You can lead a horse to people, but can you make them think?

[UPDATES and new developments: 7/1, 6/28, 6/6 and 5/24 – See below]

 & Lots of people in New Mexico are angry about horses these days.

We’ve got too many horses — tens of thousands of them — skinny, unwanted, wandering around in New Mexico and other parts of the southwest, scrabbling for bits of weed and blades of grass and drops of water. You can’t blame the horse for vacuuming the fragments of food from the arid land — he doesn’t want to die any more than you do.

There’re lots of things you can blame — among them high unemployment, interminable drought, rising feed costs, the government’s ban on slaughtering, sometimes-illogical but always-determined defenders of animal rights, and insensitive owners who unceremoniously dump their horses beside the roadways to nibble at whatever nourishment they can find among the broken glass, dirty diapers and empty Bud Light cans. When anything is proposed to do something about it, emotions get in the way. On one side, a jerk who’s angry at “animal rights people” shoots his horse dead between the eyes and posts the video on YouTube. On the other side, thousands of people oppose government round-up programs — offering no solution of their own and no evidence that they actually know the facts.

Emotions aside, the facts are the facts. And here is an NBC report, demonstrating how far apart people are on the issue of what the BLM should do about wild horses and burros. It’s a good report, showing both sides — let ’em all go to slaughterhouses, says one; don’t you dare! says another, but it doesn’t even get into the question of what to do with all those unwanted horses that aren’t wild. (Update 7/1: Ted Williams, one of High Country News‘s Writers on the Range doesn’t agree that NBC presented a balanced report, and provides some pushback, republished in the Denver Post, here. Excerpt:

“…the [NBC] show cherry-picked commentary from ecologically illiterate extremists who want more, not fewer, feral horses on public land, and who allege that the BLM roundups, which are mandated by law, are “offensive,” “cruel” and “unnecessary.”
Never mentioning wildlife, host Lisa Myers quickly spun the issue into a simple conflict between “mustangs and powerful livestock interests who want cheap grazing on federal lands.” …
The BLM is doing its best at an impossible job. In 1971, Congress required it to manage feral horses so as “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands.” But feral horses can’t exist anywhere in North America in “natural ecological balance” because they’re aliens here, without natural predators. The agency can’t catch a break.)

Jeff Tafoya, a BLM rangeland specialist in Farmington, can give you all sorts of statistics — 70,000 homeless horses on the Navajo reservation alone — a herd that without intervention will double in four years, their rabbit-like population explosion slowed so far only by a pilot program to thin the herd; a western wild mustang population that exceeds an acceptable environmental balance by 10,000; 50,000 once-wild horses rounded up and held like Guantanamo prisoners, in government-funded corrals until they can be placed on an easier life in pastures, rented by Uncle Sam. The cost? Tafoya says it’s about $1.35. Per day. Per horse. You add up the totals, my old calculator doesn’t go into the millions.

Despite the efforts of government and volunteer organizations, the problem persists, and grows. Down in Placitas, for instance, horses are wandering on the highways, causing traffic hazards. One horse has been killed; people are afraid that the next time it could be a human. West of Cuba, for another example, roadsides and dusty vistas are peppered with hundreds homeless horses — some of them even wearing halters — heads all bent in the eternal search for sustenance. On the drought-dried lands south of Famington, ranchers — those who have sold off some of their cattle in order to have enough pasture for the rest — are plagued by the wild, or once-domesticated “excess” horses who compete with the remaining cattle for food and water.

Fate smiles on some of them at least, like the big black gelding whose owner rode him up to a 7-11 in Gallup and went inside to pick up a six-pack of beer. When he got to the counter, he found that he didn’t have the money to pay for the beer. He left his horse as collateral, saying he’d be right back to pay for the beer. He never returned. Fate smiled on the horse, whose name had to be Midnight, of course. Midnight ended up in The Horse Shelter south of Santa Fe, where he was well cared for, probably for the first time in his life. I hear somebody in Española has adopted him. We can assume his new owner has enough to pay for a sixpack.

But the fates aren’t kind to many of those unwanted horses. It’s pretty well summed up by Tafoya, a thoughtful, caring, veteran government employee, horse owner and expert on the lands that he’s hired to help manage: “Nobody wants to see horses die,” he says. But on the other side, he points out, horses are dying — skinny, dehydrated, hungry, freezing on the land or struck on highways or trucked off to slaughter in northern Mexico, where humane rendering plants are not especially high on the list of priorities. “I think,” Tafoya says, “that more people need to see the magnitude of this problem. It can’t end well if nothing is done.” Until something is done to stabilize the situation, he says, “it’s a sad, sad time to be a horse.”

