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LIFE photographer Bill Eppridge (1938 – 2013) was best-known for his coverage of the signature events and figures of the 1960s—Vietnam, Woodstock, Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and assassination, and so much more. In late 1968, just months after RFK’s murder, Eppridge and writer Donald Jackson spent two months chasing a far different kind of story: wild horses that still roamed the fabled landscape of the American West.
“Mustangs!” wrote Jackson. “The word itself has a fine, hard, western edge to it, half romance and half rawhide, thoroughly American.”
It was, somehow, fittingly ironic that Eppridge’s photos appeared in a January 1969 issue of LIFE that also featured, as its cover story, an exclusive jailhouse interview with Robert Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. When, not long after RFK’s murder, he was offered the opportunity to photograph wild horses in the sere mountains, canyons and plains of places like Nevada, eastern Wyoming, and Montana, Eppridge grabbed the chance.
“Spending months out there in those vast spaces, photographing mustangs and the people who live and work there, among the horses—that saved me,” Eppridge told LIFE.com, a few months before his death in October 2013. “Bobby Kennedy’s death shook me to the core. Getting out there with [writer] Jackson, traveling that old landscape in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, helped to heal me, in a way, and got me back into the world.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.