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'He was like the Holy Grail': The life and legend of America's most famous wild horse

Posted at 3:56 PM, Jan 21, 2020

SAND WASH BASIN, Colo. — They all have a story about Picasso, now the most famous wild horse in America, as if the old pinto was putting on a show just for them.

It might be the first time they saw the tri-color mustang galloping across the scrubby terrain of Colorado's Sand Wash Basin, heading full tilt toward a watering hole. It might be when they witnessed Picasso engaged in battle, clashing like a knight with a dusty black and white mane. And it might be an encounter that almost sounds too good to be true.

Patti Mosbey experienced this moment in the summer of 2014, and she still insists she wouldn't believe it had she not seen it herself.

She was making one final pass through the sprawling Basin, looking for wild horses along County Road 67, when she raised her binoculars and saw a speck in the distance. She soon realized it was Picasso. She snapped a few pictures and then spotted two bands of horses surrounding him.

But as Picasso passed by, the other horses, "as if to pay respect to the King," Mosbey said, parted in two, making room for the legend.

"You almost thought they were deferring to him," Mosbey said. “Nobody wanted to challenge him."

The life and legend of America's most famous wild horse

Over the last decade, Picasso became an object of devotion to a legion of fans, though few have seen in person the kind of moments Mosbey witnessed.

Instead, they track his every movement online, on Facebook pages dedicated to the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin and in one group just for Picasso himself, nearly 10,000 members strong.

The followers, no doubt, are awed by the other 700 or so horses roaming the Basin's 157,000 acres of federal land — the striking stallions in guard of their bands, the elegant mares, somehow unfazed by life in the wild, doting on their gangly young foals.

But none elicit the same reaction as Picasso, believed to be the herd elder at 30 years old.

They write songs and poetry about him. They paint his portrait. They connect the dots of his family tree. They worry about his weight. They make weekly trips from the nearby town of Craig and 2,000-mile pilgrimages from Canada.

Picasso wild horse
Picasso in the Sand Wash Basin.

"He was like the Holy Grail," said Sandy Sharkey, a retired radio broadcaster who set out from her home in Ottawa, Ontario, in May 2018, to photograph the wild horses of the American West. "To see Picasso was going to be akin to seeing Brad Pitt in the desert."

Picasso's age, if the estimates are accurate, would be rare for a wild horse, especially a competitive stallion in the high desert of northwestern Colorado, where the summers are scorching and the winters bring heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures.

"You just wouldn't believe where they live," said Nancy Roberts, who was among the initial photographers to document the horses beginning in 2009.

Roberts would rise before dawn, around three or four in the morning, and make the 50-mile drive from her home in Craig to the entrance of the Basin. On some days, she would drive her Subaru 100 miles across the dirt roads of the Basin and not see a single horse.

But she had plenty of luck, too, and estimated that over four years and 500 or so trips to the Basin, she documented every horse in the herd.

She created a blog and a Facebook page, where she posted pictures of the horses. She would put a newly discovered horse's name up for a vote, or pick one herself. In April 2010, she spotted Picasso and his band — two mares and two yearlings, including a pinto that exuded shades of his father.

Roberts, in a blog post about the encounter, called Picasso “an American icon,” but his legend was just beginning to grow.

Before 2008, he was hardly more famous than any other horse in the Basin. During a Bureau of Land Management roundup that year, Roberts said, a worker with the Humane Society eyed Picasso.

The pattern of his hide, with splotches of rich brown and cream, and the contrast of his black and white mane, made him stand out in the herd.

“He looks like a Picasso,” the worker said, according to one story.

The name stuck, social media grew, and Picasso became something of a celebrity.

"Whenever I posted a photo of him, people would just go crazy," Roberts said. "I don't know what happened. He just became the horse, the King of the Sand Wash Basin."

The most famous horse of all

Picasso, for all his fame, is just one of about 71,000 wild horses still roaming the vast federal lands of the American West.

How the horses are managed presents a thorny situation, with an underlying tension between staunch horse advocates and the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for the animals.

The BLM’s population estimates of wild horses far exceed the agency’s “appropriate management level” of about 26,900 — for both wild horses and burros — nationwide.

In Colorado, that management level is set at 812. By the BLM’s last count, 1,891 horses roamed the state’s four herd management areas, including about 700 in the Sand Wash Basin.

