Unclaimed, unbranded, free -- photographer chronicles Salt River horses - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Unclaimed, unbranded, free -- photographer chronicles Salt River horses

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 3:11 pm | Updated: 4:37 pm, Tue May 15, 2012.

The gray stallion with the unlikely name Biff and his family were relaxing in the shade of the mesquite woods bordering the Salt River when I spotted a coyote about 40 yards away.

“That’s a rare gray fox,” Becky Standridge corrected me as she dropped to her knees to see under the tree limbs, raised her Canon 1Ds Mark III and fired off several frames as the fox scampered away.

Would that I had such instincts and reflexes. The fox was long gone before a signal from my brain reached my hands telling me to lift my junior Canon and take pictures.

In a Kodak or Canon moment, Standridge made her stamp as a woman who knew what to do with a camera when wildlife is on the move.

My path crossed Standridge’s for the first time last Thursday morning at Coon Bluff, a Tonto National Forest park about eight miles north of Mesa along the Bush Highway.

I was there on only my second outing of the spring hoping to photograph migratory birds.

Standridge was there for what has become a nearly daily ritual of trekking along the Salt River to chronicle the lives of the horses that roam wild there.

In March, the Mesa resident created a Facebook page on which she shares her magnificent images of the horses and welcomes those of others who also photograph them.

Go there. If you like the wild outdoors and if you like horses, you won’t regret it.

In the Facebook search field type in the words “Salt River wild horses” (without the quotes) or you can go to this URL: http://evtnow.com/2t5

The Facebook photo diary tells you a great deal about the lives of the horses along the Salt. What it doesn’t tell is the journey of discovery Standridge is on and her purpose in drawing attention to the horses.

Standridge, a native Arizonan and Mesa resident, had heard about wild horses for a long time but didn’t set out to find and photograph them until the early spring of 2011.

In this respect, I may be ahead of her. Over five or six years of bird-watching along the Salt, I had encountered both small and large herds of horses several times.

They would appear out of nowhere, standing or walking amid the trees. Sometimes they would walk right at me, and I would yield the right-of-way.

The encounters were gifts from the great outdoors.

And not just my gifts, sometimes they come in sight of picnickers and campers. Tubers and rafters often see them cooling down in the river.

But I didn’t know what I was looking at. Did they belong to the Indian community on the other side of the river? Did they belong to some horse ranch that was leasing national forest land? Were they feral horses, as I was once told, meaning somebody had left the barn door or corral gate open and they had never come back? Or were they wild?

There is no doubt in Standridge’s mind that they are wild.

She patiently explained that horses were brought to this hemisphere and to this valley by the conquistadores and Spanish missionaries.

In a sense all American wild horses derived from domesticated stock.

Standridge’s bottom line is that no one claims the horses and they have been there for as long as anyone she’s talked with can remember.

They are unclaimed, unbranded and roam free on public land. And that, she said, protects them under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Standridge doesn’t know exactly how many wild horses make their home in the lower Salt River Basin. Maybe 100, she says. But some roam up the Verde River, too, making it difficult to know for sure.

Besides, counting the horses has not been her focus. Telling the horses’ story through her camera lens has.

“I’ve been too busy following the horses, documenting what I see, who is born, who has died, which stallion has stolen mares from what other stallion,” she explained.

I don’t think the word “document” does justice to what you’ll find when you go to the Salt River wild horses Facebook page.

Standridge was trained at ASU in biology, but there is photographic artistry in her contributions and those of her fellow photographers.

You can recognize which photos are Standridge’s by the SAM copyright stamp on the photo.

Why SAM?

It’s short for Sunshine And Me. Sunshine is a reference to her husband, she explained.

Awwww.

To get to one of my favorites, do a search for the word “Champ” on the Facebook page and you’ll come to an action photo of three horses and a filly in deep water.

When Standridge came across the horses, the filly had ventured too far into the water and was being swept downstream. That’s when a stallion came to the rescue, getting a good hold of the filly and bringing her to shore.

Standridge was so impressed by the stallion’s heroics, she named him Champ after Gene Autry’s horse Champion.

But Biff? Who would name a wild horse Biff?

A volunteer tracker, Standridge said. Naming horses is one of the perks of being in the select herd of people who follow the horses.

Standridge has a picture of Biff in his bachelor days lazing in the Salt with two other bachelors. It seems that since then Biff got lucky as a result of a fight between two other stallions over one of the stallion’s mares.

When Standridge and I watched Biff and his family of two mares, one colt and two foals, as well as two other families that were lazing in the shade several hundred feet east of the river at Coon Bluff, the gray stallion seemed quite content. The life of Biff.

So where does Standridge’s journey lead and how can you help?

There is a lot swirling in Standridge’s head about where all this goes.

She would like to see her work published. An Arizona Highways spread would be thrilling.

She would like to find funding to support a nonprofit that would advocate for the Salt River horses and underwrite a program of darting mares with a hormone that would reduce their fertility.

The horses have few natural predators, and a lower birth rate would keep the horses from overtaxing their environment and keep them healthy.

She would like to find vintage photographs of the horses to help her better understand and tell their story.

I would have thought Standridge had horses as a child. Not so, the petite woman with a warm smile told me. But they were her first and longest love.

“Mom told me that when I discovered boys, I would forget about the horses,” she said. “Well, I discovered boys, but I never forgot about the horses.”

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