PLACITAS — Wild pintos graze less than 300 yards away from the Las Huertas neighborhood on the Buffalo Tract, a patch of private land just north of Placitas.
This majestic and natural scene of free-roaming horses has been at the heart of a debate in Placitas for several years.
On one side of the issue are residents who champion the idea of the horses staying free, even offering the animals hay and water to help them thrive.
On the other side of the issue are residents concerned about their property, its ecosystem and the occasional horse or horses wandering onto a busy road.
This issue is not a new one, according to Sandoval County Commissioner Jim Holden-Rhodes.
This issue has been given the spotlight again after a foal was hit by a car and killed near the Placitas Senior Center recently.
Holden-Rhodes said the animal thrashed until it was dead since no one with animal authority could make it to the spot in a timely manner to put it out of its misery.
“Drought has consequently brought many of these horses into our village over the hills,” he said. “This is the first year we’ve had them down by our place and we’re down on the 3-mile marker.”
Holden-Rhodes said some Placitas residents put up fences to keep the horses out and some put fences up to keep them in. One of the biggest issues, he said, is who has jurisdiction over the horses.
Holden-Rhodes added that the New Mexico Livestock Board was involved with the horse issue for years, although their charter only covers agricultural animals.
“This means animals raised on a farm or ranch,” he articulated. “These horses are neither, so in essence they don’t fall neatly into a specific category of regulation.”
Mike Neas, Placitas resident, said using the term “wild horses” when addressing the free-roaming horses is a misconception.
“A wild horse is a designation given by state or federal law,” Neas said. “In Placitas there are feral horses, which means many of them have been born in the wild or many of them have been dumped here by people who couldn’t afford them.”
Neas saidin his six years of involvement, the horse population in Placitas has increased rapidly.
“We had a drought a few years ago and because of that, fences got cut and the horses from the San Felipe Pueblo land moved closer to Placitas,” he said.
Because of this, Neas said, many horses started coming through his land on a regular basis.
“At first, it was beautiful to see the horses,” he said. “But when you get 40 of them at a time on your property, it becomes a lot of responsibility to keep up with the fences and the destruction to the ecosystem.”
Many of the residents who wanted to see the horses didn’t realize what the herd was doing to the watershed, and the habitats other creatures needed to survive, he said.
“That’s just what was happening to the land,” he said. “If you were coming home at night, there would be horses on the road.”
In 2014, the Sandoval County Commission sanctioned a task force on the free-roaming horses in Placitas headed by New Mexico First, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that engages residents in public policy.
In May 2014, New Mexico First held a public forum at the Las Placitas Presbyterian Church to try to establish some guidelines to help alleviate the issue. The forum garnered a list of 21 suggestions.
“One of the big things that’s missing is a municipality because Placitas is unincorporated,” said Heather Balas, executive director of New Mexico First. “That’s one of the reasons this is a real challenge and perhaps one of the reasons that Sandoval County has put forward the notion of a multi-jurisdictional board.”
Balas pointed out that legally the horses roam on land owned by two federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Some of the land belongs to two sovereign tribal nations, the Pueblos of San Felipe and Santa Ana.
“This area also includes one municipality, which is the City of Albuquerque Open Space; one community land grant; thousands of private land owners; several ranchers; and several organizations that lease the land from federal agencies,” Balas said.
Neas said it’s not a good idea to have 1,200-pound mammals go unmanaged, yet Placitas has an animal control ordinance that is ignored.
“The sheriff, who’d have thought, has to monitor and oversee the feral horses,” Neas said. “They were thought to be livestock, and the animal control ordinance excludes livestock. But these horses are not livestock by state law now.”
According to Neas, the court of appeals ruled that free-roaming horses don’t fall under the definition of livestock, so the livestock can’t handle them.
“This ruling created a crazy situation for the public and for the horses,” he said. “(The horses) aren’t wild, they aren’t livestock and nobody can point to who owns them.”
In essence, he said, the horses are owned by the state, yet there is no state agency with the ability to monitor the horses on the behalf of the state or people.
Currently, Holden-Rhodes said he estimates there are at least 200 free-roaming horses divided into five herds in the area.
“Unless we go big time, on a large scale, I don’t think this issue will be resolved,” he said. “I am very much in favor of creating a wild horse state park … That’s the solution I propose.”
For more information on what the task force came up with, go to: https://sandovalcountynm.swagit.com/play/10052018-786.