Nonprofit Responds To Drought, Feeds Wild Horses Along Salt River

By Bridget Dowd
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 8:37am
Updated: Friday, September 28, 2018 - 12:00pm

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At any given time, there are about 250 wild horses along the Salt River, according to Salt River Wild Horse Management. Usually those horses are good at taking care of themselves. But this year — something changed and one nonprofit responded to an unprecedented drought.

Volunteers and photographers from Salt River Wild Horse Management have been tracking wild-horse data in Arizona for years, providing occasional veterinary care, keeping them out of the roadways and watching what they eat. Simone Netherlands is the president and founder of that organization.

“They are a lot tougher than domestic horses are,” Netherlands said. “So they actually eat eelgrass out of the river, which is apparently very healthy for them because it makes them very shiny and really adds to their condition and that grows all over the lower Salt River — when the river is up.”

She said they track the number of births, changes within the herd, and migration patterns. But, they’ve never seen the horses suffer as a result of the climate.

“In reality, we never thought we would have to actually feed wild horses,” Netherlands said.

That changed when the last winter didn’t bring its usual rains.

“The grasses that normally come up, tried to come up, but immediately withered from lack of precipitation,” Netherlands said. “At that point, we started getting worried, but not too worried, because wild horses have a skinny season and a fat season, we call it, and they always recuperate very fast once their resources come in really fast again.”

But this year, those resources never came back, and volunteers noticed the condition of the horses was declining.

“Especially in the mares and foals, because mares have to expend a lot of energy to produce the milk for the foals,” Netherlands said.

At that point, the group decided to establish an emergency feed protocol, by working with the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

“We then strategically thought of 12 feed stations along the river where the horses could eat in peace and quiet,” Netherlands said.

They started a feed team and ordered semi loads of weed-free certified hay. Volunteers have been bringing that hay out to the Salt River every day for about four months now.

“What we don’t want is wild horses associating food with people, because eventually they’d come up to all people and ask for food,” Netherlands said. “So our feed stations are designed strategically so that they’re away from public areas.”

feed team members prepare hay
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
The process of feeding wild horses is both time- and resource-intensive. The organization has spent about $45,000 just on the hay.

The process is both time- and resource-intensive. In fact, Netherlands says they’ve spent about $45,000 just on the hay. But the heat and the hard work don’t scare volunteers away — volunteers like Rosa Ramsthaler.

“I have a full-time job so this is — like my friends and I now that I‘ve met say this is our new gym,” Ramsthaler said. “So instead of spending hours in front of a TV, I come out here and this is better than anything else. It’s almost meditative and it’s really warming to be out here.”

Ramsthaler and other members of the feed team have built friendships through their love for the horses.

Rick Blandford is one of the feed team leads who has been taking photos of the Salt River horses since the organization’s early years. He and the other volunteers bring truck loads of hay each evening and distribute the bales at several feed stations.

“We like to keep ’em about five feet apart, but we want to separate the bales so we don’t have horses on top of each other — you know whole bans because they do get a little competitive sometimes,” Blandford said

Team members carefully remove ties from the hay and count them before leaving, to make sure they aren’t leaving behind anything potentially harmful to the animals. They also collect the dried hay from previous feeds that the horses won’t eat and bring it back in black trash bags. That hay can be used by ranchers to feed cows.

" ... [I]nstead of spending hours in front of a TV, I come out here and this is better than anything else.”
— Rosa Ramsthaler, volunteer

Without the usual grasses and without the feed team, the horses would eat beans from the mesquite trees. A few of those beans won’t do any harm, but if they eat too many it can cause colic. However, Blandford said in the right amount, those beans can make horses great recyclers.

“But after a rain and all these beans are in the manure, it just germinates and makes more mesquite trees,” he said. “So it’s food for the mice and rabbits and everything else out here that eats off of it.”

The group has seen some amazing progress, but Netherlands said there’s no telling how long they’ll have to feed the horses.

“Our horses are healthy, and hopefully when we get some good rains and the rain comes back into what it used to be, we can slowly revert back to not feeding wild horses,” she said. “So we would slowly build that down to where they don’t need it anymore.”

For now, the horses and even some deer and cows continue to benefit from the hay provided by the team and its donors. So far, the group hasn’t lost a single horse to starvation.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

wild horse along the Salt River
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
At any given time, there are about 250 wild horses along the Salt River, according to Salt River Wild Horse Management.

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