When Connie Thomson began volunteering for Equine Voices Rescue & Sanctuary at the Jumpin’ Jack Ranch, located in Amado, Arizona, she was very afraid of the horses.
More than four years later, that fear dissipated as Thomson learned how crucial her work was to the well-being of the animal that has long been the icon of the American West.
“It’s a very healing place,” she said. “It’s difficult to describe but there’s just something magical about the animals and all that they’ve gone through and yet they trust us. It’s not just for them; it’s for us too.”
Equine Voices is one of many non-profit horse rescue organizations located in Arizona, where horses represent a crucial aspect of the Southwest’s history and culture.
The horse is to the Southwest what the eagle is to the U.S., but being a horse in Arizona is a troubled existence, and horses face many issues including abuse and neglect, abandonment, being used to create medication, being used in the illegal drug trade and being sent for slaughter and meat processing.
At Equine Voices, volunteers primarily rescue premarin mares and foals from slaughter. They branched out to rescue horses used in the illegal drug trade and abandoned or abused horses, according to Karen Pomroy, president and founder.
Premarin mares are used to create premarin, a hormone replacement drug for women going through menopause. Women going through menopause experience a lack of estrogen, which is present in the urine of a pregnant mare, said Pomroy.
In order to collect this urine, the horses are kept in small stalls, where they have no room to lay down or turn. They are also kept pregnant on a regular basis, until they can’t get pregnant anymore, which is when they are sent to slaughter – unless they are rescued by an organization like Equine Voices.
Of the 63 horses at the Jumpin’ Jack Ranch, half were rescued from the premarin industry, either as mares or foals that came from them.
Horses that are rescued from premarin farms are sometimes in very horrible conditions, said Soleil Dolce, vice president of the Arizona Equine Rescue Organization.
They can be under-muscled, weak, have lice in their manes, and anemic from nursing foals all the time, she said. They are often hard to handle because they interact with people very rarely, and when they do its because different devices are being attached or detached from their bodies in order to collect their urine.
They are rarely starved when they’re rescued, Pomroy said, but the one thing every single horse has in common is a blank look in their eyes. This look, she said, is due to the fact that they’ve been trapped in a stall and had their babies sent to slaughter.
Once a horse gives birth, their foals are usually taken away from them as soon as possible because if a horse is out in the pasture with its baby, it’s not producing enough money for the drug companies, said Pomroy.
Water is withheld from the horses on a regular basis, according to Pomroy, because they want the horse’s urine to be more concentrated in order to get a good amount of estrogen.
“The gestation period is 11 months so that’s a very long time for a pregnant anything to be standing on their feet,” she said.
It is inhumane to force horses to stand still for such long periods of time because horses are animals that are designed to walk 35 miles a day, said Dolce.
“My philosophy is that when a horse comes here we’re really on their timeline so you can’t rush the process if you have a horse that’s been mentally scarred like that,” Pomroy said. “Usually with a lot of care, love and patience they come around.”
According to Dolce, there is debate as to how effective the drug actually is. There are some studies with conflicting opinions on whether the drug reduces hot flashes in menopausal women.
All premarin farms in the U.S. have been closed down, and there have been decreasing numbers of horses being used for premarin, but it is a practice that still goes on and a number of farms remain in Canada, said Pomroy.
Inhumane premarin farm activities may be limited to Canada, but there are some types of horse abuse that are more prevalent in places like Arizona.
One type of abuse that is somewhat unique to Arizona is the use of horses in the illegal drug trade.
According to Customs and Border Protection, horses are mainly used to transport marijuana or narcotics across the U.S.−Mexican border but there have been rare instances where horses have been seized transporting people entering the country illegally.
The number of horses being found transporting drugs has decreased over the past years and now Border Patrol only encounters five or six a year.
The horses they discover are usually dehydrated, underweight, have extremely bruised feet and several open sores on their backs, Customs and Border Protection said in an e-mail.
Often horses are unloaded and set loose or they are tied to a tree in the middle of the desert until they die, said Dolce. There was one horse that was found with orange reflectors on its hind legs, and they assumed it was so that they could spot them more easily at night to retrieve their drugs, she said.
If officials don’t find the owner after seven days and the horse doesn’t require any medical attention, it is taken to the next public auction, she said.
Some people who attend these auctions intend to buy the horses for slaughter, said Dolce, which comes with its own issues concerning inhumane treatment.
For some people the issue is that horses are a companion animal and they are not meant for meat processing. However, according to Dolce, there are many countries in Europe and Asia that consider horse meat a delicacy, such as Japan, China, Germany and France.