Under federal law, the BLM is authorized to gather any horses that push the population above those management benchmarks.

But even in the Basin — where the population is twice as much as what the BLM deems appropriate and where herds can double in four years — the roundups have been few and far between. The BLM hasn’t removed a horse from Basin land since 2016, when 43 mustangs were gathered through bait trapping and placed in an adoption program through the Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary & Training Center in Deer Trail, east of Denver.

Wild horses in Sand Wash Basin
The stallion Storm, far left, with his band of wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin in December.

The future of the herd management remains uncertain. Last fall, the BLM’s acting director, William Perry Pendley, told reporters it would take $5 billion and 15 years to get the wild horse population under control, through roundups, adoptions and possible sterilization.

Pendley’s comments only prompted more questions from lawmakers. Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse and six other Democrats wrote a letter to the Interior Department, demanding a detailed report about how the BLM planned to manage the wild horses.

In the BLM’s Colorado office, the agency watches a herd area’s population but also the landscape’s resources, such as the availability of water, when deciding if a gather is needed, said Benjamin Smith, the state’s wild horse and burro specialist for the BLM.

The agency doesn’t formally recognize the horses by name, though Picasso’s fame is hard to miss. Smith said the only wild horse that could compare to Picasso’s popularity was Desert Dust, a palomino stallion captured in Wyoming in the 1940s .

“Not quite like Picasso,” Smith said.

The attention garnered by Picasso and the other wild horses doesn’t always make population management easy for the BLM.

“I think it’s important to remember, especially with a national following: These animals are truly wild,” Smith said. “And sometimes we can associate human characteristics with a wild animal. And that can make management difficult.”

But Smith also understands the draw of a wild horse, why people feel such a deep connection.

“They’re an incredible animal,” Smith said. “Their capacity, their will to survive, their ability — there is just something majestic and magical about them.”

"It's a tough life"

Picasso’s longevity is not entirely by coincidence.

Yes, he has managed, by sheer luck, to avoid the brunt of a pickup truck along Highway 318, where he's been known to roam, or the shock of a lightning bolt from the stormy Colorado sky. In all his battles with other stallions — there have had to be hundreds, if not more — no blow or gnash proved to be fatal. In his years of running free over the rugged terrain of the Basin, no stumble or fall left him too hobbled to survive.

Picasso, to be sure, is a charmed old horse, which might be as much to credit for his popularity as anything. He has roamed in the wild for almost three decades, and it shows — his hide is stitched with the scars and swipes from other stallions; his face is thinning. And yet, Picasso persevered, wild and free.

But he is a smart horse, too, and one that was born with the instincts to survive.

"It really is survival of the fittest out there," said Nadja Rider, a frequent observer and photographer of the horses who lives in Craig.

Her Facebook page, Wild Horses of Sand Wash Basin , has more than 200,000 followers. Picasso, predictably, is the favorite.

"If the horses aren't born with the right instincts, they don't make it," Rider said.

The horses survive on the watering holes and forage of the Basin. Their digestive system allows them to get by on relatively low-quality feed, Smith said, and they can travel easily and quickly between water and food sources.

And wild horses, in general, don't have a natural predator. Their size, speed and tendency to live in herds make them unlikely prey.

"Even an injured horse is very difficult for something like a coyote to take down," Smith said.

For an old horse like Picasso, survival means having a good hiding spot in bad weather. He has a knack, Rider and the other observers say, for finding safe shelter in the gullies and washes of the Basin. In the winter months, he’s unlikely to be spotted at all.

Earlier this month, Rider posted a picture from the Basin of the pinto Michelangelo, a grandson of Picasso. He was dozing as he stood on a south-facing slope, a thicket of junipers behind him to block the wind. The mustang looked regal, his coloring reminiscent of his famous grandfather. But the picture was another moment of survival in the middle of a harsh winter, with months to go before warmth.

Michelangelo wild horse Picasso
Michelangelo, a grandson of Picasso, taking shelter behind a juniper tree in January.

“Most people have a romantic notion of their life,” Rider said. “It’s really not that romantic. It’s a tough life for Picasso, for all the wild horses.”

Picasso, a striking figure but considered to be a hand or two shorter than the tallest stallions, apparently learned another lesson early.

"There are some stallions that will literally battle to the death," Rider said.

