After a nice walk and a fine trot, I was 30 seconds into what felt like a pretty smooth canter when handsome, gigantic Adonis stopped short and ejected me toward a fence. I landed hard in a mud puddle. Stunned and filthy, but also proud, I got back on, determined to do better, sit deeper, lower my hands, grip tighter. He threw me again.
The next day, I woke up feeling like I’d been beaten with a stick. I had three badly bruised ribs and two sprained ankles. Part of it was my fault. The 19-year-old buns of steel that won so many pretty ribbons had turned into 30-something saddlebags that jiggled like the star of a twerking video. And I’d been too cocky—Adonis was no mellow lesson horse. My ankles hurt for months.
A stable owner had given Adonis to my friend Nick after the horse had thrown a student, causing serious injuries. Nick, an expert rider, hoped that time and effort could bring the horse around. But a few months later, a terrifying incident at the stable convinced him it was time to give up.
“I went to grab the saddle out of the tack barn and came back, and he was just freaking out, like crazy-huge flipping out,” Nick recalls. “He broke the hitch, the big steel ring his halter was clipped to. And I just said, you know, I don’t think this horse is right in the head. Life’s too short to put me or you or anybody in peril for the sake of keeping this animal alive.”
He agonized over the options—Nick believed Adonis was “a genuine liability,” but he didn’t have the money or land to let him live out his days away from people and other animals. The thought of euthanizing him at a busy barn in town felt too practically and emotionally difficult. In the end, Nick found a solution that felt right: he loaded the horse onto a trailer bound for a wild cat sanctuary in Texas, where Adonis would be butchered. His life would end, yes, but he would help the rescued cats live.
It wasn’t a quick or easy decision for Nick, but neither is it quick or easy for other horse owners, government officials, pueblos and tribes to figure out how to manage thousands of wild, abandoned, abused, neglected, injured or dangerous animals. A persistent drought and painful doubling in the price of feed has caused a spike in the number of unwanted horses just as a loud, emotional debate rages over a proposed horse slaughter facility in Roswell.
Earlier this month, New Mexico’s horses gained national attention when former Gov. Bill Richardson and actor Robert Redford took a public stand in opposition to Valley Meat Company’s proposal to slaughter horses in Roswell. Claiming solidarity with Native American leaders, Redford and Richardson got a slap in the face when Ben Shelly, the president of the Navajo Nation, responded by saying wild and abandoned horses cause more than $200,000 in damage on Navajo land every year, and that many are sick and dying on the drought-parched range. Shelly told the New York Times that he’d like for all of the animals to be adopted, but barring that, he wants to keep slaughter as an option.
And, as others have noted, banning the slaughterhouse in Roswell wouldn’t stop horses in New Mexico from being killed for meat. Last year, nearly 10,000 horses crossed through New Mexico on their way to a facility in Mexico that processes horsemeat for export. Many horses sold at private auctions today will end up being processed on the other side of the border. In essence, the Roswell plant would just be a quicker, easier trip. But as the debate rages on—a temporary ban has delayed the plant’s opening for six months—many horse owners continue to struggle for a solution.
The New Mexico Livestock Board is the government agency with the authority to take possession of stray, abused and neglected horses. And Executive Director Ray Baca says the board has been taking in a lot more horses over the past couple of years.
“It’s increased dramatically because of the drought, the lack of forage and not being able to afford other feed to make up for the lack of forage,” he says.
Cutting down on breeding, gelding more male horses and experimenting with birth-control shots for female horses will all help, but in the meantime, the state’s rescue organizations—which must be certified by the Board—are struggling to handle all the unwanted animals Baca rounds up.
(The Equine Protection Fund can help with financial assistance for feed, gelding and euthanasia; see sidebar below.)
Some of the horses taken in by the Livestock Board end up at The Horse Shelter in Cerrillos. The no-kill, no-breeding shelter currently houses 74 horses—double the number they had a few years ago.
“The last couple of years have been really hard on people because of the economy,” explains the shelter’s program manager, Susan Hemmerle. “…I had a woman call me; she said, ‘You know, I used to pay $6.50 for a bale of hay. Now I have to pay $15—and I only make $8 an hour.’”
A generous grant allowed The Horse Shelter to pay for a training program that is helping more horses become easily adoptable, Hemmerle says. Still, only a dozen or two are successfully adopted every year. And they keep coming.