Horses in the U.S. are not raised with the intention of being processed as meat, and as a result some of the horsemeat coming from the U.S. is not safe for human consumption because they are full of certain drugs and medications, Dolce said.
There are attempts being made to reopen equine slaughter plants in the U.S. but as of right now horses go to Mexico from slaughter, said Dolce. Arizona charges a fee if you ship a horse for processing from Arizona to Mexico, so people are bypassing the fee by going to Texas and shipping the horses from there, she said.
“A lot of people saw horse slaughter as the solution to the excess horse population. If you could send them to these processing plants then that would avoid people dumping them in the desert out of desperation and it would avoid people starving them to death in their backyards,” Dolce said. “However so many people found it culturally distasteful for these horses to go to processing that they intervened. They blocked it without an alternative solution.”
The most common type of abuse against horses in Arizona is neglect, said Michael Duffey, animal crimes investigator for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. This can either be through dietary neglect by not giving the horse food or water, or through medical neglect by not getting the horse the veterinary care it needs.
If a horse’s teeth are not maintained, it can cause them to starve to death because they can’t eat their food properly.
There are also cases of abuse, where someone is deliberately mistreating an animal with intent to harm, said Dolce. These are harder to detect, she said.
The reasons behind most of these cases are financial and this escalated in 2008 when the U.S. entered the recession. Many people could not afford to take care of their horses, and horses can be very expensive, said Dolce.
According to Dolce, an average rehabilitation process at their organization costs between $4,000 and $6,000 and it can cost someone $500 to have their horse euthanized and buried. It costs an average of $3,600 a year to maintain care of a horse, and this fluctuates depending on the price of hay, she said.
Last year the price of a bale of hay was $28 and normally it’s $5, according to Duffey.
“So you can see that if a lot of people were affected by the economic downturn and did not have a lot of disposable income, the first thing they stopped buying is the $28 bale of hay,” he said.
As the economy recovered, abuse and neglect cases decreased but this year in particular has been one of the worst years for starvation cases since the recession in 2008, said Dolce.
“I can’t quite figure out what the corresponding event is,” she said. “I don’t know if the economy started to recover so people got optimistic and purchased horses when they really couldn’t afford them yet.”
The Maricopa County Animal Crimes Investigation Unit gets three or four calls a week regarding equine abuse cases, said Harvey Redman, an investigator with the unit. At the Arizona Humane Society in Pima County, Duffey gets about six calls a week.
All felonies are punishable by prison time in the Arizona State Department of Corrections, according to Duffey, and certain animal crimes – depending on their seriousness – can be classified as felonies.
“We’d like to see some people go to jail because if people went to jail they wouldn’t be inclined to abuse their animals,” Redman said. “If you knew you were going to face six months on your first offense you probably wouldn’t be in a big hurry to starve your animal, would you?”
Some people can be afraid to come forward, if they can’t afford to take care of their horse anymore, in the fear of legal consequences, said Dolce, however there are no consequences if they are making an effort to address the situation.
“It’s totally to their benefit to come forward,” Dolce said. “As a matter of fact we do have people who call the Department of Agriculture and say I can’t afford my horse and I don’t know where to go and then (the department of) agriculture will refer them to rescues to help them.”
For Redman, it depends on the condition of the horse when they call.
“If I go over there and I have a walking skeleton, obviously you didn’t reach out near in time,” he said. “If I go over there and he’s a little on the thin side and you’re trying to get some help then I will direct you to some people that can help you. But most people don’t call us.”
It is difficult to determine whether horse abuse rates are higher in Arizona compared to other states, according to Dolce, but anecdotally each state has a rate that corresponds to their natural resources.
In places like California, they have rangeland with lots of grass, which makes it easier to have a lot of horses because you don’t have to constantly buy hay and you can just leave them out on rangeland, which reduces your financial burden, she said.
However in Arizona people have to feed their horses hay all year because you don’t have rangeland filled with grass everywhere, Dolce said.
Cultural differences also attribute to the levels of horse abuse in Arizona because according to Dolce, some reservations like the Navajo reservation treat horses very well, while others don’t value horses as much.
“Even if you look at the Hispanic communities, for example, in Mexico the standard for horse care can be different,” Dolce said. “What they consider normal horse handling could be considered abusive by American standards.”
The government doesn’t prioritize livestock needs unless it’s for food production, said Dolce.
“That’s where horses kind of fall into a hole, because if horses were a food product they would get a different level of agricultural attention than say, cows,” Dolce said.
Horses started as a mode of transportation and a means to get work done, but now they are primarily an animal of leisure or luxury.
“I tell people horses still serve an important part of the community,” she said. “They’re an important part of history.”
Reham Alawadhi is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org