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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

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.

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The New Mexico Livestock Board’s annals of closed animal cruelty cases contain countless photographs of bony starving horses like the one above.

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


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