It’s a mess. Driven by drought, compounded by economy, hampered by restraints on government, totally confused by emotions.

So what is to be done?

The first thing that needs to be done, it seems apparent, is to get everybody to calm down. Everybody take a deep breath. Let’s have a civil discussion. Listen to people on all sides — particularly those who are able to refrain from defending the horses’ “rights” in knee-jerk letter-writing campaigns, and those who can make their point favoring horse slaughter in some way other than a public display of  shooting a horse between the eyes and allowing the camera to linger on the animal as it twitches in the throes of death. Thankfully, there are some adults out there with interesting, helpful, and perhaps productive solutions. Let’s let them be heard. Let’s ignore the others.

Next time you hear an argument — one side or the other — take a little time to check out the facts. There are plenty of pros and cons out there on the web. If we really like horses — and I do really like horses — let’s check our emotional baggage at the door and approach this with the sincere purpose of bringing an end to this sad, sad time. And instead of debating the deep philosophy of the rights of animals, let’s come down to earth and start with the simple concept of welfare, both for the horses and for us.

& One solution to the overpopulation of horses, just about everybody agrees, is to get some of them — even if it’s only a relative few — broke, gentled, rideable, and adopted. There are lots of people trying to help in this effort. I’m told that In New Mexico, for example, there are nine licensed horse shelters, all of them privately funded, dependent on volunteer help, and loaded to the withers with horses that are ready for adoption. Maybe you can make a donation. Or consider adopting a horse. Or sponsor a horse. Or lend a little volunteer time.  There’s probably a horse shelter near you. Look one up on the internet.

Or, if you’re around Santa Fe this weekend, it’s a good time to take a drive down toward Cerrillos on Highway 14, turn left on county road 55A and follow it a few miles along Galisteo Creek until you come to The Horse Shelter, where they’re having a big fundraising shindig this coming Sunday, May 19.

For 75 bucks — 67 of them tax deductible — you’ll get to participate in a classy auction. (How about a one-week stay at what’s billed “an AMAZING 3-bedroom 4-bath house in Cabo San Lucas” featuring, among other things, “a private infiniti pool”? Lots of other stuff on the auction block, not quite as pricey as condos in Cabo.) You’ll also get a tasty lunch prepared by Chef Martin of Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe, and even get some informative demonstrations of what those people are doing to save and train those once-unwanted horses. Maybe you’ve even got something to donate to the auction’s larder.

sasha's colt

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll even get a chance to take a peek at their newest arrival — otherwise known as Sasha’s Colt, who just sort of wham-bam-thankee-ma’am, no-frills-no-fuss, plopped out of her mama a couple of days ago and curled up in the dirt of a shelter corral.  Have you ever felt the softness of a newborn colt? You ought not get through life without doing that at least once.

Check out the shelter’s auction webpage  for details or ticket purchase, or go to The Horse Shelter page on Facebook.

& Riding a  fat, happy horse and thinking about Rodney King, who once asked “can we all get along?”, I’m outta here.


Update 5/15: I earlier told you Tafoya was based in Gallup. Wrong-o. Jeff also gave me some better numbers on the cost of housing horses.

Update 5/24: America isn’t the only place where people wonder what to do with too many horses. The same’s true in Australia — and the problem is the same: too little water and food coupled with a population explosion in feral herds.

Update 6/6: ‘Scathing’ independent scientific report says: Roundups don’t work, so increase fertility control 

Update 6/28: Feds approve opening of Roswell horse slaughter operation. Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, which wants to ship horse meat to countries where it is fed to animals or consumed by humans, got approval from federal officials June 28 to open a horse slaughterhouse. It would be the first horsemeat processing operation to be opened in the U.S. since the industry was banned for a five-year period in 2006. The Associated Press reported that the feds also plan to grant permits to similar operations in Missouri and Iowa.

Update 7/1: An excellent piece from the thinking side of this too-often emotionally driven dilemma, by Ted Williams, originally published in High Country News and republished in The Denver Post (Wild horses are free and out of control

6 thoughts on “You can lead a horse to people, but can you make them think?

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