For the love of wild horses: a photographer’s story
May 29, 2019 03:15PM
● By Linnea Lundgren
By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]
Greig Huggins doesn’t mind seeing dust. When he journeys along the Pony Express Trail, out to Utah’s remote west desert, he scans the windswept, sepia-colored landscape for dust clouds. These reveal where the wild horses of the Onaqui herd are, kicking up the dry earth as they move and graze.
“It feels like I’m home,” Huggins said when he spots the herd. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than be there.” Out on the range, an estimated 450 horses of the Onaqui (pronounced O-nah-kee) herd roam the 321-square miles of public lands called the Herd Management Area (HMA), a two-hour drive southwest of Salt Lake City. They generally group in bands of 20 to 50.
For nine years now, the longtime Sandy resident has photographed the herd, giving him an upfront look at equine family life and drama.
“The photographs I like to take show the personality of the herd,” he said. “A more intimate photograph rather than just a still picture of a horse.”
Huggins’ in-depth portraits, ranging from fighting stallions to frolicking foals, are the result of intense dedication, studied predictability and love. He’s out with the herd several days each month, always in the afternoon to capture the best lighting, always wearing the same outfit, always driving the same car and carrying the same equipment — one camera around his neck, the other camera with its 400mm lens on a tripod. Being within earshot, he gently talks to the horses, just like they are family members, because to him, they are.
“For me, this is about the individual horses, seeing what happens in their lives,” he said.
Take for instance the life of Buck, a stallion Huggins has photographed for nine years. Buck always had four gray mares in his harem, but last spring Huggins witnessed Buck’s downfall in “one big, bloody, dusty fight” between Buck and other stallions. Two weeks later, Huggins returned to find the mares taken by other stallions. “I went back into my older photographs (to find out who the winning stallions were) and one of them was Buck’s grown son,” he said. “He’d taken over two of his dad’s mares.”
Now, without any females, Buck hangs out on the herd’s periphery with the Old Man, a stallion estimated to be 30 years old.
Every time he journeys west, Huggins looks for his favorite stallion, appropriately named the Ghost. This “magnificent, prancing, testosterone-fueled” creature visits the herd every few years taunting other stallions in front of the mares. Then he disappears into the desert. The Ghost has distinctive markings (noted by a DNA researcher) passed down from the Spanish conquistadors’ horses — zebra-like stripes on the back of the legs and a dark stripe down the backbone.
Huggins’ favorite mare reminds him of Debbi, his wife of 48 years.
“Debbi is really a redhead, but she happens to be blonde now, so she’s a blonde redhead. My favorite mare is a blonde redhead. Her mane is blonde, but her coat is red,” he said. “I guess I have a sweet spot for blonde-haired redheads.”
Wildlife photography has been a longtime interest for Huggins, who started after he left the army in 1974, and has made his career in the medical imaging industry. He’s explored many photography mediums from large format to black and white and now digital. Much of his work was shot in Yellowstone National Park before he sought opportunities closer to home. He estimated he’s taken more than 100,000 images of the Onaqui herd.
“I think I only went to Yellowstone once this winter,” he said. “Every free moment I have I go out in the west desert photographing this herd that I’ve fallen in love with.”
The Onaqui herd is the most photographed herd in the country, yet Huggins is surprised how many Utahns — photographers or not — don’t know about them. He hopes people see his portraits at www.utahwildhorses.com and take an interest in the horses, because he says change is coming.
“I want the herd to have a voice,” he said. “I want people to know and care about these unique and remarkable horses so they have a seat at the table when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decides what to do with them.”
This year, the BLM plans to round up the herd, bringing numbers down to between 120 and 210 horses, according to their website. Huggins knows population control is necessary but he believes a safer solution can be reached, one that doesn’t injure horses, break up families and relegate them to living their lives confined to corrals. He’s hopeful that the wild horse conservation groups, Salt River Wild Horse Management Group and the American Wild Horse Campaign can work with the BLM to co-manage the herd with funding and trained volunteers locating and darting mares with PZP, a long-lasting contraceptive.
“In my mind wild horse herds are a national treasure. They symbolize our pioneer spirit, they symbolize all that is great about our country,” he said. “Wild horses represent the freedoms that the United States are known for, and it would be a national tragedy if we fail to maintain them for future generations.”