The Onaqui Wild Horses

Written by Robert Hammer


The Onaqui Herd Management Area (HMA) is home to about 450 wild horses roaming over 300 square miles of wonderfully photogenic knolls, buttes and mountains rising from broad, flat expanses of sage-covered ancient seabed.  The heart of this vast yet surprisingly intimate desert gem – and obvious “home base” for visitors seeking an encounter with its famously tourist-friendly wild horses – is Simpson Springs, a way station along the storied Pony Express Trail. 

Over 150 years ago, daring young riders raced their steeds across this remote desert floor, changing horses at remount stations positioned every ten miles or so between the way stations marking the ends of each rider’s assigned route.  Their course through the forbidding “Great American Desert” stretching from Utah’s Wasatch Mountains to the Sierra Nevada Range was formally charted by US Army Captain James H. Simpson in 1859.  Although the Pony Express provided cross-country mail transport for just nineteen months, stagecoach services, the US Cavalry and countless westbound migrants made good use of Simpson’s Central Overland Route for nearly a decade, until the Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah, about 110 miles north of the little desert oasis that still bears Simpson’s name.

Today, Simpson Springs provides an informational kiosk and developed camping near remnants and replicas of buildings from those mid-nineteenth century enterprises.  The spring-fed pond about 800 yards northwest of the small roadside parking lot is a favored watering hole for the most beautiful and enduring remnants of those bygone days: the free-roaming progeny of cavalry mounts and cross-country racers that have claimed this region as their home for nearly a century and a half.  It is not unheard of to find a band of wild ones grazing within yards of the camping spaces nestled in the foothills of the towering Simpson Mountains along the opposite side of the road.

With a little over 450 mustangs, the Onaqui HMA currently boasts approximately 450 acres per horse.  With so much room to roam, they aren’t always near the most easily-accessed roads and springs when we would like them to be.  Nevertheless, traveling ten miles or so in either direction from the Simpson Springs “home base” holds great odds for wild horse sightings.  And, as photographers from across the nation and around the world have discovered, the gorgeous surroundings almost never fail to provide a perfect backdrop once you find them.

You can learn more about the history of Utah’s wild horses in Robert Hammer’s book, Salt Desert Mustangs: Discovering wild horses and historic trails in Tooele County, Utah