By Mary Cioffi
My initial impression when I drove in was that several high fencing obstacles were at the front and seemed to have been strategically placed in this area to prevent the public from observing what is going on at the facility. From the road I would have no idea that there were over 2500 horses on site. I paused and checked my Iphone map to be sure I was actually there. I actually used my binoculars to look around for the horses before I drove into the property.
I arrived 20 minutes early and was met by a BLM representative named Jason and handed a plastic bag with items for children, booklets and pens. I was told I had to stay in the immediate area where I was parked and that I was not allowed to walk around the facility. I would be placed on a wagon with the other people. The wagon was to be towed by a John Deere tractor. There was what appeared to be hay bales covered with a tarp to sit on. There were several representatives from BLM present, including John Neil, Jason and a guy named Matt. We all climbed aboard the wagon.
The tractor rolled forward on schedule with BLM representatives on the wagon with us to answer our questions. I also felt they were there to see to it no one got off the wagon. I felt I was on a very controlled and guided tour. John Neil explained that there were 43 holding pens and each pen could hold about 100 horses. Each pen appeared to me to be about an acre and a half in size. There was a concrete water tank in the center of each holding pen that horses or burros were drinking from. The soil was soft dirt, I was told this was manure that had been dragged, more the appearance of an arena than it was the hard soil the horses were accustomed to in the wild. The metal fencing containing the horses and burros appeared to be over 6 feet high with feeders along the outside more suitable to dairy cows than wild horses. There was no shelter from either wind or shade for the animals. John Neil explained that when you put in obstacles the horses tend to damage them or get injured. As I observed the strength of the fencing I had to wonder why the posts on and near the corners could not be taller and covered roofing material placed in a triangle areas over each of the corners. If rain runoff is the issue then landscape fabric could be used that would allow rain to fall through and still provide shade in the summer months. This would still allow for four separate areas for horses to be in the shade without putting obstacles in the way of horses or the tractors that would drag or clean the area. It would not take much effort to make one section of fencing with a solid material as a wind block. The discussion led me to believe the BLM was firm in not wanting shade or shelter in spite of public opinion.
The first pen was full of burros. All appeared to be in good health and weight. There was a pen with younger horses – most had their tails and manes chewed off. With this age group, appearing to be late yearlings and two year olds, it is most likely a sign of boredom or aggression as we see little of this in the wild. In the entire facility I saw maybe a half dozen horses appearing to be slightly underweight, most likely due to age or perhaps they were newcomers. I observed a few minor injuries typical of horses banging their heads. In general I found the horses to be unusually calm and quiet for wild horses. In fact they simply seemed bored with behavior not typical of what I observe in the wild.
The feeders in all areas were full of what appeared to be grass hay. We slowly continued around each pen until we observed the majority of the horses in the areas we were permitted to be. BLM staff was cooperative with anyone who appeared to be interested in any particular horse and willingly pointed out the location of the Fish Creek horses and announced that these Fish Creek horses would not be returned to the wild with the others. It seemed unusual that with that many horses we saw few injuries and no lame or sick horses. It gave me the impression the facility was prepared for this tour. I also felt the horses were unusually quiet with none romping or playing as you would see in the wild. The normal interactions between the horses, which I see in my frequent visits to the Pine Nut mountains seemed to simply be nonexistent.
I have owned and ridden horses my entire life . I felt the very structured tour was too controlled allowing my mind to wonder what was hidden out of our sight or removed prior to the tour. A public tour of once or twice a year does not provide the transparency needed by the public and feels more like a carefully choreographed show. There should be no reason that the public or at a minimum, some representatives of the public, could not be allowed to view the property and the horses, at will, at least 6 days a week. In addition, the BLM rationale for not providing shelter from the extreme Nevada elements (Shade and Windbreaks) is not acceptable. Humane standards for keeping horses and burros in holding pens are essential. I spend many hours in the wild observing wild horses as a photographer.. In the heat of the summer the sagebrush, rabbit brush and other ground covers keep the ground cool. I have photos of entire bands of wild horses all standing in the shade of one pinion pine tree to escape from the heat. It is a fact that horse’s bodies do not have very good cooling mechanism and can deal with cold better than heat. Confined with no shade must compromise horses and burros long term health? When winds blow on the range the horses can travel to find relief from the cold wind on the range. It was discouraging and disappointing to see the only windbreak to be the area that hides the facility from the public view and not in the area where there were horses being held. It was upsetting to see listless horses standing in soft soil that in reality was just manure broken down from being dragged and trampled. In the wild these animals are athletes, fit and active. These horses are subjected to month after month of boredom. I understand these horses are kept in these conditions for years on end due to the lack of BLM long term holding facilities. When I left the facility the stench of the manure hung on my clothing, skin and hair, even though I had never been off the wagon. I wondered what the effect of living in this manner had to be on the horse’s lungs and overall health to inhale this 24/7 when they are used to fresh air, exercise and hard ground to keep their feet short. The thought of our local Gardnerville wild horses ever being put in this facility and living this life haunts me.