When the New Mexico Livestock Board found Bonito, he was so emaciated that he had to gain 300 pounds before be could even be transported from his neglectful owner's home.
When SFR visited the dark bay gelding at The Horse Shelter a couple of months later, the rehabilitation process wasn't yet complete; the staff was working on bulking up his still-bony frame. But it was obvious that Bonito had turned the corner. After chomping on carrots and horse cookies, he nuzzled a reporter's jacket pockets in search of more treats, then nibbled playfully at a camera lens cap.
"Bonito is a gorgeous horse," Program Manager Susan Hemmerle, who has devoted herself to the shelter for the past 12 years, says. "He is filling out and getting more energy."
Stories like Bonito's are all too familiar to shelter staff. When SFR visited the site just outside Santa Fe, in late January, 57 horses were in its care; five more have arrived since. Many are victims of neglect, like Bonito; others were found abandoned, possibly by owners who could no longer care for them. This winter's statewide hay shortage is causing an uptick in such cases—and at the same time, straining the shelter's resources for caring for them.
"It's like a vicious circle," Hemmerle says. "The higher the hay prices, the more people can't afford the feed, the more abandonment and neglect, the more horses we get, the more feed costs we have."
The recent La Niña weather patterns set off a chain reaction that led to the hay shortage. After drought conditions limited the grasses available for livestock grazing, many ranchers in the Southwest had to rely more on hay than in wetter years, leading to increased demand for hay—and higher prices.
Hay is cut every year in May, June and July, so right now, the shelter is trying to make do until then. And it's not just a matter of high prices—finding alfalfa hay at all is difficult. The alternative is orchard grass hay, which the shelter feeds in conjunction with alfalfa hay. But horses, which are notorious for having a fatal stomach problem known as colic if they aren't fed appropriately, can't just switch from alfalfa to orchard grass hay. In addition, research at the University of California, Davis found that alfalfa hay is higher in nutrients, including protein and calcium, than grass. It's particularly important for young or pregnant horses.
"There isn't any more hay," George Montoya, manager of Monte Vista Fuel and Feed in Santa Fe, tells SFR. "You can't find any hay. We still have orchard grass, but we don't have alfalfa. We probably won't get any of the good kind until May, but what can you do?"
The shortage's effects caught the attention of legislators during the recent session. The first bill Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law (except for the feed bill, which pays for session costs) changes the regulation of hay transportation: Whereas drivers were once prohibited from taking wide loads of hay farther than 200 miles, they can now drive them any distance. Upon signing the bill, Martinez declared that the changes to the existing legislation would "ensure our agricultural industry is not hindered from hauling in large amounts of hay."
Even though the legislation took effect immediately, Hemmerle hasn’t seen results. The nonprofit shelter goes through almost 20 bales of hay per day, spending approximately $7,000 per month on hay alone. Hemmerle recently tracked down a gold mine of 10,000 bales, but the dealer would only deliver 200 of them because of the condition of the dirt roads out to the shelter. The expansive shelter grounds are located off Highway 14, south of the state penitentiary, at the end of five miles of poorly maintained roads. If a county bond issue that would provide funding to maintain county roads passes this summer, the shelter is hoping part of that road will be paved.
Meanwhile, the total number of horses at the shelter keeps climbing; the Livestock Board has nine more it's trying to place there. In a good year, the shelter adopts out about 20 horses. But first, many of the horses that come from backgrounds of neglect or that have been wandering need to be reacquainted with having halters—let alone riders. That's why the Horse Shelter is so appreciative of volunteers with a little horse sense who can help the horses become more comfortable with people again. (Volunteers perform various tasks at the shelter, but don't ride.) Trainer Tom Larsen says that, although all levels of skill are welcomed in volunteers, they "really treasure" the horse-savvy.
To find out how you can help, either by volunteering, adopting or sponsoring a horse like Bonito, call The Horse Shelter at 471-6179.