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Saving the wild horses


Sarah Waters uses her camera to help Kiger mustangs

PHOTOS BY SARAH WALTERS - Sarah Waters of Lake Oswego goes way out into some wild country to take photos of Kiger mustangs. She loves her work.Sarah Waters wants to keep wild horses wild.

That is why the Lake Oswego woman is using her photography skills in a campaign that is dear to American horse lovers: stopping the decline in the number of wild horses roaming the American range. Using a 400-millimeter lens and good timing, Waters has taken some remarkable shots of Kiger mustangs in Oregon and Washington.

All of the photos capture the breathless beauty of the mustangs, but one of them has a touch of humor. In this one, four Kigers look like they are posing for a group photo.

“I love to see wild horses running free,” Waters says. “If I could create sanctuaries for wild horses, I would do it in a heartbeat. That would take huge resources and a lifetime commitment.”

But Waters is doing the best she can with her camera, having her photos displayed in galleries in New York and Astoria. She intends to have the photos shown in many more galleries.

“My goal is to photograph the Kiger mustangs and spread the word about what is happening to them,” Waters says. “I am working toward creating a product-based site with funds to both continue my work and help the cause.

“If I do my part, I can help nonprofits and tell their stories. That’s what I would love to do.”

Waters figures she owes a lot to horses. One of her favorite childhood activities was riding horses in her native Menlo Park, Calif. But beyond providing fun, horses did a lot more for Waters.

These four Kiger mustangs are not posing for a group photo. It just looks that way. The Kigers are called really an Oregon treasure.“My mom died when I was 11 years old,” she says. “They didn’t use horses for equine therapy in the ‘70s, but my dad had me take horseback riding lessons. I realize now that was my therapy. Horses have such an amazing sense of when people are in distress. They have such a calming effect.”

Waters became even more convinced about the healing power of horses when she became friends with a 21-year-old woman named Brittany, who suffers from mild autism, cerebral palsy and the rare Wegener’s granulomatosis, a disorder causing inflammation of your blood

vessels. To help her deal with her ills, Brittany wanted to see a horse every day, and Big Hearts Horse Rescue of Salem helped her adopt a gentle horse named Maverick. With her camera,

Waters was able to capture the “wonderful collaboration” between Brittany and Maverick.

Waters so likes the idea of horses as healers that she has become friends with Stacey Harnew-Swanson, manager of Wild Horse Mountain Ranch in Sherwood. Harnew-Swanson’s use of Kigers (and other mustangs) as therapy equines greatly influenced Waters’ decision to concentrate on this remarkable breed of horse.

“Stacey adopts Kigers, so they can be used for equine therapy,” Waters says. “Every spring she has an event called ‘Meet the Mustangs.’ It shows all of the different types of equine therapy.”

“We have mustangs who are very tuned in to the folks with special needs in our program,” Harnew-Swanson says.

A noble steed indeed is this Kiger mustang, which Sarah Waters captures here with a very tight closeup during her expedition to the Steen Mountains in Oregon.“The Kigers are special because they’re like walking museum exhibits. No other herd in America is quite like the Kiger. It really is an Oregon treasure. This is the quintessential horse of dreams.”

Yet, besides dreams, wild mustangs also inspire controversy. Waters says, “It’s a very, very complicated issue.” There is strong disagreement among various groups about how to handle the dilemma of the best way to control these magnificent horses. The Bureau of Land Management, which operates a program in Burns, has a roundup operation in which wild horses are gathered and put in corrals. In fact, bureau statistics show that about 50,000 wild horses are living in captivity, compared to 32,000 still running wild. The bureau maintains that the roundups are “necessary and justified,” because the population of wild horses becomes too great and they overgraze the range.

Then there is the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, which claims that the program is costly, ineffective and harmful to horses.

“I’m trying to stay neutral,” Waters says. “I want to learn all that I can and help all that I can.”

Two Kiger mustangs are captured in a gentle moment. They are also gentle with human beings at Wild Horse Mountain Ranch in Sherwood.She does credit the BLM with doing a good job of gathering wild horses. On the other hand, she said, “I would prefer to see the horses running free. There are casualties in the roundups.”

While staying above the fray, Waters can still tell the story of the Kiger mustangs with her photos. If those photos remind people of some past great American photographers it is no coincidence.

“My father (George Waters) was best friends with Ansel Adams,” she says. “He was the photo lithographer for many of Ansel’s first books. He also worked with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Alfred Stieglitz ... all photography pioneers.”

Waters started out like she was going to take right after her dad. She was “the girl with a camera” in high school and college, taking photos for all the school publications.

Running free on the prairie of the Great American West is what Sarah Waters wants for wild horses. But there is intense disagreement on how to best handle this issue.Eventually, though, it became too daunting for Waters to continue in photography because of the awesome reputation of her father.

“I always compared myself to my dad. It took me awhile to get my confidence,” Waters says. “When my kids were born (17 years ago) it rejuvenated the love of photography in me.

“I love the human story. Everyone has a story to tell. I love telling that.”

Now, Sarah Waters doesn’t just have a story, she has a cause — preserving America’s wild horses.

To learn more, go to www.sarahwatersphotography.com or www.wildhorsemountain.org.