It’s a pleasant morning in Shannon County. I’m walking through the pre-dawn mist, camera in hand. I move slowly, quietly, hoping for the opportunity to capture a genuine Missouri treasure with my lens. Finally I see them. The Shawnee Creek herd of wild horses grazes contentedly. Two young foals frolic, chasing each other through the tall grass.

The wild horses of Shannon County have been roaming the rugged lands along the Jacks Fork and Current Rivers for almost one hundred years. There are currently four herds: the Shawnee Creek, the Broadfoot, the Round Spring, and the Rocky Creek.

Local expert Jim Smith, owner of Cross Country Trail Rides and founding member of the Wild Horse League, a nonprofit that monitors the herds, says they formed when depression-era farmers, experiencing a severe drought, could no longer sustain themselves on their farms and turned their horses loose.

According to Jim, a small herd of seven fillies formed. An Appaloosa stallion, which was so wild a farmer could not break it, escaped and joined the herd of fillies.

The horses, mostly white because of their Appaloosa lineage, roamed the lands near Eminence, the Shannon County seat, unfettered.

This land of flowing rivers became the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in 1964 and part of the National Parks System.

In the early 1990s the park superintendent responsible for the Scenic Riverways sought to remove the horses, labeling them an invasive species. Locals, including Jim, were outraged and fought in court to stop their removal.

They lost their case, but the late Congressman Bill Emerson and former Senators John Ashcroft and Kit Bond introduced legislation, later signed into law, to preserve the horses. In a compromise with the National Park Service, the Wild Horse League agreed to limit the herds to fifty horses, capturing and adopting out horses to maintain the quota.

Holly Ross, a photographer based in the St. Louis area, first saw the horses in 2016 while on a photo workshop. “When they emerged from the blanket of fog, it was like a whole new world opened itself to me,” Holly says. “I feel spiritually connected to them. I come back from each visit with a new sense of purpose and respect for the world around me.”

The sun finally rises above the towering sycamore trees lining the banks of the Jacks Fork. The white mares with matted manes turn golden. I aim my camera and snap the shutter.

The Shawnee Creek herd is frequently found at a familiar pasture east of Eminence near Two Rivers.
In a sunlit meadow, a mare and her foal from the Round Spring herd are on alert.
A foal plays in the early morning. It is among the newest members of the Shawnee Creek herd.
The Shawnee Creek herd grazes in the morning mist.
The Rocky Creek herd grazes in open clearings near the rivers.
The Broadfoot herd crosses the Current River under a dense canopy of trees on a misty morning.
A foal in the Shawnee Creek herd stays near its mother. Over time, the foal will turn grey or white.
A mare from the Shawnee Creek herd rolls on the grass.

Photos // Dean Curtis