Everyone who's ever been to the West, or dreamed of it, knows this image: The sun sinks in a red-orange sky, the mountains rise craggy and blue in the background, and a band of wild mustangs gallops across the dun-colored plains with clouds of golden dust rising behind.

In 1971, when Congress passed its first act to protect American mustangs, it called them "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West." And even as those mustangs continue—in ever-declining numbers—to roam the mountains and deserts of New Mexico, their domestic counterparts struggle to be the impossible balance between working livestock and human companions, their status shifting from beloved pet to so many pounds of meat in the space of a few minutes on the auction block.

The recession has only exacerbated the strife for horses and their owners, a fact made all too obvious by the surge in neglected and abandoned horses—approximately 500 per year now—and the staggering halt in adoptions of both wild and domestic horses from the state's meager 250 spots in equine rescue shelters. Wild horses in captivity are piling up, too, because no one wants them; since 2001, the number of wild horses in Bureau of Land Management holding pens has more than tripled.

New Mexico, as a Western state, has had a particularly fitful relationship with its horses. The mustangs that gallop through a snow-dusted Carson National Forest in the Jicarilla Ranger District are a far cry from the images of emaciated, lame, sometimes tortured horses that fill the animal-cruelty files at the New Mexico Livestock Board's offices in Albuquerque—even though the BLM's management of those same mustangs has grown unsustainable to the point of eliciting a scathing report by the US Government Accountability Office this October. The bony bodies of still half-starved mares rescued from an abandoned property in Bosque Farms are just as far from the proudly elegant quarter horses that prance around parts of Santa Fe. But they all have something in common: There are too many of them, they cost too much and nobody wants them.

"It's like the housing market in Phoenix: There's a glut on the market," Lee Otteni, a former BLM employee who now does consulting, says. "There's more horses than people want, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. With people looking for jobs, people taking furloughs—in that kind of an economic situation, no one wants a hay burner in their backyard."

But one man's hay burner is another man's family member, and therein lies the problem.

Whether it's novice "backyard breeders," optimistic city slickers starting up pipe-dream horse farms or people who simply have bought beyond their means, unrealistic expectations—many of which stem, unsurprisingly, from New Mexico's rich and stubborn Wild West tradition—have put the state's horses in jeopardy. Take Ben and Jerry, two abandoned colts seized from a shoddy breeding operation in Bosque Farms, south of Albuquerque.

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On a brisk Saturday morning in October, the sun rises bright and white over Edgewood, the dusty mesa town half an hour east of Albuquerque.

The colts have been watered; they're in a pen with a few other young horses rescued from abuse or neglect. Though Ben and Jerry—both red, knock-kneed versions of their young mother—have put on weight, they still aren't above poking their soft noses into pockets in search of treats or gently nibbling a bare arm. Mere weeks ago, they were just another equine cruelty case—one of hundreds of horses each year whose protruding hips and bony ribs are recorded, in color photographs and carefully scrawled cruelty reports, for posterity in the public records files of the New Mexico Livestock Board.

Colleen Novotny, the founder and manager of Walkin' N Circles Ranch, the state-certified equine rescue operation that houses Ben, Jerry and some 60 other rescued horses, says she's been getting more and more calls lately.

"We have a huge waiting list of horses," Novotny, a tall, fast-talking blond with a suntanned face, says. "A lot of them are horses people probably would've kept forever had the economy not bottomed out."

Now the owners, Novotny says, "just can't afford to keep a horse as a pet anymore. It's not like having a dog—and I'm sure that dogs are getting turned in right and left too—but horses are a much more expensive commodity."

Novotny is matter-of-fact—this ranch, staffed entirely by volunteers (excepting Novotny herself), hums with almost scary efficiency. Novotny moved here from Colorado with her four horses in 2002 and hadn't been in Edgewood a year before an astounding number of calls about unwanted, neglected horses led her to adopt 13 more.

Sherry Mangold, a kind-faced woman with light brown bangs and a soothing voice, is the cruelty complaints manager for Animal Protection of New Mexico, a nonprofit dedicated to the humane treatment of animals. She manages two animal cruelty hotlines—one for APNM and one for the attorney general's animal cruelty task force—that ring off the hook, sending her (via phone or scooter) to every corner of the state. Since 2007, Mangold has seen the percentage of equine-related cruelty calls rise from 1 in 6 to 1 in 4—most of them concerning lack of food, water or veterinary care.

