The Salt River Wild Horses in Arizona

It’s not uncommon to see the famed Salt River Wild Horses during a paddle. In fact, it may even be the main reason you wanted to kayak the Salt River in the first place!

The legal status of Salt River Wild Horses

While recent legislation officially bestows the name “wild horses” upon the herd (more accurately, it simply says that they are “not a stray animal”), they’re not exactly wild, at least in the truest sense of the word. Unlike other native wildlife, these horses did not evolve with the Salt River landscape, but are descendants of domesticated horses.

Wildlife biologists and passionate horse advocates seem to disagree on exactly how long there herd has been here—whether the herd resulted primarily from horses that have escaped from the adjacent Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community over the last century, or whether the horses have roamed here since the Spanish passed through the area hundreds of years ago.

What we do know is that these “feral” horses have been living and reproducing in an increasingly larger herd in an ecosystem that didn’t evolve to support them. As a result, the horse population has been booming, disease has been spreading, the riparian environment has been harmed, and the horses have outstripped their food sources and now require supplemental feeding just to survive.

Is the Salt River Wild Horse population sustainable?

Conservationists and scientists worry about the impact the large herd is having on the already overstressed local environment, citing studies that show the current horse population has grown far beyond the area’s carrying capacity—perhaps as much as ten times larger than the river corridor can support. Population control efforts are underway, and various stakeholder groups have participated in a working group aimed at crafting long-term solutions. While the horses are here to stay, the details of how to manage the herd remain an unresolved question. What’s abundantly clear is that the Lower Salt River is a special resource with serious challenges ahead, and all sides will need to work together to adequately protect this special place and its wildlife.

Impacts and controversy aside, just about everyone recreating along the river enjoys seeing the horses. You’re most likely to see horses if you paddle in the early morning or late afternoon, but it’s common to see them throughout the day. Feel free to take photos, but please don’t disturb them.

Horses also often cross the Bush Highway, so please be very careful while driving. Tonto National Forest is in the midst of constructing fences to help with this problem, but you’ll need to keep an eye out nonetheless.

Originally stuck in a legal limbo, these horses are now protected under state law. There is a local nonprofit that helps to manage the herd, and you may encounter volunteers who try to keep people from harassing them.

How to interact with the Salt River Wild Horses

Here are some basic guidelines you should follow whenever you see a wild horse in the Lower Salt River:

  • Observe from a distance of 50 feet away. If horses move closer to you, please move back to maintain that 50-foot distance. Do not touch any horse.
  • Do not feed any horses.
  • Keep dogs leashed at all times while near the river.
  • Be a respectful observer. Don’t make loud noises, chase them if they move away, or otherwise harass any horses.
  • Call the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group at 480-868-9301 if you see an injured horse or an emergency situation involving a horse.