Deep in the Missouri Ozarks, wild herds have thrived for nearly a century. Spotting the elusive ferals? That’s a game of hide-and-seek.
horses snow missouri ozarks wild field
Credit: Holly Ross

Last January, I spent a week exploring the backwoods and backroads surrounding Eminence, a tiny mountain town in southern Missouri. My 12-year-old pooch and I toured the snowy hills by car and hiked the rugged Ozark Trail on foot (and paw). The natural wonders of my home state wowed me—there were waterfalls and springs, including one of the world's biggest, and shortleaf pines for miles. Save for the occasional whistling bald eagle, silence played on loop. Gus and I were wholly and fully alone, until our final night, that is, when we sought the company of some area residents: Shannon County's famed wild horses.

It's said that Depression-era farmers turned the equines loose when they couldn't afford to feed them. The formation of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in 1964, to protect the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, gave the horses safe space to multiply and roam free. Today, federal law preserves them, while the nonprofit Missouri Wild Horse League keeps their numbers to 50 animals (adopting out the rest)—four herds spread across 80,000 acres of craggy terrain.

We set out at golden hour with nothing but a chicken-scratch map drawn by a local on loose-leaf paper, which, following the initial right turn at a Fast Stop, proved even more futile than my pre-trip car wash. Over the next half hour,  we splashed through creek beds, idled past giant outcroppings and ventured up the driveways of multiple private properties (whoops!). With no cell service and daylight rapidly fading, our target—the Broadfoot herd—became a long shot. If I couldn't even find the field, never mind locating the horses.

That's when the dirt road split and the forest opened wide. We entered the Broadfoot field with newfound optimism and scoured the vast swath of snow-packed acreage. On the opposite end, a tall group of "somethings" had their heads buried in front of the barren tree line. My binoculars confirmed what my naked eye hoped—we'd found them. I crept closer so as not to spook the grazing bunch, but our presence in the hushed pasture was felt. One gray mane lifted after the next. 

I've road-tripped the American West—home to thousands of wild horses—several times over, never to witness one on the open range. And here we were in Missouri, less than three hours from home, gaping at a dozen mostly white beauties befit for a Cormac McCarthy novel. A couple of minutes later, the alpha mare shuffled her hooves and approached our vehicle as if to say, "Visiting hours are over." We drove away, slowly and gratefully, beneath a rising Ozark moon.