In the heat of a Phoenix summer, along the parched banks of the Salt River, the stillness of mesquites and cholla is broken by the swish of a tail. The screaming trills of desert cicadas halt for a moment, and an unmistakable snort fills the silence.
A sturdy white stallion emerges lazily from behind the brittlebrush, the muscles of his shoulders wide against his thin frame. He glances sideways from a dark eye, one ear perked high as he listens to the sound of approaching visitors.
He steps toward a striking chestnut mare with white socks and a white blaze, softly prompting her to move on. They step forward, wary of danger, as waves of desert heat dance in the air around them.
From behind the trees, a colt with the same dark eyes as his white father, but with the color and beauty of his mother, emerges and playfully prances toward his mother. His father snorts again, this time with a hint of admonishment, and his son falls in line. The stallion protectively follows behind him as his mare takes the lead.
These are three of the Salt River wild horses. By most accounts, they are the descendants of horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers between 1519 and 1600.
In the 1800s, millions of wild horses dotted the western plains, but today many of those horses have gone the way of the buffalo; government-sanctioned slaughter of these beautiful creatures started in the 1850s and carried on for over 100 years, leaving just a fraction of their bands intact. By the time Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971 to protect some of them, only about 30,000 wild horses were left in just 10 U.S. states.
The numbers are only estimates because, ironically, there is more available research on zebras in Africa than there is on wild horses in the United States.
In Arizona, fewer than 500 wild horses are believed to be roaming public land. Some are thought to be the legacy of hundreds of years of free-roaming horses; others were likely let loose by landowners due to wildfires, economic hardship or other reasons.
Of those, about 100 are the beloved Salt River wild horses, which live in the Tonto National Forest along the Salt River. Despite the fact that these wild horses have been domesticated and used for everything from plowing fields to carrying soldiers on American battlefields, modern land managers considered them a nuisance—until recently.
Many of the horses have resided on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, yet there has been no designation for protection of wild horses in Arizona. Some ended up in traffic, startling motorists, or worse, were struck by vehicles. Others injured themselves on aging barbed wire fences, long abandoned by homesteaders and ranchers of days gone by. Because of this, the Forest Service had dubbed them “stray livestock,” and focused on protecting the land and the public, but not the iconic wild horses.
At the time, the Forest Service responded with one of its only options: to round up the horses and sell them to the highest bidder. In most cases, those bidders were “kill buyers”: corporate buyers who took the horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. Many, including mothers and their babies, died in the process or in transit. Others were butchered for meat, which was (and in some cases, still is) sold to Europeans.
In July 2015, the Forest Service announced that, once again, it would be conducting a helicopter roundup of the Salt River wild horses. This time, though, the horses had a strong ally in a grassroots volunteer advocate group, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG), a non-profit established to monitor, study and preserve these national treasures.
Upon learning about the imminent annihilation of the Salt River wild horses, SRWHMG volunteers began contacting their friends, family and everyone else they could think of to let them know what was happening in their own backyard. They called their representatives. They wrote letters. They rallied the press.
Before long, thousands of supporters rallied for the horses. Some of them had witnessed the unmatched grandeur of the horses in the wild before learning of their plight.
SRWHMG’s founder, Simone Netherlands, who has been following and documenting birth rates and death rates, migrating patterns and herd dynamics, as well as environmental circumstances of Salt River bands of horses for two decades, led SRWHMG in filing a lawsuit against the Forest Service. Her message, and that of the growing legion of volunteers who shared her love and concern for the herd, was hear loudly and clearly.
May 11, 2016, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed HB 2340, a bill drafted to protect the Salt River wild horses. The bill clarified that wild horses are not stray livestock, and it paved the way for future provisions that, hopefully, will protect not only the Salt River wild horses, but also wild horses throughout the state.
But the fate of the horses took another blow when, this summer, the Bureau of Land Management advisory board made the recommendation that 45,000 wild horses be slaughtered across the nation.
It is not that the public does not care about these horses; it is that they don’t know about the horses, or about the fate so many of these beautiful creatures are subjected to.
Once people know better, they will do better, and we will continue to advocate on their behalf.
Each and every hat purchase sends a humble donation to a wild horse rescue & rehabilitation center.
Author: Amanda Christmann
Editor: Catherine Monkman