There are thousands of wild horses across the western United States. If you're looking for them, Arizona has some of the most accessible bands.
Arizona has several wild horse population centers, but the most famous live along the Salt River in Tonto National Forest. Wild horses can also be found in the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, among other places.
The lower Salt River recreation area is a relatively small area where you can nearly always find these horses if you know where and when to look.
Along the lower Salt River recreation area, you'll find a number of places to pull off and stop to the left and the right side of the road. Because of the river, trees are fairly abundant in this area, and they provide shade and privacy for these horses. It's not an absolute guarantee that you'll find them if you go out looking at any time.
While the river recreation area is a focal point in the hunt for horses, some bands travel extensively throughout the area, even as far as the landfill on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community. They have also been known to travel up the Verde River and across Beeline Highway at multiple points. You may see some as you pass over the Verde River bridge next to Fort McDowell Casino on Beeline Highway (87).
One of the upsides for tourists and locals is the ability to tube float down the river. As you can imagine, this is extremely popular on a hot day. Salt River Tubing will rent you a tube, and you may see some horses as you float down the river. With extreme summer temperatures, this is a beloved spot to cool down and enjoy the scenery.
Unfortunately for humans and horses alike, this means that there are cans, bottles, sandals, shirts, and every kind of recreational trash imaginable floating down the river. Most of the visible trash is relegated to the area between Saguaro Lake and Gold Field Recreation site. For photographers in particular, the garbage can ruin an otherwise beautiful shot. The continued interest in the site means that despite regular maintenance, omnipresent provided trash receptacles, and volunteer clean efforts, visitors continue to leave piles of garbage behind in the area. While the litter presents an environmental danger to the ecosystem and wildlife, it can also be challenging for humans trying to enjoy the natural scenery.
Due to the river being a part of the very limited water resources available to the horses, they do tolerate the presence of humans fairly well. Unless directly approached, horses will generally just watch people as they float or walk past them. If they feel threatened, they will charge humans.
Remember, these are feral horses. These are not domesticated barn yard animals. They will not tolerate being touched, petted, or harassed, you cannot feed them, and they will defend their young if you approach them. It is always recommended that you stay at least 50 feet away from any wild horses. A single kick from an adult horse can be fatal for humans. Additionally, the harassment of wild horses can mean that they are more wary of human visitors. Leave them in peace so that everyone can enjoy them. Disregard these guidelines, and you'll be arrested. Salt River wild horses are protected from human harassment by Arizona state law. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has two substations in the Lower Salt River Recreation area and regularly patrol the area by vehicle, air, boat, and on foot. They are also checking for Tonto Passes displayed in vehicles, which are required for parking. There are a few alternatives you may have that substitute for the Tonto Pass if you're a regular outdoors traveler. Generally, camping and overnight visitation is prohibited in the area with limited exceptions. The north side of the river is off-limits during certain times of the year for various reasons--one of them being bald eagle breeding.
Following the above guidelines, you're ready to go check them out. More recently, the horses are being regularly spotted around sunrise and sunset between Coon Bluff Campground and Gold Field Recreation site. These two sites are adjacent, have plenty of tree cover, and provide shallow and easy access to the north side of the river.
The river doesn't just provide water for the horses; it also provides food, temperature regulation in hot months, and cover from biting flies. You may see horses splashing in the water to cool down or ward off insects. These make for wonderful photographs and video clips. Additionally, males will battle for control of a harem of females in the bands. You might even be lucky enough to catch a dramatic fight in the water.
Here's a list of dos and don'ts.
DO: Bring a camera and a good zoom lens. You'll be happy you did.
DO: Be prepared to walk, paddle, or float up and down the river. The bank is sandy and they're not always standing next to the parking lot.