and wanted to meet and follow them.”

Once he started watching them, he came to know them and gain a better insight into what their various interactions and communications mean. It became more than just photographs at that point, he said, and his curiosity grew.  

There are over a dozen different bands of horses out there, including a couple groups of bachelors who have been driven off from their families to start their own band. Some of the groups have between 50 to 70 horses, primarily consisting of a dominant stallion and his lieutenant as well as his mare and other family and offspring. 

The different groups tend to stick around the same area but keep their distance from each other, he said. He rattled off various names of horses – Splaash, Traveler, Muskagee – and described how the bands fit together. 

He goes out to McCullough Peaks three to four times a week and puts in a lot of miles with every trip as he checks in with the various herds. 

Don’t Invade Their Space

Douzenis has learned a lot from watching them, he said, particularly the interactions between the band stallions and their lieutenants and the myriad of ways they’re able to communicate their orders, as well as the rambunctious and sometimes random fights between the bachelors vying for turf or females.

Sometimes it’s just a spar with minor cuts and bruises, he noted, and he’s never seen two horses fight to the death, though he always keeps an eye on them to make sure they’re walking away intact. 

He lets them dictate how close they want him to be, and sometimes, it’s as close as 300 feet. Once, a group of bachelors greeting him at his truck as he waited for them to walk by.

“You don’t want to invade their space,” he said. “If they want me there, they show it. You can sense if they want you there or not.”

Most of the bands seem comfortable with him, but if they start to tense up in a huddle, he takes it as his cue to get lost. 

Apart from opening his imagination, they’ve taught him a lot, too. He’s got a whole new sense of the importance of peace and the ability to be present in the quiet beauty of nature and its rhythms. 

“They have their own world and life, and it’s so peaceful being out there,” he said.

It’s also taught him a lot about the nature of family and communication through their cordiality with each other and the ways in which they forgive and move on.

“You can still have arguments but be civil,” he said. “They have arguments like other families, but life goes on. They care and work together. That’s a big thing that I’ve learned. There is passion in this world and it still exists.”

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