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.”