"The smarter ones just know when to bow out,” she said, a lesson Picasso did not forget, even if he had a little fight left inside him.

The battle for Spirit Dancer

Scott Wilson arrived at the Basin for the first time on April 29, 2018. Looking back on the trip, the photographer from Greenwood Village still can't believe his luck.

He spent two days following the stallions and mares, and caught a stunning moment of two mustangs in the height of battle, clashing at the throat. It was a good trip, worth the five-hour drive from home.

As he headed out of the Basin, he spotted the flash of a painted stallion out of the corner of his eye, tussling with another mustang.

"I had no idea I was watching Picasso at the time," Wilson said, "but I got out of my car and just shot this scene to death."

He posted the pictures on his Facebook page, including one of Picasso charging full steam head, his scars and muscle and flowing mane on full display.

Picasso wild horse
Picasso charges toward another wild horse, Voodoo, in a battle in April 2018.

Wilson captioned the picture, “MUSTANG,” unaware, at the time, of the fame he had encountered.

“But suddenly, from nowhere, all of this Picasso fan club emerged,” he said, “and I kind of realized — I struck gold with this picture."

"I think Picasso is the epitome of the wild American mustang. It speaks to the nation in that way. It's what much of that wild, raw energy America has, and it just lives in this amazing horse. And I think people just want to feel a part of that."

What Wilson had witnessed was a glimpse of what might have been Picasso’s final great battle.

Wild horses congregate in bands, led by a stallion, such as Picasso, and joined by a mare or two and their yearlings. Picasso, who has enough offspring to fill a spreadsheet — Rider keeps a database on her computer — last had a good-sized band around 2014, Mosbey said, when he was running with four mares, including his beloved Mingo.

But Picasso lost the band, and was cast off on his own, a familiar outcome for an old stallion, even a legend. He wandered alone until the spring of 2018 when he struck up a romance with a pretty young mare named Spirit Dancer.

“He lost his mind over this young filly,” Rider said.

Then came Voodoo, a chestnut mustang named after a Steamboat Springs ski run. The two stallions battled for weeks over Spirit Dancer.

Wilson, the photographer who captured Picasso and Voodoo in the heat of battle, watched a slice of the struggle.

"Photos don’t lie," Wilson said. "But what you don’t see behind that is the absolutely day-by-day grueling, wearing down that went on...fighting just takes its toll."

Picasso, broken down and not ready to die, stepped away from the fight, leaving his young love behind.

By the end of 2018, Voodoo was spotted with a broken leg and was euthanized. The following year, Spirit Dancer, after delivering a foal, was found too sick and frail to stand, and she was euthanized, too.

Picasso and Spirit Dancer wild horses
Picasso and Spirit Dancer during their time together in 2018.

"They lived and died wild. They were free"

The Picasso followers know the end is near. The question this winter is whether the old man will see another spring.

In late 2018, Picasso was, by most accounts, feeble and weak, barely skin and bones before the thick of winter arrived.

Rider assumed that Picasso would never be seen again. Months passed without a sighting. In the early spring, Rider was visiting the Grand Tetons in Wyoming when she received a message from a friend in the Basin: They found Picasso.

"He was very much alive," Rider said.

She last spotted Picasso in November, near Highway 318, and walked him back into the Basin. Rider worries about the horses wandering near the highway traffic and has pushed for the Colorado Department of Transportation to build a fence along the road.

However it ends for Picasso, Rider will be at peace. Over the years, there have been calls for Picasso to be adopted, to be sheltered from the weathering of living in the wild. But Rider knows the wild is where Picasso belongs.

"So many people have wanted to remove him," Rider said. "But he needs to die out there."

“To any one of them that die,” Mosbey said, “You know what? Just be thankful. They lived and died wild. They were free.”

When Picasso does die, it won't be the end of an era, said Sharkey, the Canadian broadcaster who drove from Ottawa and back to see the famed horse.

"No horse lover worth their salt would call it that," Sharkey said.

Because when Picasso is gone, Sharkey said, his legacy will carry on, in the attitude and appearance and instinct of his generations of offspring. His fans will return to the Basin, where they might spot a painted mustang, free as the day he was born, galloping toward a watering hole or charging at a taller stallion, and they might see the old pinto one more time.

Picasso and Voodoo wild horse
Picasso squaring off with Voodoo in April 2018.

This story was originally published by Ryan Osborne at KMGH.