Inspectors for the Livestock Board, the state agency responsible for fielding and following up with animal cruelty calls, are each assigned to a different part of the state, where they dutifully document the tragedies they find. The photographs that fill their records are heartbreaking: a starving appaloosa, hoof-deep in mud; a once-stately, all-white mare whose every bone is visible; the untreated broken leg that has grown into a painful, unusable curve of a hoof; horses found with gunshot wounds from botched kill jobs; one poor pony bleeding from his eyes and testicles after repeated attacks by his owner's dogs.

In the particular case of Ben and Jerry, Livestock Inspector John Mares, who covers an area that includes Bernalillo County, got the call from a concerned neighbor in Bosque Farms. According to Livestock Board Deputy Director Bobby Pierce, a gravelly voiced cowboy with a Western shirt tucked into his jeans, Mares responded immediately but, by the time he arrived, one colt had already died. Mares obtained a seizure warrant from the Valencia County District Court and delivered the horses first to a vet, for emergency care, and then to Walkin' N Circles. Mares learned the name of the horses' owner from his landlord, but "Brian Jaramillo" turned out to be an alias for the man who had skipped town, leaving his horses to starve.

The Bosque Farms case looked like an instance of "backyard breeding"—unprofessionally raising horses to sell them for a profit. Since the horse market is already saturated, "backyard-bred" horses without pedigrees are hardly in demand; Novotny says these would-be entrepreneurs rarely break even. Instead, they simply end up adding to the glut of unwanted horses.

Professional breeding can create the same problems: Horses that don't turn into derby champs might be unceremoniously tossed aside or sold at auction. But in New Mexico, and in Santa Fe particularly, much of the problem comes from simple inexperience, according to Santa Fe County area Livestock Inspector Donald Maestas.

A lot of the calls Maestas receives come from "people that have come into the rural country and decided they need to have a horse to live the life, I guess," he says.

"They've got the horse, but they're not familiar with exactly what you need to do. I've had a lot of people call me, and they've surrendered horses and even [sold] them because they bit off a little more than they could chew and didn't realize it was so much responsibility," he concludes.

And those who do understand how much responsibility is involved in owning a horse—between $200 and $400 a month, provided the animal doesn't get sick—are wary of acquiring more horses, Novotny says. In other years, she's been able to find responsible families or owners to adopt up to 40 of the ranch's rescued horses, but last year only half of those were adopted, and Novotny has her doubts about 2009.

"It's really, really hard to find a home for horses," she says, shaking her head. "We have to be so careful: We can take in a lot of horses, but finding a home for them is next to impossible these days. People just can't afford it. And even though a horse will become a family member, [if] something's got to go, it'll be the horse."

On top of that, the grants that funded Walkin' N Circles have dried up; the ranch stays afloat with proceeds from the small, strip mall thrift store called "Hug-A-Horse" in Edgewood.

"The people who contribute to any rescue group are hurting; the money coming in is less," Mangold says. "And for the very same reason, the situations are growing in number."

According to Doug Thal, the founder and lead veterinarian at Thal Equine LLC, an equine hospital south of Santa Fe, even the horse owners with the deepest pockets are cutting back.

"Even those folks that before [gave us] carte blanche—'Do whatever you can to my horse'—now they're saying, 'I'm paying $400 a month to take care of this horse?" Thal says. "All of a sudden those numbers mean something."

Though Santa Fe may have more than its share of fancy horses, Thal says, the county still has "the full spectrum of horse owners," and if even the wealthiest ones are feeling the strain of maintaining an animal whose intrinsic value is questionable, the situation must be that much worse with less affluent horse owners. The ones who could barely afford feed, not to mention vet care, are now the ones who get visits from Mares and Maestas.

"A lot of the calls I get are from neighbors who say, 'This wasn't a problem for the last six months; it's a problem now. They can't afford their horses,'" Mangold says.

Thal sees the same scenario: people denying their horses routine vet care because of the expense. Some even turn to euthanasia in order to avoid costly surgical procedures.

"We're finding ourselves discounting every invoice and trying to find solutions," Thal says. "But you walk the line. If you can't do everything for some of these horses, the middle ground is trouble."

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Wild horses are in trouble, too, stuck in a middle ground between the freedom of the plains they've inhabited for centuries and a life of forced containment in BLM holding pens. And for those in captivity, the challenges mirror those of domestic horses: Adoptions on the range have been declining since 2001. Today, the BLM has more than 30,000 wild horses in holding pens—almost as many as there are on the range.

