The uncertain fate of the Salt River horses

By Rebecca Brisley as published on The State Press

““We never gave up on the horses and we never will, either…”

On a sweltering afternoon, Simone Netherlands stood on the rocky shore of the Salt River. A tall woman with blonde hair, she wore a T-shirt that said: PROTECT AND RESPECT WILD HORSES AND BURROS.

She was very familiar with this stretch of the Salt River, at the Coon Bluff recreation site in the Tonto National Forest near the outskirts of the Phoenix metro area. The landscape resembled a Western movie set – the river, cacti, brush, beige-pink soaring cliffs and, for those lucky enough to visit the place at the right time, approximately 100 free-roaming horses that rely on the river for water and forage.

To Netherlands, they’re beloved. She calls them the Salt River Wild Horses, and spent much of the last year battling authorities and environmentalists who wanted the horses removed from the land.

Netherlands is a leader of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, which has monitored the herd for years. She said removing the horses from the land would destroy the herd—a herd she said is a living link to the historic Wild West.

She said removing the herd could result in the purchase of some of the horses by “kill buyers,” who would sell the animals to Mexican slaughterhouses.

“Whenever there are wild horses for cheap, kill buyers are there and they stuff them in their trucks and drive them to Mexico,” she said. “Who else but a kill buyer would want a truckload of wild horses that are not tamed?”

In October 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reported that a Colorado rancher, who bought 1,700 wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management

Wild Horse and Burro Program and resold them to kill buyers who sent the horses to Mexican slaughterhouses.

“It is absolutely our worst nightmare,” Netherlands said. “It is so awful to think about.”

She has rescued horses for years, she said. When she was 10, she took horse-training lessons at a military base in Holland. If the horses misbehaved, the instructors would tell their pupils to whip the horses after the lessons, she said. She realized she didn’t need to be cruel to the animals in order to work with them, and that compassionate, patient training was the route that horses would respond to. When she was 20, she started humane horse training, she said, and she now runs a horse-rescue organization, Respect 4 Horses, and has a sanctuary in Prescott where several rescue horses reside.

“I used to myself purchase horses from the kill buyer that lived close to me and I would retrain them and adopt them out for free,” she said.

About 12 years ago, she began to devote much of her time to what is now the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. Netherlands helped document and monitor the herd with others who were also interested in the animals, like photographers along the banks. She said the group studies the horses and advocates for their safety. Netherlands blamed humans, not horses, for causing the most ecological damage to the river, saying damage from the horses is minimal. She noted pollution from littering, old barbed-wire fencing and even the controlled flow of the river in the winter are factors that damage the river’s ecology.

Because of their closeness to the city, the Salt River horses are well-known and controversial. The horses have tens of thousands of fans on Facebook. They often stand quietly in the river while tourists, just a few feet away, snap photos with their phones.

One winter afternoon, three horses grazed in the river next to two cattle. They were protected by tangles of cattails and thorny bushes on the bank. Down the road, a band of six horses had gathered underneath a mesquite tree at a picnic area that was closed for repair work. A colt clung to its mother’s side. Its face was adorned with a white stripe, just like the mare’s. A filly with a caramel-colored coat pranced around playfully and was not afraid to break away from the others—though she never strayed too far away from her family. After about 20 minutes, the horses finished grazing and walked toward a brush-laden mountain.

The presence of the horses on the river has fired up disputes between public agencies, conservationists and animal advocates. For nearly a year, the animals have been the subject of protest marches, letter campaigns, visits to Arizona’s congressional delegation in Washington, two federal lawsuits, and two proposed laws in the Arizona Legislature.

But today, the fate of the horses remains undecided…(CONTINUED)