Unwanted horses of the West


A rescue horse finds some shade at Equine Encore Center in Tucson. Photo by Janie Todorovich.

President Trump’s 2018 appropriations bill suggests changing a 1971 act of Congress protecting wild horses from slaughter, and cuts the Wild Horse and Burro program by 12 percent. If passed, it will allow for the unlimited sale and slaughter of these American icons of the West.

Wild horses are protected by an act of Congress from 1971, deeming them “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “enrich the lives of the American people.” Yet, the U.S. government is rounding them up by the thousands and holding them on government storage lands, and spending millions to do it.

The biggest opponent of wild horses is livestock farmers, who want them to stop grazing on the public lands so their cattle and sheep will have more grass to eat.

The Bureau of Land Management spent over $78 million on the horse and burro program in fiscal year 2016. $3.1 million was used to remove a small number of horses from rangelands, $7.3 million to adopt out 2,000 horses, and $49.4 million to care for the horses in long- and short-term holding facilities. The cost is growing higher each year, and the wild horse population is still growing.

“A lot of the animosity on the removal of wild horses is centered around special interest ranching and livestock farming,” said Mary Koncel, program specialist for the American Wild Horse Campaign. “The government was happy to step in and support them.”

The BLM currently stockpiles nearly 45,000 wild horses in government holding facilities, while 67,000 wild horses are still free on the range, per the American Wild Horse Campaign. Less than 500 wild horses remain free on the rangelands in Arizona.

A Salt River horse in Arizona. Photo by Simone Netherlands. August 24, 2017.

Salt River Wild Horse Management Group is a 100-person volunteer effort based out of Phoenix, which looks after the Salt River wild horses. They keep data on every horse and record their migrating patterns, herd dynamics, and birth and death rates. The group prevented the roundup of this herd back in 2015 when the Forest Service wanted them removed.

SRWHMG has asked the government for permission to contracept the mares in a humane way through certified darters, but they have yet to be authorized to use this program that would prevent future roundups.

“I think this method is much more humane and cost effective than the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, because the horse population is still growing despite these roundups.” said Koncel.

140,000 horses or more are sent to slaughter annually for political and financial reasons, or failure to get adopted. Kill buyers are in the business of buying up cheap horses at livestock auctions after which they truck them to Canada and Mexico to get slaughtered for human consumption abroad.

“The horse slaughter industry is a brutal and greed motivated business”, said Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. “The problem is the practice of “lottery breeding,” where they will breed 100 horses, pick out the top 10, and send the other 90 to slaughter.”

Per the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the minimum cost of caring for a healthy horse is $2,500 per year, not including stabling costs, and the space required to own one is at least 400 feet per horse.

People who rescue horses are overwhelmed by the number of them in need. Patti Shirley, founder of Equine Encore Foundation, has filled her sanctuary for retired racehorses to capacity with injured horses she brings home from the Rillito racetrack in Tucson.

“Most trainers really try to do the right thing, but they are in a business, and if the horse can’t run it will likely end up on the road to a kill pen,” said Shirley. “That’s why I go pick them up.”

Patti Shirley with one of her 79 rescue racehorses. Photo by Janie Todorovich.

Shirley cares for 79 rescue racehorses who have grown too old to keep racing, or have had a career ending injury and no longer serve a purpose for the industry. Unfortunately for these horses, they know how to run but they are otherwise untrained, and adoption is off the table for them.

“In the West everybody had horses because that’s how you got to work or school, that’s who pulled your plow. Horses are strictly for leisure now, and they are becoming a luxury item,” Shirley said.

The BLM is currently prohibited from selling captured wild horses to slaughter, but that could change very soon.

President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal suggests reducing the Wild Horse and Burro Program by 12 percent, which means cutting $10 million and 29 jobs.

In addition, Trump made a request to lift the rules that prevent the BLM from selling the captured wild horses to slaughterhouses that would kill them for meat.

If Congress agrees to the new budget changes by Trump, it would upend the existing policy directing the BLM to prohibit selling horses for slaughter.

The wild horses that survive the government roundups but can’t get adopted afterwards are sentenced to a lifetime in government storage, or worse, the gas chamber. Some are more fortunate than others, and the lucky horses who get adopted are given a new life.

Lydia Byczek, owner of Raven Ranch Boarding facility in Tucson, has adopted three horses in need of new homes during her 30 years of raising them.

Danielle Clark riding her horse at Raven Ranch Boarding Facility. Photo by Janie Todorovich.

“I bought my first horse after college, and after I got married it was my husband who brought home every other horse I had,” said Byczek. “They were all horses in need of homes, and that’s probably my favorite horse memory.”

The BLM uses 16 off-ranch facilities in 12 states to store the wild horses that get captured. The Arizona Correctional Industries, where inmates work to tame and domesticate wild horses for adoptability, is the only BLM holding facility for horses in the state. Located in Florence, wild horses are available for adoption for as low as $125.

For more information on the Salt River Horses or adopting a wild horse, visit SRWHMG.org or BLM.gov/adoptahorse.

Janie Todorovich is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at jetodo@email.arizona.edu

Click here for a word version of the story and high resolution photos. 





One comment Add yours
  1. Records show that over 1700 wild horses were sold to slaughter from 2008 – 2012 and many more are sold today. If these horses were allowed to live on their public ranges, the cost to taxpayers would be -0-.

    There are 100-1 livestock to wild horses on public lands with BLM charging “ranchers” less than $1.85/head or for cow/calf pair or 5 sheep. The livestock are desertifying the West.

    The Annual loss for BLM is between $123 million to $500 million when all possible income is calculated. Scapegoating wild horses and stampeding them to only kill them is wrong.

    Let wild horses live on their rightful ranges and save our public lands!

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