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Know the West

Arizona’s wild horse paradox

Activists and agencies try to balance the West’s horse mythology against herd impacts.

The horses stood chest-deep in the river, pulling up long strands of eelgrass with their teeth. There must have been 20 of them, in colors ranging from nearly white to ruddy brown. The babies stood wobbly in the current. My partner and I floated quietly past in our kayak, trying not to spook them. But it was a sweltering Friday in July, and we were followed by hollering college students in rented innertubes. Beer coolers floated along behind them, and music reverberated off the canyon walls. Uninterested and used to the party, the horses barely looked up.

A stone’s throw from metropolitan Phoenix, the Salt River runs through the Tonto National Forest, where deer, bighorn sheep and bald eagles live amid cactus and mesquite bosques. But the most famous and controversial inhabitants are the area’s “wild” horses. Once slated for removal by the U.S. Forest Service for reasons of public safety, today these horses are protected by state law. Now, in the first arrangement of its kind, a state government is working with a nonprofit to manage horses on federal land. Now long-feuding entities must work together to find a way to balance the horses — and the mythology of the American West they represent — with river and land conservation and public safety.  


IN OCTOBER, I climbed into an SUV with Kim Lenski, a volunteer with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, and drove along Bush Highway looking for horses. The pulse of the Salt River is engineered, controlled by a series of dams. Water is released in the summer, and the faucet is shut off come fall. When that happens, the eelgrass dies back, and the horses roam in search of food. Bands of them wander dangerously across Bush Highway; one was hit the evening we visited, bringing the total this year to 15. Management group volunteers regularly spend hours in bright orange vests directing traffic and shooing horses to safety.

The river is a green vein through the desert, a rare wet reprieve. For decades, families have picnicked and swum here, and throughout the summer, hundreds of rafts float the river each day. But while the horses are a popular draw for visitors, they do pose safety concerns. “They’re running around, kicking up their heels and just being horses,” said Chandler Mundy, a range program manager for the Tonto National Forest. “That doesn’t exactly fit well with the recreating public — with picnics or little kids underfoot.” He noted the occasional drunken floaters who brazenly try to ride them. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

In the summer of 2015, the Forest Service saw increasing numbers of horses at Butcher Jones, one of the river’s most popular beaches. The Forest Service, worried about safety, posted an impound notice in July for “unauthorized horses” found in the Salt River area. Horses “not sold at public sale may be sold at private sale or condemned and destroyed, or otherwise disposed of,” read the public notice.

Lenski remembers that day clearly. “I went from being a horse photographer to a political activist overnight,” she said. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group jumped into action, filing a lawsuit against the Forest Service, distributing press releases, organizing protests and lobbying state legislators. In response to the outcry, the Forest Service delayed the removal.

On the heels of the impound notice, in early 2016, Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, introduced the Salt River Horse Act, which was signed into law that May. The law provides state protection for the horses, making it illegal to harass or harm them. But while the law specifies that the horses in question are not strays, it does not define them as wild — a classification issue with consequences beyond semantics.

Kayakers paddle past horses from the Salt River herd in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.
Kerrick James

MANY WESTERNERS LOVE FREE-ROAMING “WILD” HORSES, perhaps mostly for what they represent: freedom, rugged beauty, an unbreakable spirit. There’s a reason horses gallop across airport kitsch and pickup truck commercials: They’ve seeped into the mythology of the West. But across the actual landscape, nearly every aspect of wild horses is controversial, starting with the question of what to call them.

If they are recognized as “wild,” free-roaming horses can receive federal protection under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, which requires the government to protect free-roaming horses and burros living on federal lands as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Many horse advocates, including those advocating for the Salt River horses, use the word “wild” for that reason. But when the government surveyed the Tonto National Forest in 1973, all the horses they encountered were marked with the brands of nearby tribal communities. Because of this, the region was not designated a Wild Horse and Burro Territory, leaving today’s Salt River horses unprotected. 

