It figures that right after I write about trying to avoid the herd of feral horses that they’d show up on my doorstep. Yesterday as I was working on some edits for my latest batch of stories for EARTH magazine, I looked out the window to see a dozen horses grouped by my backyard fence. I grabbed my camera and ran outside to see if they remembered me; we hadn’t visited since last spring.
As I walked up to the fence, the dogs followed me, but when I ducked through the three-strands, they stayed on the safe side of the barbed wire without me having to tell them. They’ve learned their loose horse lessons well. As I approached the horses, I spoke to them and two raised their heads and came towards me to say hello. It always feels good to be remembered by a horse.
These horses don’t really belong to anybody. They’ve been dumped out here in the desert over the years by people who can’t or don’t want to care for them anymore. A couple of years ago, after the feral herd jumped from two to over a dozen, my neighbors, Andy and Karin, created the Old Windmill Trail Farm Animal Sanctuary to raise money to buy them hay through the winter, but the horses still roam freely, much to the chagrin of many of my neighbors.
The problem with this many horses wandering the desert – at last count there were 17 – is that there’s very little out there to sustain them. No grass, no water. This is a marginal place with few resources for the wild inhabitants to share with invaders. If the horses eat all the grass, there’s none left for the jackrabbits. If they jackrabbits starve, the coyotes starve and the rats take over. Out here, everybody has to live in balance.
Even with thousands of acres to roam, the horses have worn broad swaths through this area, driven by perpetual hunger. Because these animals once belonged to people, they seek us out, looking for handouts. My house is enclosed by a fence, but people who don’t have fences have had the horses tear apart their porches, knock over their solar panels, looking for water, greenery, bird seed and dog food. Even if you know how to handle loose, half-tamed horses, having your house surrounded by a dozen large, flighty, hungry animals can be disconcerting.
Some of my neighbors want Andy to fence in the herd, but there is no legal recourse. This desert is zoned rangeland and animals are not required to be fenced in; homeowners are responsible for fencing them out of private property.
As an horse lover and a desert lover, I’m torn. I love seeing the horses, as long as there’s a fence nearby to keep them from stomping my dogs. But I see how they’re tearing up the ground and killing the already meager plant life. I’m glad for the fence around my property, which encloses about 40 of my 180 acres, just enough to keep the horses and cattle away from the house. But I don’t want to see any more fences go up out here, in all this wild open space.
The only solution I see is to make a donation to the Farm Sanctuary so Andy and Karin can buy more hay to keep the horses fed this winter. They’ve been taking good care of these otherwise unwanted animals for the past few winters. All the horses look healthy and as I walked through the herd yesterday, they seemed tamer, no doubt from Karin’s extra attention. If you’d like to help, visit the Old Windmill Farm Animal Sanctuary website.
Read about how my dogs learned their loose horses lessons in my story Wilding Horses, published this year in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2011 from Travelers’ Tales. More photographs of the herd are posted here.