Recently, at a small social event, I was approached by a couple of horse loving, but not horse owning, guests who wanted to know how I felt about the plight of our wild horses. This is certainly one of the most emotional issues out there for anybody interested in animal welfare and conservation of important species. It is also a divisive topic for those who must actually deal with the challenges facing an American icon.
As someone in the horse business who has worked with riders of virtually every age, in every discipline and at every level of income and experience, I thought it was a good time to weigh-in with my views. I love horses and devote almost every waking hour to trying to help them and their humans.
The wild horse dilemma seems to be getting a lot more press these days. There have been some good columns in this paper over the last year or so. There were some caring and knowledgeable people who gave a presentation to a good-sized audience here in Silver City back in May about the horses and what can be done. There have been stories about the government’s plan to offer $1,000 to anyone who adopts a wild horse. A couple of thought-provoking books have come out on the subject that are definitely worth reading. I believe this issue gets more attention than just about any other animal related topic in our country right now.
In my view, however, what we have in this country right now is a horse problem, not just a wild horse problem. I feel groups are focused on different aspects of the horse population – some on wild horses, some on over-crowded rescues, some on the daily tragedies in the racing world, some on the backyard breeders producing more horses nobody needs, etc. – without anyone thinking of this as all one problem.
The problem is simply too many horses.
Before I get too much hate mail, let me explain. I believe there is a finite number of people out there who are in a position to own or adopt a horse. This is just reality. And I believe this number is getting smaller all the time in our urban-focused, tech-oriented world. Does someone have the income to care for a horse? Do they have the time and the experience it takes to have a horse and keep the horse and themselves safe? Do they have the space that a horse requires for quality of life? Are they willing to invest the time and the money to learn about the nature and behavior of horses, pay for training help, pay to board a horse or willingly call in the vet for medical care? Can they provide for an animal that may live longer than they do?
When you look at it this way, you see there are just not enough people in a position to solve the horse population problem. When a person adopts a wild horse and feels good about saving an important piece of our culture, in my book that is one less person to adopt a horse from one of the hundreds of horse rescue operations, all of which are filled to capacity with horses that are old or have been abandoned, neglected, seized, broken down from over use or abuse, or simply no longer useful to an owner.
What makes me sad is these are the horses already “in the system,” that is, horses that are, or have been, owned or cared for by people in some way, or have been sent to rescues or sanctuaries. They are as much at risk and in need of help as our wild horses. Perhaps these horses, along with the hundreds that are listed for sale every day at auctions and online, should be of equal priority. They already belong to us and are, supposedly, under our care. I believe there are as many of these kinds of horses in need of our help as there are wild horses that need to be saved and protected.
The facts are clear about what’s going on in the world in areas that affect horses. Fewer people wanting to live in rural areas. More and more open space becoming private property. Climate conditions leading to drought, fire, floods and devastating storms. The rising cost of feed and hay. Farmers and ranchers trying to make a living under difficult conditions. More and more baby boomers, the generation that fueled the growth in the horse industry over the last 30 years, getting to the age where horses are no longer a part of their lives.
The wild horse issue is often presented with visuals of beautiful horses running free in open spaces, but reality is much different. Just a few weeks ago I was watching a show on RFD TV which showed a much more realistic picture of how these horses actually live – continually searching for sufficient food and water, often moving on to range and ranch land that is necessary for the livelihood of a rancher. The picture of the wild horse running free is in stark contrast to the 200 feral horses found dead from starvation and dehydration at a watering hole in Arizona back in May, a watering hole in a fragile landscape that had simply dried up from years of drought.
You would hope that once horses come under our care, things would be better for them. Then you read the stories – or in my case, experience – the seizures that send more horses to rescues already bursting with too many horses.
I wonder what’s to stop a person from adopting a mustang, getting $1,000 check from the government, only to see that horse eventually end up in an under-funded, not-for-profit rescue struggling to survive when the person no longer wants to deal with the horse. The “problem” has simply been moved from a public one to a private one, but it’s still a horse with no home and no future.
I’ve done a lot of work in the rescue world and have helped people with adopted mustangs. I applaud people who have provided homes for horses and tried to do something to help, and in many cases, save these animals. But I really do believe that we have one problem, and that the only solution will come from focusing on the whole problem.
We have more horses running wild than the land can support, especially with current climate conditions. Government working with private groups to try to reduce the numbers in humane ways is just shifting the problem not solving it, so maybe there should be as many discussions about how to help the rescues survive since so many horses, including the wild ones, end up in these situations. You can’t look at one issue without the other. These are not two different issues.
There is no easy answer to this. In the end, as with any “supply vs. demand” imbalance, both sides of the equation have to be better balanced. We need enough horses to meet the number of homes and owners available, and only enough wild horses for the land to support. Getting to that balance will be painful but it’s the only way to ensure quality of life for all horses in a changing world. I believe the only way the horse can win in today’s world is if we admit we have a single horse over- population problem – too many wild horses, too many unwanted horses. I’d like to think if you love horses, you see that both populations are connected and that all efforts to conserve and protect should include all horses at risk, not just the wild horses.
(mug) Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org of 575-388-1830.