Sebedeo Chacon loves horses.

He's got a pair of racing horses in the stalls out back for sport. He's got a saddle horse in the corral for shepherding his cattle in the Carson National Forest, and he has at least a dozen framed photographs of horses inside his doublewide homestead just outside the town of Ojo Caliente in Northern New Mexico.

It's safe to say that Chacon, whose family has been in the ranching business for centuries, has a soft spot for horses, provided they're properly managed and maintained. They're an integral part of his life, important assets whose upkeep can cost dearly but are well worth the price.

It’s not that Sebedeo Chacon doesn’t love horses. It’s just that he loves the ones that don’t compete with his cattle for grazing.
It’s not that Sebedeo Chacon doesn’t love horses. It’s just that he loves the ones that don’t compete with his cattle for grazing. | Thomas Ragan

Then there are those other horses, the wild ones up on the Jarita Mesa, about 150 of them at last count. Some of them are sleek Spanish mustangs, others the descendants of domesticated stock let loose on US Forest Service land during the last half of the 20th century.

Mention them, and Chacon's blood begins to boil. They reduce the shrubs to nubs, devour the flowers in hours and graze the grasses until they are no more, leave their calling cards underfoot. They feed off the very forage his cattle need during the summer, indirectly affecting the health of the calves and lowering their price at auction.

"A man's got to make a living. I'm getting too old for this," Chacon, 74, says in a recent SFR interview inside his home, wearing cowboy hat, blue jeans and prerequisite boots. "I don't mind the horses, but when they're not managed, they can hurt my business. There aren't any fences up there on the mesa, so they drift from one allotment to the next, then to the next, and they eat till their heart's content."

But the days of the all-you-can-eat grass buffet look to be numbered for at least some of the horses up on the mesa. Starting in a few weeks, a contractor hired by the US Forest Service plans to coax them into corrals by placing blocks of salt near popular watering holes in the high country. Over time, an electric fence will shut behind them, sealing their fate forever as they go from wild to captive.

The plan is to collect 35 of them on the Jarita Mesa and 35 on the Jicarilla, a pair of wild horse territories in Rio Arriba County, where about 550 horses roam, according to Carson National Forest data.

At first, officials wanted to collect a total 220 horses, but the wildfires across California, Oregon and Washington waylaid their money, leaving $380,000 to accomplish only part of the goal. In the coming years, they want another $250,000 to finish the job, eventually reducing the wild horse population in the state by one-third of its current level. Even then, the population won't be close to what federal biologists say the land could sustain: just 150 horses between the two districts.

The swath of rangeland, with a combined 120,000 acres, was established in the early 1970s to protect the horses and give them a habitat where they could live and run free, accommodating a New Mexico herd that is one the largest on any US Forest Service land.

But their presence, along with their voracious appetites and their ever-increasing population, has taken its toll. They're being blamed for a host of ecological imbalances and are eating away at what little forage is left due to prolonged drought.

The spectacle, in which man will now intervene with nature, is but a reminder of the confluence of interests that exist in the West. The horses are usually the first to go, at the expense of protecting industries big and small, like natural gas exploration, hunting and ranching.

And the emotional fallout is always the same: It angers animal rights activists, who would rather the horses be left alone, but pleases the ranchers, the hunters and oil executives, who complain their bottom lines and reclamation efforts suffer from the uncontrollable steeds.

Just last month in Arizona, the New York Times reports, federal officials halted a planned roundup after the local government and citizens spoke against it. But in New Mexico, the effort is moving ahead.

Sampson Livestock, out of Meadows, Utah, is on contract to earn nearly $800 per head to catch some of the horses in a roundup that could stretch into December.

Because the horses are constantly moving, the roundup is always a crapshoot, says Anthony Madrid, manager of the Jicarilla Ranger District. Success largely depends on whether the high country gets hit hard by snow and freezing temperatures early in the winter.

"They're always a challenge to gather, but we're going to leave it in the hands of the contractors and Mother Nature," says Madrid, a former wild horse coordinator who knows the terrain and has seen up-close the problems that the horses cause.

The hope is to find homes for them through adoption, but that's an undertaking that doesn't always work. The majority of the horses spend the rest of their lives in holding pens, paid for by the taxpayer.

When they are wild, though, the scene can often be surreal. In the Jicarilla district, horses graze in sight of 20-feet-high jack pumps that operate on Forest Service land, host to over 800 natural gas wells.

As Madrid points out, the horses are used to "human activity" and have been known to make a mockery of corporate reclamation efforts, forcing the gas companies to reseed around well pads after they've reduced the grasses to bare dirt, their hoof imprints the equivalent of fingerprints at a crime scene.

Some hunting outfitters hate the herds. David Montoya, who's proud of the Jicarilla district's trophy-size mule deer, says the forage has become so scant in the last decade that the deer are shrinking in size, and there seem to be fewer of them. Trees show distinct lines where deer have stripped vegetation as high as they can reach.

