The Salt River Horses, also known as the Salt River Wild Horses, is a population of feral horses that inhabit the banks of the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, located near Mesa, Arizona. These horses are descendants of domestic horses that were either abandoned or escaped from ranches and settlements in the area, eventually adapting to a wild, free-roaming lifestyle.

The exact number of Salt River Horses can vary, but estimates suggest several hundred individuals are within the herd. Their population is not static and can fluctuate due to natural factors and human intervention. These wild horses have become a popular attraction for both locals and tourists. People often visit the Salt River area to observe and photograph these majestic animals in their natural habitat.

These horses exhibit a variety of coat colors and patterns, reflecting their mixed heritage. You can find horses with colors such as bay, black, brown, and even pinto patterns among the herd. One of my favorites spotted this year is pictured below.


The Salt River Horses have garnered significant attention and support from local communities, animal advocates, and government agencies. In 2015, they faced potential removal by the U.S. Forest Service, but public outcry and legal action led to their protection. They are now officially recognized as part of the Tonto National Forest’s natural heritage.

In 2016, Arizona passed legislation (HB 2340) to protect the Salt River Horses, recognizing them as an important part of the state’s natural heritage. This legal protection helps safeguard the horses from harm and ensures their continued presence in the area. Management of the Salt River Horses involves a delicate balance between preserving their wild nature and ensuring their welfare. Various organizations, including the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, work to monitor and care for the herd, providing medical treatment when necessary and advocating for their protection.


The horses roam freely in an area of approximately 20,000 acres along the Salt River and its surrounding landscapes. This habitat provides them with access to water and grazing areas. Once you arrive at the Lower Salt River, I would suggest checking the main named areas to start, such as Phon D. Sutton, Coon Bluff, and Goldfield areas. Alternatively, another great spot is along the bush highway stretch between 87 and Saurago Lake.


If I didn’t have much time, Goldfield would be my pick to spot the Salt River Horses. There is a large parking lot here, and it’s an easy hike, with the river being accessible from both sides of the parking lot. You can also peak down the river quite a distance, which helps to spot the Salt River Horses in either direction.


  • Use a Telephoto Lens: Wild horses can be skittish and may keep their distance from humans. A telephoto lens with a long focal length (200mm or more) will allow you to capture close-up shots without disturbing the animals.
  • Be Respectful: Always maintain a safe and respectful distance from the horses. Do not approach too closely or make sudden movements, as this can startle them. Keep a low profile and blend into the environment as much as possible.
  • Observe Quietly: Spend time quietly observing the horses’ behavior and interactions. This will help you anticipate interesting moments to capture.
  • Shoot During Golden Hours: The hours just after sunrise and before sunset, known as the “golden hours,” provide soft, warm lighting that can enhance your photographs. The low angle of the sun can also create dramatic shadows and highlights.
  • Capture Action Shots: Look for moments of activity such as running, playing, or grazing. These action shots can result in dynamic and engaging photos.
  • Compose Carefully: Pay attention to composition. Use the rule of thirds, leading lines, and other compositional techniques to create visually appealing photographs.
  • Include the Environment: While close-ups of the horses can be captivating, don’t forget to capture shots that show the horses in their natural habitat. Wide-angle lenses can be helpful for this purpose.
  • Watch for Interactions: Wild horses often have social interactions with each other. These interactions can convey a sense of their behavior and hierarchy. Be ready to capture these moments.
  • Patience is Key: Wildlife photography, especially of unpredictable subjects like wild horses, requires patience. Be prepared to spend extended periods waiting for the right moments to unfold.
  • Use a Tripod: If the lighting conditions are less than ideal or if you’re using a telephoto lens with a heavy camera, a tripod can help you stabilize your shots and prevent camera shake.
  • Consider Shutter Speed: When photographing moving horses, use a fast shutter speed to freeze their motion. A shutter speed of 1/500th of a second or faster is often necessary for sharp action shots.
  • Experiment with Different Angles: Get down to the horse’s eye level for a unique perspective. This can create more intimate and engaging photos.
  • Respect Wildlife and Regulations: Always prioritize the well-being of the wild horses and the natural environment. Follow any regulations or guidelines in place to protect the animals and their habitat.


You must purchase a park pass if you are spending time in this area and park in any recreational area. You can read up on the passes and buy them here. You can also purchase them in various areas around Tonto Forest.


If you are ever in the area and decide to visit the horses, give them space and stay well away from them, at least 50 feet. If you have a pup adventuring with you for the day, check up on the local leash laws in Maricopa County. And obviously, keep your pup on a leash here if you encounter the Salt River Wild Horses, as you would not want them startling each other.

There are quite a few gates in the area, near the river, along the roads, and on hiking trails. Make sure you close them if you go through them. Remember, these are wild animals, so you should never feed them but enjoy them by observing them from a safe distance. They make great photographic subjects and add a great twist to your desert pics.

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