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Photographing the wild horses of the West

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Photographer Lisa Rani had long planned to go to Paris for her 50th birthday. But as 2020 turned into an unusual year and travel to Europe became next-to-impossible, she decided to fulfill another dream on her bucket list: to photograph the American West’s wild horses in their own element.

Rani contacted Wild Horse Photo Safaris, upgraded with a rented full-frame camera and long-distance lens, and headed for the Onaqui Mountains in southern Utah. Here in the heart of the Great Basin, where many of the continent’s “wild horses” are found, she explored the 321-square-mile Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area, or HMA, where between 200 and 450 wild horses live – probably descended from the Pony Express stock let loose in the area over 150 years ago.

“I had my birthday cake with the horses at sunset,” she said proudly. “It was the best.” She spoke of how close she could come to the creatures, or how they would calmly sneak up to graze right behind her as she took photographs. She wasn’t quite scared – she had a horse when she was growing up in El Grenada, a small coastal Peninsula community on Princeton Bay – but as she said, “These horses are wild.

Many of the striking images that resulted from that adventure – stunning, colorful, atmospheric shots of horses running, grazing, reared up on their hind legs in fighting posture – open in exhibit this Saturday at Art Escape.

They are beautiful animals at once familiar and strange, wary and stern, their herd behavior reflected in their postures and body language. The title, “Band of Horses,” reflects that: in the slight unruliness of a band, not a team nor a herd, but a mobile unit, roaming wild. There are 40 images in the show, most of them large enough to inhabit the world of these splendid creatures. Also available are individual photographs for sale, at $5 each, to help Red Birds Trust, a grass roots organization founded by local wild horse advocates for the Onaqui herd.

Rani is a lifelong photographer, from Independence High in San Francisco through San Francisco State, though like most creatives she had to supplement her passion for photograph with a day job – she was a union stagehand in the Bay Area for over 10 years. By night, however, she could be found in the music clubs of San Francisco, including the legendary Dive Bar and Bender’s, photographing the musicians – the other kind of bands, and a metaphor she’s extended to her current horse show.

Since she’s moved to Sonoma, she’s done real estate photography and turned her lens to the familiar wine country landscapes. But her social conscience comes into play as well – she went to Standing Rock in 2016, taking up food and other donated supplies to the Native American encampment on the Missouri River in North Dakota.

So it wasn’t just the beauty of the horses that drew her to Onaqui, but the fate the wild horses of the American West face wherever they are found. There are some 60,000 wild horses on public lands, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has management responsibility for them under the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

But the impact of cattle and sheep on the land is far greater than horses or burros, as their grass diets need to be enhanced by protein and mineral supplements. About 229 million acres of federal public land in the west are used for livestock grazing for 94 million cattle, according to the USDA, at a public cost of over $30 billion a year.

The public cost of letting horses stay wild and their bands intact in the 177 Herd Management Areas (including 21 in California, 19 in Utah) could be zero if their populations were left alone, according to wild horse advocacy groups such as Wild Horse Education.

Instead, they are subject to annual roundups and herd culling – called “gathers” – without adequate study or supervision, say critics of the program.

“Since 1971, the BLM has removed nearly 27,000 animals from public rangelands in California as part of its efforts to maintain healthy horses and burros on healthy public rangelands,” reads the Bureau’s website at blm.gov/whb. “Animals removed from public rangelands are offered to the public for adoption; unadopted animals are cared for on open pastures for the rest of their lives,”

In Utah alone, BLM manages nearly 2.5 million acres of land for the wild horses and burros. The combined “appropriate management level” for all HMAs in the state is 1,956 animals; a just-completed “gather” in the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area had a goal of removing almost 300 “excess wild horses.”

“The Appropriate Management Level – the number of horses the range can sustainably support in conjunction with other animals and resource uses – for the Onaqui Herd Management Area is 121-210 horses and the current population is over 475 (not including the current years foals),” according to the BLM.

The main reason given for the removal of 200 horses from the HMA is the effect of drought on the landscape, though as herd animals with centuries of survival in the American West to point to, wild horse advocates suggest just leaving them alone.

Spreading the word on the challenges facing wild horses on public lands is the undercurrent of Band of Horses. “All I know is these horses need to be managed properly,” Rani said. “Management isn’t removal.”

Art Escape is located at 17474 Sonoma Highway in the Fetters area of the Springs. The exhibit, titled “Band of Horses,” runs Oct. 9 through Nov. 13 during gallery hours, 1 – 5 p.m. on weekdays. There will be an opening event on Oct. 9 from 5 – 7 p.m. with wine and non-alcohol drinks plus snacks, and a chance to learn more about Band of Horses from the photographer.

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