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.