The Most Famous Mustang in America
Wild mustangs are a national treasure, one of the last surviving remnants of the old frontier. Like the Native Americans who survived for eons in the wilderness, then the pioneers who came West, wild horses are tough, spirited, resourceful, and driven by a free spirit. They are quintessentially American. The fact that they still survive speaks to us. They are a symbol of survival and freedom.
Today, there are about 72,000 wild mustangs that roam the western United States in designated areas, in Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Of all those wild horses, there is one that has become more famous than all the others: Picasso, the paint stallion of the Sand Wash Basin in Northwest Colorado, where he roams 157,000 acres of federal land. He has been photographed and written about and tourists clamor to catch a glimpse of him. Several Facebook sites exist to honor him. Why is he so special? You shall see.
Start with his coloring, which is spectacular. In fact, he looks as if he’s been splashed with paint over his entire body. When a volunteer for the Humane Society first saw him in 2008, he said the horse looked like “a Picasso painting”. And the moniker stuck. Picasso has wild chestnut and white splotches but with black points that make him very distinctive.
But Picasso is much more than beauty. He is sheathed in muscle and pocked with many scars. Those scars are his medallions for having survived and persevered, for having fought off hundreds of stallions to keep his empire.
But, perhaps the greatest reason Picasso has become so popular is that he has tremendous personality. He is curious and smart, very tough and very spirited, but also has a thoughtful side. Most alpha stallions are spirited, fueled by high doses of testosterone. And alpha stallions have to be tough to remain dominant and keep their bands of mares. But Picasso is something else. He oozes king-of-the-mountain confidence. And here’s another amazing fact about Picasso: he is 32 years old and still going strong!
He is truly the stuff of legends, to have lived for more than 30 years as a competitive stallion and in a very harsh environment. Over three decades, Picasso has been involved in hundreds of battles with other stallions. Fights can be vicious and to the death. It’s extremely rare to see an old stallion with mares.
The Sand Wash Basin climate, too, is punishing for horses, with scorching summers of 95 degrees and up in the high desert of Colorado and brutal, sub-zero temperatures and chilling winds in winter. Add to this drought conditions in the summer. So, stallions fight not only for mares, but for water.
Picasso is not a big stallion. In fact, he’s quite a bit smaller than some of the largest stallions in the Basin. But what he lacks in size, he has made up for in confidence and swagger. For nearly 30 years Picasso has left his genetic legacy in many spotted foals. The Sand Wash Basin wild horses have become known for their especially flashy coloring, a trait that Picasso has left in spades as a long-time alpha stallion.
One devoted mustang watcher and photographer, Patti Mosbey, was lucky enough to witness an amazing site in 2014 when she was spotted Picasso, surrounded by two bands of horses. As Picasso passed by, the other horses, including the stallions, parted, “as if to pay respect to the king,” Mosbey said. “You almost thought they were deferring to him,” she added. “Nobody wanted to challenge him.”
Mosbey has also witnessed another unique trait about Picasso. He is very smart, even thoughtful. Over many years, he has become best buddies with another very old stallion named Lightning. Lightning is also a paint, but jet black with large splashes of white and a very distinctive wide blaze. They are often seen with each other, running and frolicking and playfighting. It’s as if the two old warhorses have mellowed and now honor each other...perhaps even share stories from their long lives.
In 2016, Patti wrote that she thought she’d seen Lightning for the last time. “He was there with his old buddy, Picasso. Even in his old age, he was squealing over the mud hole where water was seeping out of the ground. It was evident his body condition was declining. I suspected that would be [the last time] with this wonderful old one." She never saw him again.
Just in the last couple of years, mustang watchers have noticed that Picasso has been losing weight, too. And he no longer roams with a band of mares. He did take up with a young filly for a while. But now he is mostly seen alone. No doubt he misses his old friend.
Another photographer, Scott Wilson, traveled to the Basin to photograph wild horses in 2018. He spotted a paint stallion and started to photograph him, not knowing that he was Picasso. He posted a picture of the stallion on this Facebook, charging up a slope, his muscles rippling and mane flaring. (See first montage, middle image.) Picasso lovers suddenly thronged his site and his picture was reposted on a Picasso Facebook site that has 200,000 fans.
“I realized I struck gold with that picture,” Scott said. "I think Picasso is the epitome of the wild American mustang. He speaks to the nation. It's 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."
POSTSCRIPT: View fascinating footage of Picasso and Lightning in the video below. Their stallion behavior is fascinating. Both look regal and spry, defying their age. And both look happy to be free.
VIDEO: Picasso & Lightning Reunited
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