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  • Writer's pictureRobin Black

Capturing the Beauty and Spirit of Wild Horses: An Interview with Sandy Sisti

Sandy Sisti advocates for the innate wildness of all animals and their need to be free



EquuStyle:  What is it about wild horses that captivates you?


Sandy Sisti: Initially, I was taken in by their beauty. All horses are beautiful, but there’s just something about the wild ones. No matter how many times I see wild horse herds gallop past, their beauty alone never fails to bring me to tears. Once I began spending time with wild horses, I found that it was their toughness and their incredible ability to survive in the toughest of circumstances that really captured my heart.


EquuStyle:  Can you describe what it’s like to spend time wild horses?


Sandy Sisti: There’s nothing quite like spending time with wild horses. I find the experience to be very peaceful. When I’m upset about something, spending time with wild horses always makes me feel better. They really do have a calming influence. Most wild horses in Wyoming live in areas that are difficult to access, so you’re usually alone with the horses and I really enjoy that type of solitude.


EquuStyle:  How did you come up with name of Wild at Heart Images?


Sandy Sisti: I always liked the phrase “wild at heart”, especially after reading Tennessee Williams “A Prayer for the Wild at Heart…” while in college. To me it captures the idea of wanting to do something out of the norm, something that isn’t expected of you. The phrase also reminds me of the innate wildness of all animals and their need to be free. Now that I’m focused on wild horse photography and advocacy, the name really seems to fit.


EquuStyle:  How did growing up on Long Island influence your craft?


Sandy Sisti: Although there wasn’t much wildlife where I grew up, I always had a camera in hand and photographed whatever animals were around. This included our family pets, along with butterflies, birds, small mammals, and the turtles that frequented our local ponds. Once I started driving, Heckscher State Park and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge were two of my favorite spots for photographing whitetail deer and birds. Although I didn’t go there often, the Bronx Zoo was my favorite place to visit as it exposed me to nature and wildlife that I would never see in my neighborhood.


EquuStyle:  Did you grow up with or around horses?


Sandy Sisti: Unfortunately, I didn’t grow up around horses, but was always crazy about them. I grew up in suburban Long Island, and there weren’t many, if any, horses in the area. My best friend attended horse camp one summer, but my mom wouldn’t allow me to go with her because she was worried that I’d get injured. I did finally start riding, but not until I was an adult.



EquuStyle:  Did you ever formally study photography? If so, where? 


Sandy Sisti: I never formally studied photography, but always considered photography one of my favorite hobbies, even as a child. When I was attending SUNY Stony Brook as an undergraduate, I was a fine art major (drawing, painting) before switching my major to Biology/Biochemistry. After working in the sciences for many years, I returned to the fine art field as a photographer.


EquuStyle:  How was your professional career impacted after being published in National Geographic and National Geographic Kids magazines?


Sandy Sisti: At the time of these publications, I was mainly focused on wildlife photography in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Being featured by National Geographic helped me to become more well known as a photographer and led to more clients using my work for print publications.


EquuStyle:  What was your experience like when you were honored by The Smithsonian for your image “Surveying the Kingdom”?


Sandy Sisti: It was an incredible honor for my work to be recognized alongside many of the nature and wildlife photographers I looked up to at the time. I visited the Smithsonian a few years prior to receiving this award and made a point to see the Nature’s Best Photography/Windland Smith Rice International Awards exhibit. Even then, I never thought a picture I had taken would ever hang in the Smithsonian. It’s still unbelievable when I think about it.


EquuStyle:  Which creative individuals have most influenced your work?


Sandy Sisti: When I began pursuing photography seriously, I focused mainly on wildlife photography. At that time, world-renowned nature and wildlife photographer, Thomas D. Mangelsen, was my greatest influence. I studied his style and incredible body of work and was really taken with his images of grizzly bears. Grizzly bears became my favorite subject, as well, and I spent more than ten years focused on bears, as well as, the other megafauna living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


At the same time, I was also photographing the McCullough Peaks wild horses, who would eventually become the main focus of my photography. The incredibly talented and internationally recognized horse photographer, Carol Walker, was a big influence on my photographic work with wild horses. Over the years, Carol became a cherished friend. These days, I continue to look up to Carol, not only in her work as an amazing artist, but as a powerful and unwavering advocate for wild horses.


EquuStyle:  Do you have a safe distance that you maintain when photographing wild horses? 


