The world outside my hotel room window in Casper, Wyoming, was bright and blue. Sunny. Gorgeous.

But it was -9 degrees, a brisk day for the locals compared to the -35 temps the days before. 

For me, a beach blonde millennial from Florida, it was another world. 

I found myself in the cozy cowboy town of Casper because my husband was here for a conference. No offense to the residents, but there was never a day in my life where Casper was circled on a map or list somewhere of my dream vacation destinations. I’d left home during the most remarkable time of the year—when equestrians from across the globe descend upon our funky tropical state for world-class competition—for this? 

I had two days to myself to burn before we’d drive from Casper through the truly breathtaking Grand Tetons on our way to the bougie Jackson Hole ski resort. I was in cowboy country—I had to find horses. 

Wyoming is one of 10 U.S. states home to herds of wild horses. Overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, these horses (and burros) stretch out over the plains and mountains of the American West, often on Native American reservations.

I found the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary online and booked a time for a tour. The private farm, owned by a veterinarian and his family on the Wind River Reservation, was a good 2.5-hour drive from Casper across the open wind-strewn range.

I asked a few people at our hotel about making the drive in our rental SUV. Their eyes bugged out of their heads. “Not unless you have survival skills,” one bartender told me, laughing as she handed over a glass of wine.

I perused some local Facebook groups and got similar feedback there: don’t go. Don’t risk it, Florida girl. 

But the sun was shining and the roads were mostly dry, despite the negative temps. So I tossed all of my winter gear into the back seat, turned on Google Maps, and off I went. 

And I’m so glad I did. 

The drive to the reservation was beautiful and strange, flat snow-covered plains stretching out endlessly, until they reached the jagged mountain peaks in the sky. I saw cowboys herding cattle, fox crossing the road and trailers full of horses along the way. And then, I found wild mustangs. 

On their 1,400-acre farm—small in comparison to the large operations moving cattle and buffalo all around them—the Oldham family raises and breaks Quarter Horses. But half of their acreage is dedicated to wild American mustangs, where about 250 unadoptable horses live in herds off the land between their fence posts.

Most of the horses here are geldings, castrated by the BLM, but are aged into their teens or later, meaning they’re not great candidates for domestic adoption. So they found their way here, where they live out their days free on the reservation, but with medical care and additional nutrition when they need it. 

Congress passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses And Burros Act” in 1971, setting protection parameters for the “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” the horses that play “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” But in 2024, the future and safety of America’s wild horses are in constant jeopardy. 

In an effort to maintain herd population, the BLM rounds up horses and offers them for adoption annually. The BLM has also tried various birth control methods, some more successful than the others. But the BLM is often the source of criticism from animal rights groups due to horse deaths and inappropriate care leading to injury during these round ups or while the horses spend months at holding facilities. 

Images of malnourished, sickly horses often make headlines, and fuel the arguments that there are too many wild horses, more than public lands can support and feed. Farmers argue that the wild horses are a nuisance, encroaching on their pastures, eating from private lands that are meant for their ever-grazing cattle. 

No matter which side you fall on, it’s hard to look at these creatures with your own eyes and not feel heartache when you consider their uncertain future. Could there be a day in America when there are no wild horses left? 

I suited up in the packed snow outside a row of open paddocks, empty while I was there in January, but come spring, they’d be filled with young Quarter Horse stock or the few mustangs the family can get a hold of that are good candidates for adoption.

Once in multiple layers, I hopped into the breezy Kabota and off we went across the pastureland. 

The family had just dropped bales of alfalfa in the fields that morning, and dozens of small geldings huddled around it, munching at their leisure. They didn’t mind the soft rumble of the utility vehicle as we got close.

They walked with large bellies swinging between their hips—each one had an excellent body condition. I laughed looking at their thick, fluffy coats and thought about my thin-skinned Thoroughbreds at home wearing light sheets in weather nowhere close to as cold as this. 

They came in every color you’d see in a textbook about horses: bays, chestnuts, paints. Some with socks or stripes or flaxen manes and tails. Some bands that arrived together still stuck together within this larger herd.

Some were smaller, maybe just 13 hands. A group that arrived from Nevada were the smallest. Some were stocky and wide at maybe 15 hands, a true indication at how the term “mustang” has morphed to define a real mixed bag of breeds. 

We stayed for a while moving slowly through the herd. Geldings ate and fussed with each other, pinning ears and squealing, some showing their teeth. Others dozed in the sun with their eyes half-open and a hind ankle cocked.

To the average non-horse person, it wasn’t all that exciting. But to me, a lifelong horse lover, my heart was beating furiously in my chest. The horses felt comfortable here, enough to be at ease and to act like … horses.

Here, they were safe. It was incredible to see them up close, sometimes close enough to feel the hot exhales from their fuzzy, whiskered nostrils against my frozen fingers. 

Watching them roam over hundreds of acres on the reservation, with the mountains in full view behind them might not have been as exciting as catching the Grand Prix on Saturday night in Wellington, but it was a horse girl experience I’ll never forget.