“It’s the way there aren’t enough shelters for dogs. I mean, they put down how many dogs every year in shelters?” Hemmerle says.
Irresponsible horse breeders, like puppy mills, are part of the problem. Amateur breeders and those who overbreed can be surprised by the lack of financial reward for their efforts.
“They assume that they can always sell horses, but they just aren’t informed enough. People are giving away papered horses right now and having a hard time doing it. They call here and they’re very upset [to hear we don’t accept horses from owners]. They say, ‘I can’t sell them! I’ll have to take them to the sale barn and to slaughter!’ And I say, well, stop breeding,” Hemmerle says. “Not that I wouldn’t embrace another shelter,” she adds, “but I don’t think that’s the answer to the problem.”
The Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary occupies several hundred acres of land abutting the Carson National Forest, which spreads north toward Chama in a leaf shape from Abiquiu Reservoir on the east and Dixon on the west. It’s home to five wild horses rounded up by the US Forest Service in 2007, in an attempt to manage the forest’s horse population.
Five horses: it’s not very many, but Sky Mountain founder and president Karen Herman says her organization is looking to grow thoughtfully and carefully.
“We’re working to keep more horses free in the wild in numbers where the horses—and the range that sustains them—can be healthy,” she says. But with tens of thousands of wild horses in the West, progress can be slow.
In the meantime, she’s working with Carson National Forest officials on a small project to round up female horses and inject them with porcine zona pellucida (PZP), a substance derived from pigs that prevents conception. It’s not exactly equine Depo-Provera, but the end result is the same: One shot a year is supposed to keep them from getting pregnant.
It’s a little complicated—a few weeks after the first injection, female horses must receive a booster shot. PZP has to be kept frozen and mixed in the field just before injection. And the injection can only be done by people who’ve gone through a special training program at a conservation center in Montana.
“You do need some real skill and people who are well-trained in order to successfully implement it, but it’s effective and humane and it gives us a different vision for our wildlife,” Herman says. She hopes the birth-control shot will eventually eliminate the need to round up and sell off wild horses. It could also help manage wild-horse populations on private and Native American land.
Adopting unwanted horses isn’t as simple as adopting stray cats. In addition to the significant finances and expertise needed to maintain a horse, while many adoptions go well, some just don’t work out. Katie Stone thought adopting a horse would be a great idea for her 12-year-old daughter, Emma, who was born with hemiplegic cerebral palsy and has been riding in hippotherapy classes for more than a decade.
But in the end, the horse she brought home could not be brought back to full health and had to be euthanized.
“I ended up with Cricket because somebody told me that someone had a starving horse on her property out in the mountains. She was a nice woman and she had rescued this horse, but it was beyond what she could deal with,” says Stone, the host of The Children’s Hour on KUNM. “I thought I was doing the noble thing. And I’d been told he was rideable if he could be healthier.”
The idea was that Emma and the horse could help each other out.
“We home-school her, we have three acres, we grow alfalfa, and having a horse here would allow her to get more therapy while being a part of something great,” Stone says.
She thought of buying a horse, but the idea of adopting a struggling animal had a special appeal to Stone, an animal lover. It didn’t work out the way she planned.
“The fact that he only had one eye was obvious. The fact that he was all bones was obvious. But what we learned once we got him was that he was an angry, suffering, miserable horse,” Stone recalls. She says the vet told her the horse had been suffering for years due to chronic underfeeding.
Stone knew the time to act had come when she started seeing muddy, horseshoe-shaped prints on her llama’s flanks. She paid the vet to euthanize Cricket and had the body hauled away.
The experience was expensive—she spent about $1,000 on vet bills, supplements and feed—but more importantly, Stone says she was disheartened by her glimpse of the struggles faced by so many horses in New Mexico.
“We already took away the natural situation for these animals, so now we’ve become the stewards of this system,” she says. “I tried to be a hero. I’m not a hero. I ended up just putting this poor horse out of his misery. And how many of them are out there?”
Can’t keep your horse?
Animal Protection of New Mexico’s Equine Protection Fund has several programs to help struggling horse owners. For more information, visit equineprotectionfund.org.
Emergency Feed Assistance
Available if you’ve lost your job or had a medical emergency within the past six months.
Can cover veterinary fees and disposal costs for humanely euthanizing suffering horses.
Will pay for gelding stallions and colts owned by low-income families, veterinarians and law enforcement.