Sandy Sisti: The requirement at McCullough Peaks is to stay at least 300 feet from the wild horse herds, and I do my best to comply with that. I usually don’t get any closer than 100 feet to any other of the more approachable wild horses. Many of the wild horses in Wyoming, run off when they hear a vehicle approach, so I photograph them from my vehicle or from a great distance with a super telephoto lens.


EquuStyle:  Have you ever found yourself in a precarious situation with a wild horse?


Sandy Sisti: In all the years I’ve been photographing wild horses, I’ve never found myself in a precarious situation.


EquuStyle:  Why is advocating for wild horses important to you?


Sandy Sisti: If we don’t continue to advocate for wild horses, in time there will be no more wild horses on our public lands, only livestock. This year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to remove more than 10,000 wild horses from public land with the majority of these horses moved to long-term holding facilities where they will live out the rest of their lives.


Currently there are more than 60,000 once wild horses stockpiled in long-term holding. If the BLM has their way, this eradication of wild horses will continue. I don’t want to live in a world without wild horses and I know I’m not alone. That’s why I continue to advocate for them.


EquuStyle:  Do you believe social media posts are effective for changing the hearts and minds of people about the need to protect wild horses? 


Sandy Sisti: Social media is a very effective tool to help educate people about the plight of our wild horses. The majority of Americans have never seen wild horses and many don’t even know they exist.


Through the use of social media, we can inform people about the BLM’s terrible mismanagement of our wild horses. In time, many of these people will begin to care about the wild horses and some may eventually become advocates. I’ve seen this happen many times thanks to social media.


EquuStyle: How has your influence on social media helped with fundraising and motivating people to take action?


Sandy Sisti: I believe that the more people learn about the McCullough Peaks wild horses, the more they care about them.


Sharing stories and photos of these horses on social media gets people involved in their lives and over time they develop a real affection for them. The deep feelings people have for the McCullough Peaks wild horses motivates them to want to help them when they can, with donations, petition writing, etc. Many people who contact me about the McCullough Peaks wild horses have never seen them, but they know everything about them and care about them just as much as I do. Without social media, I don’t think this could happen.


EquuStyle: What would you like people to know about the McCullough Peaks wild Mustangs?


Sandy Sisti: The McCullough Peaks herd is a small population of wild horses that have been effectively managed with PZP immunocontraceptive vaccine since 2011.  Thanks to the use of PZP, their average yearly population growth rate has held at 2% for the last ten years. Because of this, there had been no roundups since a 2013 bait trapping operation where 20 young horses were removed.


During the winter of 2023/2024, the BLM initiated a bait trapping operation at McCullough Peaks and permanently removed 40 horses aged from 4 months to 15 years. During the removal of these horses, nursing foals were taken from their mothers, families were torn apart, bloodlines were expunged and horses were injured. One horse, a yearling filly named “Kat Ballou” died from acute head trauma after running into the side of a holding pen while in the care of the BLM.


Now, more than two months after the conclusion of the bait trapping, the McCullough Peaks horses are still in disarray after the traumatic removal of their longtime family members. Although I’m heartbroken about what happened at McCullough Peaks, this happens every time the BLM rounds up and removes wild horses from their rangeland homes. The BLM destroys the horse’s families and the tight bonds that have been formed over many years of living together. In time, the McCullough Peaks wild horses will adjust as best they can to their new circumstances, but we can’t forget what happened to them as we continue our fight for not only the McCullough Peaks herd, but all the wild horses

.

EquuStyle: Are there particular horses in the McCullough Peaks herd that you have come to know and they recognize you?


Sandy Sisti: I’ve spent thousands of hours with the McCullough Peaks wild horses in the 15 years I’ve been observing and photographing them. I don’t only photograph the horses when I visit, but I talk to them too. Because I’m an almost constant fixture on the range, I believe that many of the horses recognize my voice and scent. It would only seem natural that they would.



EquuStyle: What do you believe is the best way for people to advocate for wild horses?


Sandy Sisti: One of the best ways to advocate for wild horses is to contact your U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators to inform them about the plight of our wild horses. The only way to truly protect our wild horses is for Congress to enact new legislation to protect wild horses and limit the grazing of private livestock on public lands.


 






Freedom for Wild Horses with Carol Walker Podcast

Saving the McCullough Peaks Herd: Interview with Sandy Sisti




All images Copyright Sandy Sisti and Wild at Heart Images -all rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced for any purpose without permission from Sandy Sisti and Wild at Heart Images.


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