ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At the risk of stepping in a juicy pile of fresh horse apples, I’d like to take this opportunity to revisit the “wild” horse quarrel that continues to rumble along in the village of Placitas. And, maybe, to find a little common ground amid the squabbles.
When we last visited the affluent bedroom community north of Albuquerque, the drought was in full fury and so was the fight over what to do with roving bands of horses – origins and ownership unknown – that were eating the landscape down to nubbins.
Some residents loved looking out their picture windows and seeing horses and wanted them to stay. Other residents, motivated by concern for their property, concern for the skinny horses or a combination of the two, took to calling the New Mexico Livestock Board to cart them away.
Meanwhile, the Placitas Animal Rescue in the person of Gary Miles mounted a rescue operation, picking up horses from roadsides, penning them on the north side of the village and feeding them.
And WHOA – the Wild Horse Observers Association – sued the Livestock Board, arguing that the agency violated state law by treating the horses as stray livestock rather than wild, a legal designation that affords special protections.
That was a year ago. Tensions were high. Neighbors were feuding. Back then I described it as an uncivil war.
The horses are still there and the drought is still with us and tensions are still high.
According to a Sandoval County sheriff’s report, a disagreement between Miles and a resident who had corralled three horses on his property escalated from arguing to slapping to shoving. Both men were charged with misdemeanors in the July 3 tussle and are due in court soon.
The bigger court action came earlier this month when District Judge Valerie Huling ruled in WHOA’s lawsuit challenging the Livestock Board’s authority to impound the Placitas horses.
At the core of the case was the issue that has been at the core of just about every disagreement percolating around the horses: Are they wild horses that deserve special protection? Or are they simply stray livestock?
Huling rejected WHOA’s argument that, to be considered livestock and therefore under the Livestock Board’s purview, a horse must have been used on a farm or ranch, saddled and ridden. She looked to the state’s Livestock Code for definition, first citing the definition of stray livestock as “livestock found running at large on public or private lands … whose owner is unknown” and then citing the list of livestock, which includes horses.
The lawyer representing Placitas residents who have used the impoundment procedure and intervened in the lawsuit, said the decision “affirms that residents here can do more than simply stand by and watch helplessly as feral horses destroy their property and their environment.”
And WHOA disagrees and is contemplating an appeal.
So far, that’s a lot of horse apples. So where’s the good news?
First, rains have healed some of the land, although much is still beyond immediate repair.
Second, the census of free-roaming horses in Placitas has been reduced this year from approximately 160 to approximately 100. That has happened in a curious and inadvertent three-way partnership among adversaries that holds out some hope for the future.
Half of those 60 horses have been rounded up and penned by Placitas Animal Rescue, getting them off the roads where they can get hit by cars, off private lands where they don’t belong and, maybe most important, ensuring that they’re fed and watered and administered contraception. They’ve gone through the Livestock Board’s impoundment and estray process, which revolves around advertising them online to see if an owner crops up to claim them, then microchipping them and putting them up for sale.
The other 30 have been corralled by local residents, picked up by the Livestock Board and gone through an identical process. Mike Neas, who caught seven of the horses on his property, told me he simply set up a portable corral. “It’s not hard to catch a hungry horse,” he said. “Put hay in, wait for them to walk in, and close the gate.”
According to Ray Baca, the executive director of the Livestock Board, the buyer for all those horses has been none other than Gary Miles and Placitas Animal Rescue.
“He’s bid on everything. Every single horse,” Baca said. The horses go for bargain-basement prices of somewhere between $10 and $30.
As a long-term solution, this might not be ideal. As Baca points out, a horse costs a lot to feed (hay is fetching around $8 a bale) and getting people to adopt horses in this drought and this economy is a tough sell.
But for now, with everyone doing his part, there are at least 60 fewer horses eating their way through Placitas and those horses are safe and fed and watered, and with luck, headed for pasture somewhere through adoption.
A much better solution than yelling and slapping and shoving and suing.