Up to 70 wild horses, like these on the Jarita Mesa, are due to move into captivity this year.
Up to 70 wild horses, like these on the Jarita Mesa, are due to move into captivity this year. | Kathleen Carey

"Whenever you get browse lines, you know you've got issues," says Montoya, 33, who operates Drop Tine Guides and Outfitters in the Four Corners. "If [horses] aren't consuming everything around them, then they're shitting on everything and stomping everything out."

That's such uncooth behavior from wild horses whose bloodlines have been directly traced to the days of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, some of the breeds, in fact, named after historical figures of the day, like Oñate and conquistador.

But lately, it would seem, they are scapegoats on the landscape, labeled as "nonnative" invaders, and raising questions about the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The law aims to protect the animals from death at the hands of private citizens, many of them ranchers who shot them out of frustration as they outgrazed livestock.

Yet since its passage, the law has become more of a regulatory tool that allows for roundups. Though well-intended, there is no escaping the fact that the equine go from free to penned up to, in some cases, dead.

Some of the prices for adoptions are so low—as little as $25 per head by the Forest Service—that it's caught the attention of animal rights groups, like the Humane Society.

"How can someone value a horse when they're getting it for such a low price?" asks Stephanie Twining, spokeswoman for the Washington DC-based Humane Society of the United States.

The reality, Twining says, is that people can buy as many as four horses at a time, and then after a year, the federal government hands over the titles. At that point, the animals lose their protected status, and people can do what they want with them.

While slaughtering horses for human consumption is illegal in the United States, it's alive and well in Mexico and Canada, where an estimated 150,000 animals are killed in the pair of countries to meet the demand of the European market, according to Twining.

While the vast majority of the killings are domesticated horses—whose prolific breeding Twining equates to dogs and cats in the United States—nothing really prevents adopted horses from being be sold for slaughter.

Any horses that aren't adopted can be sold at auction under a 2004 amendment to the federal law. As a result, every year the Humane Society works to ensure that funding for roundups like the one on the Carson prohibit those sales.

Here at home in New Mexico, representatives from the Forest Service and BLM tell SFR they've never "knowingly" sold the wild horses for slaughter, claiming they devote their energy to their adoption programs. And yet, the BLM has been implicated in suppling horses that end up in "harvest facilities."

In an ideal world, activists say, horses would not see adoption fairs or be placed in holding pens. They'd run untethered, and some even suggest the government could buy out ranchers, whose hundreds of thousands of cattle graze public lands for a pittance.

In Ojo Caliente, for example, grazing fees are as low as $1.69 a head per month. Every time the subject of a buyout comes up, it aggravates some of the Hispanic ranchers, who counter that the land is theirs to graze, given to them in the form of Spanish land grants before the US government borders rolled over the region.

So when the Forest Service reduces the number of acres where livestock can graze—and sometimes in the name of protecting the horses—Chacon sees it as a form of trespass.

"They're both just outsiders," he says, blaming both animal rights groups and the federal agency for the erosion of his grazing privileges, which have been in the family for centuries.

"They're nothing but thieves," says Chacon. "They've been robbing us of our land for a long time now, telling us what we can and cannot do on it." He points as far back as World War II and then ticks off a litany of provisions that prevent him and other ranchers from gathering wood or picking piñón.

Of course, El Rito District Manager Francisco Sanchez denies such claims, saying the Forest Service isn't out to take his land. And he reminds Chacon that the land does not belong to him, that it belongs to the federal government.

"But there is that tendency," Sanchez says while trailing off in a telephone interview, careful of involving himself in such a heady and historical debate.

The drama reached critical mass a few years ago, when ranchers signed an unsuccessful petition for the removal of Diana Trujillo, the former El Rito District ranger who bore the brunt of the hostility among ranchers.

But Trujillo, who served the district for 11 years, insists the reductions permitting about 18 percent fewer cattle over the last decade were based on a scientific formula that took all interests into account.

"It's not just the horses," says Trujillo, who has since been promoted to deputy forest and grassland supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. "This is an emotional issue, and usually everybody involved brings their own agendas."

Perhaps the most pervasive agenda is this idea that the horses are not supposed to be here. As Spanish imports, they're technically an invasive species that don't mix well with the landscape. But in the last decade, researchers have claimed that they roamed North America 11,000 years before the conquista­dors made landfall in Mexico in 1519.

It's something Karen Herman, president of Sky Mountain Wild Mustang Sanctuary, points out on her website, alongside statistics about the historically dwindling numbers of wild herds in New Mexico: Where there were once 6,000 wild horses four decades ago, there are barely 600 today.

BLM's own stats indicate that nationwide, about 58,000 wild horses roam federal lands, while 47,000 are being held in pens. Each horse's life in incarceration costs taxpayers roughly $45,000, and the numbers pile up as the roundups keep occurring.

Herman says she sees a better way.

"In the larger ecosystem perspective, we believe that wild horses have a place, and we don't think they're causing the environmental harm that they're so often accused of," says Herman, president of the 8-year-old sanctuary, whose mission is to shelter wild mustangs and let them run free on thousands of acres of land north of Abiquiú.