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which has compiled over 50 testimonials from eyewitnesses who remember seeing unbranded, free-roaming horses on the Salt River prior to the government survey, maintains that they are the descendants of colonial Spanish horses brought to the area by Father Eusebio Kino in the 17th century. They have begun collecting DNA from deceased horses to prove it. The group interprets a newspaper article from 1890 describing the Salt River horses as “native stock” as evidence that by then, the horses had already been in present-day Arizona for at least six generations.

Gus Cothran, a horse geneticist at Texas A&M University, says horses are not “native” to the United States. Technically, they aren’t “wild” either. “All of the horse populations that we’ve ever seen in the Western Hemisphere are feral, in the sense that they did derive at some point from a domestic horse population,” he said. Cothran, who has conducted genetic analyses of 200 free-roaming populations of horses, including more than 100,000 individuals, said he’s found that only 3 to 5 percent of the groups descend from colonial Spanish horses, though— given its geography and history of Spanish settlement — he hypothesized that Arizona could have a higher proportion of horses with colonial Spanish bloodlines.

Such horses could be valuable for equine genetic diversity, said Cothran. But without a comprehensive genetic study, he added, “I find it pointless to make arguments about whether these horses have value or not.”

Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, at her Prescott, Arizona, ranch where she and volunteers work with rescue horses like this one, which was rounded up by the BLM in Nevada, as well as some from the Salt River herd.
Andrew Pielage

TWO HOURS NORTH of the lower Salt River, against a backdrop of pine trees and cottonwoods, Salt River Wild Horse Management Group President Simone Netherlands stood in front of her barn. Inside, volunteers worked with five male Salt River rescue horses. (Females are kept 120 miles away at the organization’s 4-acre property, which borders the Tonto National Forest and the Salt River.) While Netherlands said they seldom intervene, volunteers sometimes encounter abandoned babies or horses so injured that it would be “inhumane” to leave them in the wild. Thousands of dollars are spent on veterinary care for rescues, which can never return to their bands.

A horse trainer originally from Holland, Netherlands said her “passion with wild horses” began by accident, after she went to an auction looking for a horse she had trained. “I ended up sitting next to a kill buyer,” she said. “I was asking everybody, ‘Have you seen this white mare?’ And the guy said, ‘Oh, honey, she’s on somebody’s dinner plate by now.’” The man described his job — how much money he made, how he collected horses from auctions and Craigslist posts, and then drove them to a slaughterhouse in Mexico.

Netherlands began to fly around the country, documenting government horse roundups, which she regards as “cruel, unsustainable and a waste of taxpayer dollars.” Family groups were separated; she saw broken legs and necks, babies “giving out” after hours of helicopter pursuit. Some of those horses, she said, end up slaughtered.

I asked Netherlands what would have happened to the Salt River horses if they had been removed. “They were going to end up in slaughterhouses, absolutely,” she replied. “They were going to send them to auction. And who wants 35 horses that aren’t tame for $25? Those are kill buyers that end up with the horses.”

This rumor — that the Salt River horses would be slaughtered — fueled the campaign against their removal. But when I asked Mundy about it, he sighed and said, “The Forest Service was never going to slaughter the horses. We had a local shelter that was going to take the horses and find homes for them.”


The national controversy around wild horse slaughter rose to a fevered pitch in the 1980s, after federal investigations found that thousands of horses removed by the Bureau of Land Management were sent to large-scale adopters and ultimately slaughtered.

The last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007, after Congress stopped funding federal inspections of such facilities, effectively ending domestic horse slaughter. However, a 2011 government study revealed the unintended consequences, including a spike in horses exported to Mexico or Canada for slaughter for horsemeat.