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act charged the BLM with keeping America's wild horse herds at "appropriate management levels" so they don't compete with livestock or with the BLM's other land-use priorities (oil drilling, mining, soil conservation, etc.). To keep the number of horses down, every few years the BLM removes horses from each herd in helicopter-driven "gathers"; it can only sell a wild horse if it's more than 10 years old or has been offered for adoption three times. According to BLM spokesman Paul McGuire, the holding pens eat up 75 percent of the BLM's appropriated funding for the entire wild horse program, tens of millions of dollars that the Government Accountability Office warned in October could "overwhelm" the program.

"Most people would be outraged to know that much money is being spent every year to turn hay into manure," Otteni, the former BLM employee, says. He believes there's a better way and, to that end, Otteni has been helping Texas horse advocate Madeleine Pickens develop a plan for buying up enough land in Nevada to create a private wild horse preserve.

"We can do things with the land the BLM has never done," Pickens, an effusive blond (and the wife of Dallas oilman T Boone Pickens), tells SFR. "We'd become an eco-sanctuary—you go to the rainforest; now you come see wild horses."

In March, the BLM denied Pickens' request to start her own refuge, but a directive by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to revamp the wild horses as well as Pickens' own unhampered enthusiasm have kept her working on the project regardless. Though the BLM has gotten its share of flak from horse advocates and anti-horse cattlemen alike, to Otteni's mind, the agency is as boxed in as the horses themselves.

"What else are they going to do?" he asks. "They can't kill them—the public would never stand for that—[and] they can't sell them because they wind up going to slaughter."

Equine slaughterhouses were banned in the US in 2007, but the practice of slaughtering horses for meat continues in Canada and Mexico, to the tune of 72,000 horses a year—16,000 of which pass through New Mexico's border into Mexico.

To Laura Bonar, the energetic young brunette who is Animal Protection of New Mexico's equine campaign manager, that "gruesome funnel" of horses to the slaughter is untenable. Bonar, who also works as a nurse, says no humane method exists for equine slaughter; what's more, in order to save money, horses are often transported to slaughterhouses in double-decker cattle carriers, which Mangold says simply aren't tall enough to accommodate horses without hurting them.

But to people who consider horses livestock, not pets, the situation is just as untenable—for almost the opposite reasons.

"The elimination of those horse slaughter plants in the United States has been devastating to the horse industry," Benny Wooton, who runs the Roswell Livestock Auction with his brother, Smiley, says. The brothers hold four horse auctions a year, and only a small percentage of the horses sold there go to slaughterhouses, Benny says—largely because transporting them across the border is too expensive.

"For what one of 'em is worth in Mexico, it's almost that much to get 'em there," Wooton says. When there were slaughter plants in the US, he says, horses sold for "40, 50 cents" a pound; Mexican slaughterhouses buy for 15 cents at best. That's $150 for a 1,000-pound horse, minus the veterinary tests needed to cross the border ($50) and transport.

"Can you get a horse from Santa Fe, NM to the proper person that can get him across in Mexico for less than $100?" Wooton asks. He bursts into rueful laughter. "You just can't do it! As a result, they're worthless. As a result, there's people abandoning them."

Wooton has a point. Even the finest thoroughbreds get old, and a working horse that can no longer do its duty may be more of an economic drain on its owner than a boon. It all depends on how you see the horse.

Thal, the veterinarian, perhaps illustrates the conflict best: While he's seen a decline in the vet care people can (or choose to) afford for their horses on both the highest- and the lowest-income ends of horse owners, the only people for whom the recession hasn't been a game-changer are those who keep their horses not as financial investments, race-winners or working farm horses but, rather, as pets.

"The companion animal side of things—the person who keeps a miniature horse as a companion—that hasn't changed in a drastic way," Thal says. "People still care for it," he says, like a member of the family.

Wooton says because people can't rely on a safe $500 slaughter price when something happens to a horse, he's seeing fewer people willing to invest in one.

"There's no fallback," he explains in a thick, good-ol'-boy accent that carries a hint of a twang. "It's a pretty serious plight for the horses: Because of the economic situation we're in, we're probably not feeding 'em as well as we were. And then there's all these unwanted horses and there's no real place to go with 'em," Wooton says—and, he adds, no horse is immune. "It affects all horses. It affects the $10,000 show horse because there will be a day when the $10,000 show horse is 18, 20 years old, and the base value in it has gone down considerably."

What will happen, then, to all the horses?

"Probably what you're going to see, except for the wild horses, is a depopulation of the horse herds in this country," former BLM Chief Jim Baca says. "They're just too expensive to keep. [People] are not going get new horses; the breeding will stop; they may send a lot of horses to be euthanized or slaughtered for horse meat." Baca pauses, seemingly aware of how this all sounds. "It's a horrible thought," he adds ruefully, "but that's probably what's going to happen."