Right now, Sky Mountain has a small band of five horses, four of whom were rounded up in the Carson as they were starving in bitter winter conditions and one a foal born there.

Herman advocates contraception among mares, even though that practice is echewed by the animal-loving extreme. She's also come to realize that managing the land is essential, along with perhaps creating more sanctuaries that are similar to hers in nature.

Roundups, she says, certainly aren't the answer. Something has got to give.

Meanwhile, no more than 30 miles away, a roundup is proceeding on the mesa. After the horses are caught, veterinarians will examine them, and they will be branded on the neck, leaving no question that they came from federal land.

If there is any good news in any of it, it's that they won't be rounded up with helicopters buzzing overhead and with contract cowboys chasing them with ropes as they stumble and fall on the landscape.

Madrid points out that the upcoming roundup is intended to be "low impact." The horses will then be sent to special trainers who will try to "gentle" them.

"Out in the forest, they're scared to death of humans and will run like hell when they see you," says Barbara Kiipper, whose Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance in the Four Corners has been a godsend to Carson officials these past three years.

But once her expert crew is done with them, Kiipper can only hope that her efforts pay off.

"They make awesome trail horses, they make great kid's horses, great ranch horses," says Kiipper, 67, the epitome of a cowgirl, having ridden and trained horses since she was a child. "They're incredible horses with great personality, and they don't deserve all the slaughter and all the continual crap that goes on with grazing rights, but it's a difficult situation."

And while Madrid admits that adoptions can take time and says he fully expects to have dozens of wild horses in holding pens this winter, he's hoping there won't be a repeat of 2009, when nearly 150 horses were stuck in pens for a little over a year until adoptive homes were found for them.

"We take these adoptions serious," he says. "We do our best to find the right homes, and when someone wants to adopt four of them, we evaluate them closely then try to discourage it. Horses can be expensive to maintain."

Yet there seems to be a solution on the horizon, somewhere in between unsuccessful adoptions and a life in a holding pen: What if they're never born in the first place?

Now enters PZP, a form of birth control that's injected into a mare's bloodstream by dart.

In 2009, the Carson National Forest, with the help of Herman and Dan Elkins, of Mt. Taylor Mustang Ranch, shot PZP into nearly 100 mares. The drug is reportedly 90 percent effective, when properly administered.

The science behind the contraception is what brought Kathleen "Cat" Carey, 25, an East Coast gal, to the Jarita Mesa, where she spent two summers monitoring wild mares, counting them, observing them and photographing them. She came to the conclusion that the roundups are necessary.

"Preservation of the land is the top priority so that all wildlife can coexist," Carey says in a telephone interview from Boston, where she is a fourth-year student at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

One of her professors, Allan Rutberg, who teaches wildlife policies, says contraception could be the answer. And Jay Kirkpatrick, the director of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, has already famously remarked that if humans can spay and neuter their dogs and cats, then why can't we do the same for horses?

But it is the drought, no doubt, that's causing all the problems, making it hard on all forms of wildlife, Rutberg says.

To the contention that humans should never intervene in what amounts to animal husbandry for wildlife, manipulating the ecological balance of the land, Rutberg quips that "we change it every time we put up a fence."

He added, "If we recognize the small measures and are cognizant of them, then maybe it's our responsibility to be conscious of them on a larger scale."

But what's really amazing in the whole wild horse debate, he says, is how little humans can control domesticated horses once they escape into the wild. They gallop right in with the rest of the roaming bands, he says.

"It's shows how little we've really domesticated them, as much as we want to believe that we have," he says.

Perhaps there is no solution to the dilemma: Even with PZP, wild horses will reproduce, and everyone will always think that their interests are the most important, including those who covet the beauty of a wild creature.

Maybe the solution, or the peace of mind, rather, lies in the very small measures that animal lovers make on a one-on-one basis, which can end up turning into very large personal sacrifices.

Gigi Gaulin’s Nez Perce horse Toisin now resides at Sky Mountain horse sanctuary.
Gigi Gaulin’s Nez Perce horse Toisin now resides at Sky Mountain horse sanctuary. | Elizabeth Martin

Like Gigi Gaulin, a holistic veterinarian in Santa Fe. She took it upon herself to buy a Nez Perce horse in Washington state's San Juan Islands a few years back. She says she sensed that he did not want to be mounted or ridden. Eventually, she quit her practice and lugged the horse, named Toisan, all the way to Virginia, where they both communed on 25 acres of land from 2012 to this past November, when they returned to Santa Fe.

"There were no barriers between us," Gaulin says. "We swam together, walked and ate together, and went to the woods without fencing and without halter and lead. We just related and trusted. I did not ask him to perform or do this and that, and yet he was always there and always present."

These days, Toisan lives at Sky Mountain, and Gaulin visits him every week.

"Horses," she says, "did not come here to be 'broke,' or to become a commodity, a business, an industry. They came to be a part of the whole, to run, to be free, to be in the stars and moon and sky, to have their families and to live on earth."