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Horse Sense

The Salt River Wild Horses surviving with a little help from their human friends

Article by MacKenzie Belley

Photography by Drew Hasting, G P Walsh Photography , April Biamonte, Brent Shetler

Originally published in Gilbert City Lifestyle

Standing on the shoulder of rural Bush Highway just outside of Mesa, Arizona Bren Schultz, Director of the Salt River Horse Management group, watched over a group of three wild horses as cars sped past, some going up to 60 miles per hours.  Wearing a neon reflective vest over her clothes and holding a white stop sign Schultz and her husband spend the warm Sunday afternoon as horse crossing guards.  “So right now what we’re doing is we’re strategically placed (along the highway),” Schultz explained. “I’m diagonal from him so that he can alert oncoming traffic once they get closer to crossing and I’ll alert traffic on this side.”  The horses on the other side of the highway grazed peacefully even with the blaring sound of the highway. Once they had finished they calmly walked to the opening made for them in the guardrails and began to cross.  This is where Schultz stepped in. She held up her white stop sign and stepped onto the highway. Speeding cars came to a stop as two of the horses lazily crossed the road.  The third horse, a younger brown mare with white marking on her legs which looked like long socks, was more cautious. The horse waited on the side of the road making sure all the cars were stopped before crossing the roadway and disappearing into the desert bushes.  Schultz job was done for the moment but it wouldn’t be long before she would have to do the whole thing over again. She could be called at any time to come help the wild horses. Sometimes even as early as 2 a.m.  “It’s lot of work, you have to really be invested you know,” Schultz said. “You have to be dedicated that’s for sure.” The wild horses are a feature of Arizona, drawing people from around the country to the area in hopes of catching a glimpse of their beauty.  “I think the Salt River horses showcase the beauty Arizona has to offer,” Oliver Pemberton a student at Arizona State University said when describing his experience on seeing the wild horses for the first time.  The Salt River wild horses have been in the area of the Tonto National Forest as early as the 1700’s. They have roamed the area long before The Tonto National Forest was created but they have not always been wanted there, according to Simone Netherland a founder of the Salt River Horse Management group.  As recently as 2015 the National Forest Service issued a removal order for the wild horses since there were no government protections for the horses at the time there was nothing to stop their removal from happening, until a group of local photographers stepped in.  “We’d been watching and monitoring the horses for a very long time as just a bunch of photographers,” Netherland said. “Then when we found out that the forest service didn’t like the horses there.” The group began to hold large protests, calling local representatives, and sued the forest service until they got the results they wanted.  Governor Doug Ducey signed protections for the Salt River wild horses and stopped the removal order in 2018.  “The governor really wanted to see the horses protected,” Netherlands said.  Along with the protections signed into law the Salt River Horse Management group received an official contract with the government to care for the horses. Although the horses are no longer facing removal from the Salt River area there are other issues threatening them. Drought’s in the area have left food supply low, Shootings often take place killing horses every year and speeding cars colliding with the horses. “I don’t think hitting them with the cars is intentional I just think people are careless when they are driving down here they speed, some are drunk,” Schultz said. The Salt River Horse Management Group is working to protect the wild horses from these problems while maintain the nature of the wild horses. Feed programs, crossing guard duty and even birth control are all ways that the group is maintaining the herd population.  Although it is difficult to get an estimate of the Salt River horses population size due to intermingling from horses from two reservations that move in and out of the area, data from the Salt River Management Group shows the the herd is increasing its population by about 12 percent per year. Wild horses are crucial part of Arizona culture and history, they are beautiful animal that look like they just trotted out of a scenic painting but still they face one big problem.  “The biggest problem we have is people,” Schultz said.  The public is at once the horses biggest supporter and their biggest enemy. When you see a Salt River horse in person it is best to keep in mind that these are wild animals not domesticated livestock. 

“Always stay 50 feet away from wild horses and always act calm,” Netherland advises. “To not influence their behavior people should never feed wild horses.” The Salt River has been the horses home longer than Arizona has been a state it is the public’s job to help them protect it.  “The public can take of these horses,” Netherlands said. “The public can support these horses.”

Tips for Horse Viewing

  • Observe a distance of at least 50 feet from any wild horse at any given time 
  • Please do not feed wild horses.
  • Do not attempt to tame or touch a wild horse.
  • Keep dogs leashed at all times and away from the horses.  . 

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