Not if Alicia Nation and Karen Herman have anything to say about it.

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There are little girls, and there are little horse girls—the ones who will always remember their first My Little Pony, the first big trail horse they rode, how many times they read Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague, the first time they climbed into a saddle on their own and galloped across a grassy plain, alone but for the wind.

According to Mangold, the latter type of girls can be part of the problem: They beg Daddy for a horse and then lose interest in favor of maladjusted teenage boys, leaving another unwanted horse to find its way to a shelter or a sympathetic owner. But for Herman and Nation, horse girls also are part of the solution.

Nation, a petite, sun-browned woman with wispy, dark hair, lives in Eldorado and has owned horses for years. Like Novotny, she was all but thrown into providing rescue-type resources for as many of the outside world's horses as she could manage. Nation's world changed a year ago this fall, when she was heading south on I-25 with a truckload of hay for her horses, which were staying at a ranch south of Albuquerque. All of a sudden, Nation—dressed incongruously in heels and going-out clothes, since she and her sister had planned to see a concert afterward—noticed a double-decker cattle carrier full of horses.

Suspecting the horses might be headed to slaughter—anyone who wanted them intact wouldn't pack 40 horses into a cattle carrier, she reasoned—Nation called every law enforcement and livestock agency in the book; she couldn't reach anyone.

"I was at my wit's end," she continues. "It was near my exit and there was construction." The road narrowed into one lane, so she got in front of the truck, slowed down and waved him over to the shoulder.

"I go back and climb up on his running board, thinking, 'How am I gonna get up here in these shoes?'" She breaks into a sudden peal of laughter. Nation asked to see the driver's transport papers; he let her; she let him go.

"I was bullshitting! I really didn't know what to ask him," she says. "I didn't know what the laws were." She knew one thing, though: Those horses were no common breed—and Nation had spent her life around quarter horses, Arab cross, Tennessee walkers and thoroughbreds.
As soon as she returned home, Nation started researching the laws for transport, stewardship and sale of wild horses. That led to a trip up to one of the BLM's holding pens in Colorado, where she bought one and adopted two wild horses—the ugliest and orneriest ones she could find, because she felt certain no one else would ever adopt them. She has since founded the New Mexico Mustang & Burro Association and often receives calls about wild horse rescue resources.

One of those resources is Karen Herman, a former upstate New Yorker who founded the nonprofit Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary north of Abiquiu to accommodate the five wild horses she adopted from the Forest Service, which manages two herds in the Carson National Forest. Like Nation, Herman worried that if she didn't take the horses, skinny as they were from the hard winter, no one else would. Aside from providing the Sky Mountain band with plenty of forage and room to roam (Herman keeps the horses wild, aside from necessary veterinary vaccines; she doesn't train or ride them), Herman is part of a three-person team that has pioneered the use of PZP, or porcine zona pellucida, an immunocontraceptive injection that allows wild mares to breed but not conceive. Herman says the fast-reproducing wild horse herds on BLM and Forest Service land could be effectively managed with PZP, ultimately eliminating the need for gathers and expensive holding pens. This spring, Herman's team became the first to use PZP in New Mexico and the first in the entire US to use it on Forest Service land.

To Mangold and Bonar, that kind of preventive care is what's needed to really solve the too-many-unwanted-horses problem.

"We can never build enough shelters for the number of homeless animals out there," Mangold says. "Spaying and neutering is the answer to the problem. That's beginning to dawn on people with dogs and cats; it's not dawning on them with equines."

Yet. But a $5,000 grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has provided APNM with the first donation to its Equine Protection Fund, a project Bonar says will shore up support for the state's overworked horse shelters, provide emergency feed and vet care, and educate people about horse stewardship and gelding (neutering). Half the battle, Bonar says, is about getting people—even horse lovers—to understand the problem.

"There [are] a lot of horses in New Mexico that are cared for so excellently—in the dressage community, in the polo community, in the racing industry—that have the best of everything," Bonar says. "Then we have this other population of horses that don't have food or water. How do we reconcile that?"

As the sun sinks lower over the mesa west of Nation's ranch in Eldorado, Breeze—the once-wild horse Nation adopted from the BLM—tosses his head, neighing. He's big, with a coat the color of roasted chestnuts and with a splash of white on the end of his soft, furred nose.

A gust of wind whips across the open mesa, stirring Breeze's tail and tousling Nation's hair.

"They were afraid to let me take him," she recalls, gently stroking his muzzle. "Nobody could handle this horse."

One down, tens of thousands to go.  SFR