Traveling west from Faust on the Pony Express Trail over Lookout Pass, south of Skull Valley, we found a kiosk with information about the Onaqui Mountain wild horse herd that roams this area. I thought, “Yeah, right,” and remembered the many times I had been told to watch for wild horses on a trail and saw nothing.
Imagine my surprise when, having traveled only a short distance west from that sign, we found ourselves in the middle of a large herd of wild horses. Excited about this encounter, we pulled over to watch.
I counted more than 200 horses. I learned later that this was only a part of some 450 horses in the Onaqui Mountain herd that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Taking the time we did, it was fun to observe the dynamics of the herd. On first glance, we saw just a field of horses, but as we watched their movements, we noticed the subgroups. Stallions managed and protected their families. Young males were trying to build their own.
Apparently, our presence didn’t bother them. We watched a stallion cross the road in front of us with two mares and a foal. I couldn’t tell if it was a colt or a filly.
We noticed that the stallion always followed protectively and never led. He may not always be right with them, but he was always alert and kept a close eye on them. If a challenger came anywhere near, the male was right there to defend his territory.
Many of the stallions bore scars from past battles. We spotted two of them as they squared off, standing on their back legs, rearing up and fighting each other with their front hoofs. While some of the young ones playfully chased each other, there was nothing that looked playful between these guys.
The Onaqui horses are colorful, with brown and bay being the most common colors found in the herd. Other colors include roan, buckskin, black, grey, palomino and sorrel. I think you have to be a cowboy to appreciate what a sorrel colored horse is.
We also noticed several horses rolling on the ground. I learned that this behavior is a sign of a healthy horse. It happens more frequently in the spring when the animal is trying to shed a winter coat. It also creates a protection from the sun and insects. According to the Manitoba Co-operator, a newsletter on all things farming, “It is both beneficial to their health and an indicator of their health. Horses that roll relieve themselves of accumulated physical and mental tensions.”
The word “Onaqui” piqued my curiosity. I learned that it is a word from the Goshute Indian language meaning “place of salt.” Miners seeking gold in this area gave the name to some mountains near where we were. The word is pronounced “Onakee.” The emphasis is placed on the “na,” with the “a” having a short vowel sound.
The Onaqui Horse Management area covers 205,394 acres of federal, state and privately owned land between Johnson Pass on the north and Lookout Pass on the south. The challenge is to maintain a balance between available grazing for cattle, sheep and the wild horse herd.
The horses are mustangs have been around since the late 1880s. Mustangs were the breed of horse preferred for Pony Express riders. It wasn’t hard to imagine that maybe some of these might have been descendants of the ones that carried those famous riders.
According to the Tooele County Travel Council, “It is believed the Standard Horse and Mule Company, which provided remounts for the U.S. Army, controlled the original stock. However, according to the BLM, many of the horses … are from descendants that were turned loose or escaped nearby ranches.”
We rode further west on the Pony Express route and found the trough used to water the horses. It appeared to be fed by a well with a natural flow that kept it full. We could see why the mustangs would want to stay close by.
If you are interested in wild horses, this is the place to go for the most likely encounter. Google “Onaqui Mountain Wild Horse Herd” for directions to see these amazing animals. When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down and if you can find a sorrel horse, you are more cowboy than me.