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Four years ago, photographers descended upon the Sand Wash Basin to watch the government bait-trap some of the area’s wild horses. But while documenting the controversial practice, meant to curb population growth, the photographers also noticed a star.
As images from the day began to circulate, one horse—boasting a distinctive tricolored coat and a tendency to pose for the camera—stood out. The stallion had already developed a small following, but the photos made his popularity soar. Many people became so enamored they began making trips to the basin, near Craig in northwestern Colorado, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. A Facebook group with more than 15,000 followers attempts to track every move he and his offspring make. This level of devotion has arguably made the mustang, named Picasso, the most famous wild horse in the country.
While good looks certainly helped Picasso’s star ascend, he’s more than a pretty face. Most untamed equines live around 20 years; Picasso is nearing 30. That longevity inspired followers to crown him king of the Sand Wash Basin. “Picasso is the embodiment of strength,” says Cindy Wright, co-founder of Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin. “People go into the basin to find healing when they are at a low point. He is symbolic of the ability to keep moving forward.”
Even Picasso’s perseverance has been tested in recent years. Colorado’s mustangs are relegated to four herd management areas (HMAs) in the state maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency has advised that all four combined should hold no more than 812 horses; Picasso’s HMA alone is home to nearly 800, more than double the suggested maximum of 362. As a result, horses are constantly clashing over resources, and the BLM continually tries to stymie their foal-making (hence, the bait-trapping, which involves injecting mares with contraceptives).
Despite these conditions, Picasso has outlived the majority of his peers and even a few of his estimated 20-plus descendants. As of press time, though, the stallion hadn’t been seen since November. But, as Wright points out, mustangs often find a secluded spot for winter before reemerging in spring. “For all we know,” she says, “he may be hiding in a stash of vegetation, eating away the season.”