Band on the Run: Photographing the Wild Horses of Alberta

For more than 250 years, Sundre, Alberta, has been home to roaming wild horses, known as “the Wildies.”

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Wild horses of Alberta
Photo: Sandy Sharkey

My Close Encounter With the Wild Horses of Alberta

The wild stallion appeared at the edge of the forest, his thick bay coat glistening in the sunshine. Ears perked up, eyes alert, he watched me as intently as I watched him. A twig was tangled in his forelock. It either added to his wild appearance or gave him a comical look. Before I could decide, I realized that I, too, had a twig stuck in my hair. I felt a kindred connection with this horse. This is what happens when you spend a lot of time in the bush.

Ninety minutes north of Calgary, the small town of Sundre (population 2,729) is considered the gateway to Alberta’s Rocky Mountain foothills, home to the wild horses that have survived here for more than two and a half centuries. A large mural stretching across the Sundre Museum proudly displays a pictorial history of the area’s wild horses. They are tough, sturdy animals that roam the forests, bogs and grasslands in close-knit family bands.

Just after sunrise on a crisp January morning, I joined my expert guides, Darrell Glover and Duane Starr, who founded the organization Help Alberta Wildies in January 2014.

Both retired, Darrell and Duane work tirelessly to increase awareness of, and protection for, these wild horses. On any given day, they fill the role of guardian angels. Darrell regularly flies his Cessna airplane over the range land to ensure that the family bands are healthy, safe and documented. Duane is by his side, using his instincts and expertise as a wildlife photographer to capture wild horse images that are as much an art form as they are a source of documentation. On this day, the three of us set out in a 4×4 truck, headed for the back roads of the Alberta foothills. Within minutes, a cow moose appeared, stopping for a quick glance around before lumbering on. As we continued our climb through majestic forests with sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains, a red fox popped out of the snow. A tasty rodent had eluded him this time, but he went right back to work, burying his nose into a snowdrift.

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Wild horses of Alberta
Photo: Sandy Sharkey

Spotting the Wild Horses of Alberta

Horses! Darrell spotted them first. A small family band of Alberta wild horses stood knee-deep in snow on the edge of a forest. Three mares and a stallion with a twig stuck in his forelock. We quietly got out of the truck, stepping through thick brush to get a better view, but keeping a respectful distance.

The time spent with a wild horse band can vary. Some horses keep their distance and upon spotting you, disappear into the forest. Others look at you with curiosity, then go right back to grazing. It is important to stay calm when you are in their presence. Once the stallion or lead mare determines you are nothing to fear, you can spend a lot of time with them.

The wild horses we first spotted had thick winter coats that glistened in the sun, and manes the colour of midnight. I was struck by their beauty. The mares ignored our presence, foraging beneath the snow. The stallion, however, remained curious and watchful. Then with a toss of his mane, he gave his mares the signal and they galloped through the deep snow and disappeared into the forest.

We continued on, and found more bands of wild horses at the forest’s edge, as well as in clearings and bogs, each sighting different from the rest but equally exhilarating. Last spring’s foals were now almost as tall as their mothers, prancing about and kicking their heels in the fresh mountain air.

Our drive through the foothills was an easy loop. My mind kept repeating the same thought, that most people have never seen a wild horse.

There is a belief among some First Nations Peoples that a spiritual connection exists between humans and wild horses: If wild horses come to you in your dreams, it means you are blessed with certain powers.

If you love wild horses, you should also check out Sable Island, Nova Scotia!

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Wild horses of Alberta
Photo: Sandy Sharkey

Planning Your Own Visit

You don’t have to search far to find the wild horses of Alberta. Stallions tend to keep their family bands in familiar territories. With the Rocky Mountains as a spectacular backdrop, a wild horse sighting is pure gold for a nature lover.

We spent approximately seven hours in the foothills that day, and at the end of our loop, the sun had begun to set. Duane, Darrell and I headed for home, or in my case, my motel room, but not before the day delivered one final gift—a large band of wild horses on the edge of a bog, with two duelling stallions in a sparring match. Kicking up their heels, kicking up snow; it can be very dramatic when it happens, but these stallions are only focused on each other in order to assert dominance. Their ultimate prize is winning over a mare.

For your next wildlife experience, the wild horses of Alberta will leave you breathless.

In fact, if you contact Help Alberta Wildies, Duane or Darrell will be glad to tell you where they are. And maybe they’ll even escort you to see the horses, since they will likely be going out to see them that day anyway.

The wild horses of Alberta have earned their place as one of the star attractions in this pristine wilderness.

I have travelled to photograph horses in Mongolia, France and most of the southern United States. This past June, I returned to Alberta to spend another great day photographing wild horses with Darrell. I guess you could say I am dedicated!

More info about the wild horses of Alberta:

  • The southwest of Calgary has been home to wild horses since the early 1900s. (If you’re in the area, don’t miss these top Calgary attractions.)
  • These horses are completely different from their domesticated counterparts. Because they have been living independently for six generations, they have adapted to the surrounding landscape, so tourists must be cautious when approaching them in the wild.

Next, read about how photographing Alberta’s wild horses changed this woman’s life.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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