Free-ranging horses have long been a feature of the landscape around the historic town of Placitas, northeast of Albuquerque. The magnificent sight of a band of dappled palominos or chestnut browns grazing and galloping along the hills at the base of the Sandia Mountains feels iconic—a classic and romantic image of the West.

Among residents in surrounding communities, the horses inspire both passion and controversy. Their presence is the source of long-standing debates between wild horse advocates, land owners, conservationists, tribes and government agencies.

At the heart of the issue lies the question: How wild is wild? It's led to community spectacles, round-ups and lawsuits aplenty. And it's the question behind current efforts to relocate a band of 75 horses from a 400-acre sanctuary on San Felipe Pueblo land.

A spokesperson from San Felipe Pueblo tells SFR by phone that the sanctuary, which was established as a partnership between the pueblo and two advocacy groups—Placitas WILD and the Wild Horses Observers Association—was founded to keep herds rounded up by the US Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Livestock Board from 2013 to 2016 in their natural habitat between the pueblo and Placitas.

The parties hoped to eventually establish a designated open space for the horses on a BLM parcel known as the Buffalo Tract that San Felipe Pueblo claims as part of its aboriginal lands. Yet conflicting claims by the BLM, gravel mining industries, the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant and local tribes has left the fate of the Buffalo Tract in limbo. Meanwhile, the horses sequestered at the sanctuary have slowly moved towards domestication. The pueblo says its members regard the horses as wildlife and the intention was to maintain them as such. Because the animals have become increasingly reliant on humans, the sanctuary is looking for new homes.

Mustang Camp, a wild horse training facility in Milan, in the western part of the state, has agreed to "gentle" 50 of the horses for private adoption. Placitas WILD is still looking for parties interested in the remaining 25.

The relocation has renewed conversations among residents of Placitas about how to manage the horses still roaming free among the hills.

Clea Hall grooms two of the wild horses that she rescued after roundups in 2013.
Clea Hall grooms two of the wild horses that she rescued after roundups in 2013. | Leah Cantor

Many residents defend the horses as integral to the identity of the town and the surrounding area, yet some conservationists regard them as a threat to the delicate desert ecosystem that has been hit hard by drought, overgrazing and erosion. Some land owners resent the destruction that the horses can cause in yards and gardens, and say that they pose a risk to the safety of drivers.

The New Mexico Livestock Board has rounded up horses near Placitas in the past, arguing that they are not wild but rather are "estray," and are therefore subject to the same laws as lost livestock.  Patience O'Dowd of the Wild Horses Observers Association has brought the multiple law suits over this interpretation. WHOA endorsed legislation that established NM's Wild Horse protections in 2007.  A state Appellate Court ruling in 2015 upheld that law's legal protections for wild horses on state lands while the recent findings of the NM 12th District Court upheld the law on lands including private lands and fence out requirements in 2018 and thereby ordered the release of 15 wild horses back into an Alto, NM neighborhood they had roamed. The court's final decision will be handed down on April 10th 2019.

However the BLM still considers them "feral" or "free-roaming" rather than wild, which could make them subject to BLM initiated roundups on federal land in the future. Advocates remain concerned that horses rounded up by federal authorities could be subject to abuses.

There is disagreement among wildlife organizations, state agencies, and horse advocacy groups as to whether the horses in the Pacitas area are native to North America. For her part, O'dowd contends that they are wildlife, and that the horses held at the San Felipe Placitas WILD preserve were rounded up illegally by the NMLB, violating the 2007 protections. However according to the NMLB, removing the horses from private property was within their authority at the time of the roundup.

"In our view, they are wild and belong on the range because they area a native specie to North America and are part of our natural heritage," says O'Dowd. "When they get rounded up, they could be euthanized or sold for slaughter."

Selling horses for slaughter is illegal and is denounced by the BLM, though some wild horses that have been sold at auction in the past by both the BLM and the NMLB have ended up in slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

After the 2013 round-ups began, Placitas resident Clea Hall began taking in herds on her land to save them from the slaughterhouse. She has since become a certified holistic wild horsemanship trainer and she and her mother now care for over two dozen horses. "Our lives have been permanently changed because we opened our hearts and our homes to take care of these horses that we love," Hall tells SFR. Yet keeping them up is a significant struggle, and Hall is actively looking to re-home some.

At the Placitas Café, where Hall waitresses, walls are adorned with art donated by the community to raise money for hay. Hay has nearly tripled in cost over the last few years after a series of droughts resulted in feed shortages across the region. Customers come to the counter to ask Hall about the horses, and two men in leather biker jackets add $20 to their bill to "support the noble effort."

Hall grew up in Placitas. She says the horses have been here for as long as she can remember. During a drought in 2010, people began to leave feed in their yards for the parched and bony animals. The horses have since come to depend on humans, says Hall. They now spend their time lurking around neighborhoods or waiting close to the road, where at least five have been hit in the last year alone. With the easy access to food, Hall says the population quickly grows beyond what the land can naturally sustain.

"As I see it, people are as much a part of the problem as the horses are," says Hall. She advocates for the use of the equine birth control vaccine, PZP, for population management.

Sandy Johnson of Placitas WILD agrees that "use of PZP is the only humane way we will be able to sustainably maintain a herd of free-roaming horses out on the range."

In January, Sandoval County announced a new contract with Mt. Taylor Mustangs to administer the drug to animals in the area.

Johnson says that she still hopes to one day create a wild horse eco-park on the Buffalo Tract, but for now her main goal is to make sure all the horses at the Placitas WILD sanctuary find proper homes.

Placitas WILD hosts a fundraiser to help with relocation at Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino on on May 17 with a performance by Chevel Shepherd, farmington native and winner of The Voice, a competition reality show. Keep up with their efforts at placitashorses.com.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about lawsuits filed by the Wild Horse Observers Association and how the state and the BLM differ in handling the animals. In a lawsuit filed by WHOA against the NMLB, courts ruled that the horses on state lands are to be classified as "wildlife."