Sunday, March 26, 2023

Horse Deaths Highlight Ordinance Debate


Details from police reports involving two free-roaming horses killed by cars on NM 165 within the span of a month are in many ways similar – and horrific. 

Both crashes occurred at night and within a mile of each other in the area of “S” curves.

Both drivers were young, one a 22-year-old female and the other a 24-year-old male.

Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office investigators found that neither driver was speeding, though the male admitted to glancing down to adjust the car radio before spotting the animal in the road.

The vehicles sustained extensive front-end damage and had to be towed away. In both cases airbags deployed and the drivers walked away uninjured.

Both horses were badly hurt, each suffering two broken legs and other injuries. In both cases, the horses were put out of their misery by deputies at the scene.

Sandoval County Chief Deputy Allen Mills said he can recall a rollover or two along that stretch of NM 165 but, “The worst accidents we’ve had over the last 10 years are all horse-involved.”

Mills went before the County Commission in January to propose an ordinance that would ban the feeding of certain types of wild animals in the county. 

While animals covered by the ordinance include sheep, pronghorn, deer and bears, it is aimed at restricting feeding of wild horses.

The draft ordinance allows for people to apply for a 30-day feeding permit for $10.

Violators would be subject to serving 90 days in jail and/or a $300 fine.

Laying Down the Law

The proposal reignited a long-running and highly charged debate that has created bitterness and hard feelings between those with opposing opinions over the roughly 150 wild horses that roam the open space in the foothills near Placitas. 

Mills proposed the ordinance a week after a horse was struck on 165 on Jan. 19. Less than three weeks later, another one was hit on Feb. 16.

The intent of the proposed ordinance, Mills explained, is to keep away from NM 165, the main road into the unincorporated community of Placitas. 

Some Placitas residents have taken to feeding the wild horses, drawing some horses to human populated neighborhoods looking for handouts.

What’s happening more frequently are horses getting on to well-traveled 165, where the speed limit is 45 mph on most of the two-lane road and 35 mph through a set of “S” curves.

“The county has no control over the speed limit,” Mills said, noting that as a state road the speed limit is set by the Department of Transportation.

Plenty of Comment

Speeders and reckless drivers on NM 165 are frequently cited as part of the problem by those who oppose the ordinance, and even some supporting it. The county has already received several dozen written comments, and a few more people have shared their thoughts during the public comment session at commission meetings.

“There needs to be an educational equine outreach program to explain why certain areas are high risk for feeding the horses because they are crossing 165,” Jennifer Lesh, president of Placitas Wild, a wild horse sanctuary, said at last week’s meeting.

While she opposes the ordinance, Lesh called out residents in certain neighborhoods to stop feeding horses and urged them to engage in productive conversations to address the problem.

“You are doing a disservice to the horses by feeding them,” she told them, adding that she’s been fighting the issue for 10 years. “You need to listen to the dialogue and stop the drama.”

Clea Hall of Happy Rascal Ranch also advocated for communication between parties.

“Communicate, educate and collaborate on creative ways to keep horses away from highway,” said Hall, a Placitas native who alluded to failed efforts to address the issue in the past.

The Sandoval County Commission once formed an advisory committee to address the free-roaming horses in Placitas. But, as Commissioner Jay Block characterized it, the committee couldn’t agree on anything and nothing came from it.

A Matter of Messaging 

Sandoval County contracts with Mount Taylor Mustangs to manage the wild horse population in the Placitas area. 

Karen Herman, the group’s executive director, said managing the horses is a complex matter.

“This is fundamentally about habitat loss, climate change and free-roaming health and safety and community safety,” she said. “What we need is a framework for safe feeding that keeps horses and community members safe.”

That means keeping feeding areas away from roads.

Herman said those that feed the horses mean well, and agreed that “some kind of education and parameters around feeding” are in the best interest of everyone, including the horses.

Still, there are people who are passionate about horses, love animals and don’t want to see them suffering from a lack of nutrition.

On a recent Saturday, a woman stood on the median of NM 165 near the interstate exit displaying a sign that read, “Hey Commissioners, Starving Horses is Not a Solution!”

The woman declined to tell a reporter her name or speak on the record, saying she wanted to avoid the controversy. But that didn’t stop her from relaying her message to passing motorists.

Narrowing it Down

Katherine Bruch is a Placitas resident and the commissioner representing the area. 

She acknowledged the horse advisory council established before she joined the commission suffered from divisiveness and broke down. On the positive side, a range management plan that led to the hiring of Mount Taylor Mustangs and a contraceptive darting program did come out of it, she said.

But managing the population has been a longstanding problem and something more needs to be done as the issue is intensifying.

“We have more people, we’re more urbanized, horses have less space, and there’s very little publicly available land,” she said, adding that there are already several non-profit groups that care for the horses.

Bruch said she expects an updated draft of the ordinance to be discussed at the commission’s next meeting on March 8. A vote likely won’t come until March 22.

“There’s a lot of suggestions and some effort will be made to incorporate those into the ordinance,” she said.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here