The sound of rotor blades fills the air, and the wild horses are off. Heartbeats and hooves pound faster as the horses try to evade the helicopter's deafening pursuit. Slick with sweat, they gallop past stretches of range land as the aircraft hovers at a distance. The pilot is herding the horses toward cowboys hiding and waiting at a trap site in Skull Valley, Utah. The agents of captivity are closing in.
To the Spanish, they were "musteno." We know them as mustangs, every inch a U.S. icon -- the embodiment of the outlaw on the run.
"America's about freedom and these wild horses are running free," said Gus Warr of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "It's that image of the flowing mane and tail out in the wide-open sage brush."
But there comes a time when even outlaws have to stop running. If they are to survive, one way of life must end and another begin.
"It's really, it's very humane," Warr said. "It's probably the least stressful thing we could do to gather these animals. The helicopter pilot is like a glorified cowboy out there in the air. He's pushing the animals, maneuvering them so they go toward the trap."
And in these last moments of freedom, the mustangs will have an unforgettable introduction to humans -- the gatekeepers of a surprising new future.
Roundups, or "gathers," as they are known, are occasionally needed in order to manage the more than 33,100 wild mustangs living on 10 western-range states -- too large a population for the land to support. Warr grew up loving mustangs. He is now a wild horse specialist with the BLM in Utah, overseeing the gathers that take place every winter. Warr is sensitive to both the need for relocating surplus wild horses and to their fear during capture.
"If you could pull them aside and whisper in their ear and say, 'Hey, it's going to be fine. It's scary right now. There's no need to be afraid. We're not going to hurt you. We're here to actually give you a better life,'" Warr said.
Some of the mustangs will be sold soon to the public. Others will be trained and sold or offered for adoption later. But, either way, freedom's end rarely comes easy. During one Skull Valley gather, a newly captured mustang thrashed against the rails and tried to jump over the trap site's pens in its disorientation.
"That horse right there was just scared and it was a natural reaction," Warr said. "It wanted to get away. And if they can get over the top, they're going to do it. We've had horses go right over the top. And get out. And honestly, you see something like that, well, that horse deserves to be free. Let him go."
It's hard to imagine even the toughest cowboy ever handling this much wildness.
But that's where the mustangs' journey takes its next turn, and starts to get truly wild.
"How do you feel up there?" Kira Brazinki asked.
"Great, probably the best I've ever felt," said Claire Radda, an 11-year-old budding equestrian sitting high in the saddle.
"Yeah? You've changed since that first day when you started," said Kira, a 17-year-old mentor at an empowerment program for young people in Jackson Hole, Wyo., called Horse Warriors.
"I think I was really nervous," Claire said.
"I was afraid of so many different things," Claire said.
Kira holds the horse's lead as the two friends work together during a weekly summer lesson.