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Imperiled Icons

Once symbols of the West’s greatness, New Mexico’s horses buckle under hard economic times.

November 25, 2009, 12:00 am


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.

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Courtesy Karen Herman

Of the eight original territories designated in 1971 as wild horse rangeland in New Mexico, only three remain: two in the Carson National Forest and one Bureau of Land Management herd near Socorro.

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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