Wild horses run near the Lower Salt River of the Tonto National Forest.
Carol Gray / Alamy Stock Photo

JUST A FEW DAYS BEFORE Lenski and I drove along Bush Highway, scanning the sloping hillsides and peering through mesquite tangles in search of horses, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group had posted a story to Facebook. Last summer, Delorian, a 4-year-old stallion, suffered a badly broken leg. It seemed doubtful that he would survive, but the sheriff’s department won’t euthanize a horse if it’s still standing, and Delorian refused to lay down. The volunteers watched the horse for weeks, but one day, he disappeared. Days later, the volunteers were shocked when Delorian appeared at the nonprofit’s 4-acre facility. He had walked over the mountain with “the most severely broken cannon bone” group members had ever seen. “It was as if he came to us for help,” read the Facebook post.

Now, on our drive, Lenski spotted a small band in the riverbed and quickly pulled over. We clambered over rocks and dried-up eelgrass to the river’s edge. Above us, the Superstition Mountains stretched across the horizon, and a craggy finger-shaped boulder called Weaver’s Needle rose up to a perfectly blue sky.

Lenski stood on the riverbank, hands on her hips. Downstream, four horses waded ankle-deep in what was left of the river. Lenski said she was still impacted by Delorian — his perseverance, how he walked for five miles on three legs and showed up on their doorstep, a place he had never been before. “I tell you what,” she said, “if anything in my whole life made me believe there’s a God. …”

Wild horses from the Salt River herd graze alongside recreationists at the popular Butcher Jones Beach in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.
Heather Kirk

IN HIS PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang, David Phillips considers at length the mythology of wild horses, one that has evolved over centuries. Today, wild horses are a symbol muddied by mismanagement practices. “Animals that once were the embodiment of grit and self-reliance begin instead to symbolize waste, fecklessness, and inept bureaucracy,” he writes.

Environmental groups, including the Maricopa Audubon Society, cite many environmental problems the horses cause, including overgrazing and hoof damage to the biotic crust of the soil, noting that they compete with native wildlife and birds for vegetation. Netherlands disagrees, maintaining that horse manure supports the landscape in positive ways. The annual 5.8 million humans who visit the Tonto National Forest — floating the river and dumping their trash — have a much greater impact on the ecosystem, she says. Lenski said she collected 25 pounds of nails the morning after a single bonfire at Butcher Jones. 

Overpopulation, however, is a real problem. In March 2018, the BLM estimated nearly 82,000 wild horses and burros were living on BLM-managed lands, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year, and a number that exceeds what the land can sustain by more than 55,000. The dilemma is both morally and logistically complicated, notes Phillips. “As a nation, would we keep storing the horses or kill them? Store them and we’d have to live with the cost. Kill, and we’d have to live with ourselves.” Phillips has become a staunch advocate for mountain lions, one of the horse’s only natural predators.

The Salt River Horse Act allows the Arizona Department of Agriculture to develop a management plan for the Salt River horses, which live on U.S. Forest Service land, and allows for private management partners. In May 2018, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group partnered with the state. Under the contract — which does not come with a budget and is managed entirely by public donations and volunteers — the management group tracks the horses and responds to injuries and horse-car collisions. During a recent drought, volunteers began an emergency feeding program. And the group recently started a fertility control program, darting specific mares with porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, a non-hormonal birth control that prevents pregnancy for one year. 

This fall, a stakeholder group mediated by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution brought together state and federal agencies, environmental organizations, ranchers and the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group to begin developing a long-term management plan for the Salt River horses. Both Mundy and Netherlands feel optimistic about the working group.

The fact that free-roaming horses must be managed by humans complicates the very idea of wildness. But in the face of 21st century realities — suburban sprawl, dwindling natural resources, fewer predators — “managed” may be the best Westerners can do. “We get the question, ‘Are they still wild if you manage them?’” said Netherlands. “And you know, just because they get treated humanely, just because we don’t let them starve, doesn't mean they’re any less wild. It just means they're lucky.”

Cothran told me, “The best management usually comes when there is less wildness allowed — in other words, when there is a lot more human control over what’s going on.” Yet human management places the horses in a gray area — not quite wild, yet not quite kept. “We love wild horses because they are not managed, not controlled, not tainted,” wrote Phillips. “Take that away, and the wild horse is just livestock.” 

Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.  

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