There are too many unwanted backyard horses

  • David Feela


I was sitting in a comfortable chair one evening, reading a vintage book about the Old West, when I happened to glance out the window to see a horse cropping the grass along my driveway. I don’t own a horse.  I don’t want a horse.  Too many of my neighbors own horses, only to let them hang around doing nothing, like silhouettes against the horizon.

I went out to the porch for a better look, thinking I’d encounter a part-time cowboy.  I called out to the empty horizon: “Yoo-hoo?”  Nothing but a nicker from the horse.

Acres of print examine the plight of wild horses in the West, often referred to as mustangs, and I’m not suggesting that the problem deserves any less attention than my problem -- the neglected domestic horse situation.  Finicky horse advocates will argue that the term “wild mustangs” is erroneous; such horses aren’t wild, just feral, having been introduced by the Spanish centuries ago from their own domesticated stock.

But whether such free-roaming horses fairly or unfairly compete for forage on public grazing lands and whether they are native or invasive species is beside the point. The horse in my driveway had a ribcage distinct as a xylophone, and she didn’t look wild at all, just worn out.

She politely glanced up, allowed me to approach her, then went on cropping the grass.  As I ran my hand along her neck and flanks, it became obvious my guest hadn’t just missed a meal or two.  She’d been systematically ignored until her presence probably got on her owners’ nerves. Then they turned her loose.

Wild horses may be scattered all across the West, but it’s the domestic stock being “set free” to find their own, usually unfortunate destinies that worries me.  Horse owners down on their economic luck think they’ll save bales of cash by letting their charges wander.  The notion that horses will find their own way -- the way many people believe feral dogs and cats do -- is absurd. In fact, it’s equally absurd even for dogs and cats.

In the literature that children grow up on, equines are adorable, utterly huggable and just too precious.  “Black Beauty” and “My Friend Flicka,” to name just a few, are stories that tug at the heartstrings, prompting children to stroke a plastic replica of a dream they long to transform into flesh someday.  I don’t know how many youngsters receive ponies for their birthdays, but based on my own informal gallop poll, grownups all across the West lack the self-control necessary to rein in their urge to own a horse.

In Alice Walker’s book, “Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful,” the horses that are supposed to be making the landscape more beautiful are not the same ones strung for miles along our rural Western fence lines, pulling up the grass by the roots until a piece of paradise is reduced to an acre of bare dirt.

I found a plastic pail in the garage and filled it with oatmeal, then pulled a rope off a nail.  One taste of oats, and my mystery horse would have followed me anywhere.  I followed the trail of horse apples along the road, all the way up to the highway and back again.  Along the way, every neighbor’s horse rushed across its allotted pasture to shinny up to the wire, whinny and snort, as if gossiping about this stranger.

We ended up back in my driveway, which is a poor excuse for a horse refuge, because my property is not fenced, but I have a good-fences-make-good-neighbors neighbor who once visited my property to collect his truant bull.  We get quite a parade of livestock wandering across our land for the simple reason that we don’t fence them out.

He said no, it wasn’t his horse, but offered to put her up in a small pasture where he’d quartered three of another neighbor’s horses to clean up his weedy grass -- a sort of weed-and-feed negotiation.

As he worked at undoing the gate chain, I removed the rope from around my horse’s neck. I say “my horse” but really she wasn’t anyone’s horse, not any more. She leaned her long head against my shoulder and held it there for a ponderous moment before I urged her into the company of more strangers.

Later, I found a man who provides rescue services for animals, but he had no room for a horse. He suggested I check with the brand inspector, which sounded like a great idea, until I learned that the horse would likely end up at the sale barn, which might mean a future as horsemeat rather than adoption.

One evening as I returned from town, I noticed that my horse and in fact all the horses were gone, probably for another job of weed eradication, or so I hoped.  I thought about stopping, about asking someone, but maybe because I’d read and watched too many Westerns, I had the notion that every horse eventually heads off into the sunset -- and better that than painful neglect.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News( He lives in western Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Nancie McCormish
Nancie McCormish Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 06:56 PM
David, just a correction. It's not typically horse advocates who declare wild horses are an introduced "feral" species. A bit more nonfiction reading may be helpful for you.

I'm grateful you chose to help an abandoned horse but the rest of your story here seems mostly subjective. Who owns "your" horse and why is she wandering around abandoned? Is she thin because she's old and her teeth are in bad shape, or is she ill, or simply starved and recently escaped? Is she still there now or did she find her way home? Neglected domestic horses find some protection under our laws... did you try contacting animal control or the sheriff for assistance or just abandon her yourself?

Your informal "gallop" poll is hardly worth responding to. You could as well make the same argument about people's cars, or their children, with about as much credibility. Why did you publish such conjectural musing? How is this helpful or informative to anyone else, most especially "your" unwanted horse? This is a large, national problem complicated by our slaughter laws, which you studiously avoid mentioning.

I am glad you honestly claim not to be a horseman, which is clear enough from your words here. The armchair would seem to be your natural habitat for a while yet.
CARL MAASS Subscriber
Jan 09, 2013 09:20 PM
I think we should cut Dave some slack. He was compassionate enough to find "his" horse a safe temporary haven and the value of his article is to point up the serious issue of disorganized neglect of probably thousands of "pets" across the country. Perhaps his article will spur the next person to do as you suggest, call the sheriff or humane society. Or maybe it will just lead to more talking between neighbors about this issue. Perhaps it only takes a little community or neighbor to neighbor interaction to help a neighbor deal with horses that they can no longer afford or care for. I'd say that dealing with these neglected animals on the local level through neighborly involvement may ultimately lead to better outcomes for people and horses than a government intervention.
jackie wheeler
jackie wheeler Subscriber
Jan 10, 2013 11:15 AM
I agree with Mr. Maass. Mr. Feela's perspective may rankle horse lovers a bit, but it is very true that some horse owners have abdicated their responsibility, forcing others to pick up the slack. It's very sad, and it happens all the time. A few years back I wrote about this very subject here in HCN (; since then, I've taken in an abandoned mare. I never intended to have multiple horses (now I have two) and it's something of a financial hardship, but as it turns out she's wonderful. Since not everyone can deal with horses of their own, those of us who can really need to. Novices can learn, and old-timers like me can move beyond our comfort zone.