A band of wild mustangs from the Onaqui herd near Salt Lake City, Utah
On the Range
The Chantecaille team invited a small group of editors, creators, and conservationists to Utah to discover the Wild Mustang collection—and learn how we can help to keep wild horses wild.
The image of a wild mustang galloping across the rugged western American landscape is a stirring symbol of freedom. But few of us have seen one—let alone a whole herd—with our naked eyes. Horses evolved on the continent millions of years ago before crossing the land bridge to Asia and were later reintroduced by the Spanish in the 17th century. But their numbers in the wild have dwindled to fewer than 70,000, now living mainly on remote public lands across 10 western states.
“The plight of wild horses in this country is heartbreaking,” says Creative Director Olivia Chantecaille. “These majestic creatures not only deserve but are supposed to have the same federal protections as the bald eagle.”
But it hasn’t worked out that way. In 1971, the U.S. Congress pledged to preserve American wild horses forever with the creation of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros act. The new law charged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, with managing these animals on public lands. But under pressure from special interests, the agency has “turned the law on its head and failed to uphold its promise to protect the freedom of wild horses on western public lands,” says Suzanne Roy, Executive Director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for protection and humane management of the country’s wild horses.
Wild horses live in dynamic social structures of 5 to 12 known as bands. AWHC knows many by name; the white horses here are Shaikh, Dime and Whisper.
A desire to help wild horses thrive in the wild inspired Chantecaille to partner with AWHC in 2018 with the creation of Joy, a cheek shade emblazoned with a horse. But with the wild horses’ plight increasingly dire, we created our Fall ’23 Mustang Collection to continue to support AWHC’s efforts.
And so this past June, on a clear day amidst an explosion of colorful wildflowers dotting the Onaqui Mountains roughly an hour outside of Salt Lake City, a small group readied for the adventure of a lifetime: the chance to witness one of the last mustang herds in the wild, led by the team at AWHC.
Utah is one of the horses’ last strongholds in the U.S., with 17 distinct wild populations totaling just under 3,600 horses. The Chantecaille group was hoping to spot the wild horses who live in the mountains. At 5:30 am, the group set out in sprinter vans, riding for more than an hour through a wide valley and stopping, fittingly, at the beginning of the historical Pony Express highway to switch into off-road 4x4s. It was here that they were met by their guides—AWHC’s Executive Director Suzanne Roy, Deputy Director Melissa Tritinger, Communications Director Grace Kuhn, and Tandin Chapman, AWHC’s Utah Conservation Manager.
The group near the historical Pony Express highway (L); AWHC’s Suzanne Roy and Olivia Chantecaille (R).
The group split into three vehicles and began their journey onto the protected land. Tandin had scouted the horses the night before and knew where some might be, but actually coming across them, just beyond the entrance to their habitat area, was electrifying. “It wasn’t just one or two small bands, it was several that made up a larger herd, many of them congregating around a watering hole,” Olivia recalls. The Onaqui horses (“or Rainbow herd”) are renowned for their colors, which include pintos, roans, chestnuts, bays, palominos, and blacks, and also for being relatively easy to spot.
For safety (the stallions can be territorial of their mares and foals) and to help preserve the horses' wildness, the group remained a minimum of 100 feet away. “We saw horses rolling in mud, drinking, playing; we saw a stallion named Charger chase a young bachelor away from his females, we saw fighting and play fighting from the younger bachelors and really saw how the horses live their lives and interact,” says Madeline Dunham, Chantecaille’s Director of Communications. “Wild horses seem so different from domesticated horses,” Olivia adds. “You see their personalities come through so strongly.” More local characters included Red Lion, identified by his long red mane; Clorox—whose pinto color appears bleached—along with his family; and Buck, a lone older bachelor who is a local hero for having survived an attempted “round-up” by hiding under a tree.
Wild horses can travel up to 20 miles a day in search of food and water.
The group also learned more about this cruel practice. Under industry pressure, Suzanne Roy explained, the federal government reduces America's wild herds through a program that rounds them up by the thousands each year to make space for commercial livestock grazing. Captured wild horses are loaded onto trailers and transported to taxpayer-funded holding facilities, where many of them end up in the slaughter pipeline. According to AWHC, it costs up to $48,000 for every horse captured and held in captivity for life and there are 60,000 captured horses in pens right now.
A painted horse named Charger on the far left (L); viewers must remain at least 100 feet away to keep wild horses wild.
Over the past decade, AWHC has won important legal battles to uphold the intent of original law in states like Nevada, Wyoming and California, created a land trust to preserve the range where wild horses can roam freely, and launched field conservation programs to protect wild herds across the west. The cornerstone of this program is the remote darting of wild mares with a scientifically-proven birth control vaccine, PZP, to humanely reduce population growth and keep numbers in balance with other wildlife.
In fact, the funds raised from Chantecaille’s Wild Mustang Collection will support AWHC’s Utah Conservation Program for the protection of a remote and little-studied herd of wild horses in the Cedar Mountains southwest of Salt Lake City. The program aims to protect habitat and enhance water availability for the horses, keeping them humanely in balance with their environment through fertility control. The Cedar Mountain horses are one of the most colorful herds in the West, and AWHC is collaborating with the BLM Utah and Ensign Ranches, which grazes cattle in the area, for its protection.
“AWHC is honored to continue our partnership with Chantecaille for the conservation of the west’s wild horses and wild places,” Suzanne Roy says. “The funding provided by the Fall 2023 Mustang Collection will help ensure the success of our program to protect the magnificent Cedar Mountain wild horses and work toward a day when cruel and costly roundups are a thing of the past.”
The next day, the group had a different type of horse encounter with a trail ride in the mountains, followed by a lunch celebrating Chantecaille’s 25th anniversary, set in a clearing surrounded by a wildflower meadow. Here the group continued to trade impressions of the previous day’s outing. “Seeing horses in the wild and the freedom they have to run around,” Olivia says, “really reinforces how important it is to protect and preserve all of it—the animals, the land—for our own sake and the health of the planet.”
Studies have shown that horses spread native plant seeds as they move across the landscape.