Advocates: Don't feed the wild horses

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal A herd of wild horses graze outside of  Virginia City on July 6.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal A herd of wild horses graze outside of Virginia City on July 6.

Residents do more harm than good

By Dan Moreau

Appeal Staff Writer

It's a secret practice few will admit to - dumping hay by the side of the highway or leaving out grain, alfalfa or apples for wild horses to nibble.

"People like the mystique of seeing horses on their property," said Betty Retzer, a Dayton wild-horse trainer.

But drawing horses closer to populated areas can lead to irreparable damage - for both the inhabitants and the animals.

Feeding wild horses is not only illegal under state law, it also encourages the horses to loiter around residential areas.

"If you leave them alone, the horses will pass the area and keep going," said Mike Holmes, state Department of Agriculture estray manager for the Virginia Range. "But if you leave food out for them, it's like feeding a stray cat. They keep coming back for more."

In a community like Mound House, situated so close to the highway, feeding wild horses has caused its fair share of road accidents.

"People get territorial" and put out food on either side of the highway, not knowing that the horses will cross the road to get from one food source to the other, Retzer said.

Bad drivers compound the problem.

"You get drivers with urban-dweller syndrome, tailgating the car in front of them, not realizing that there's an 800-pound animal entering their field of vision," said Willis Lamm, president of Least Resistance Training Concepts, a wild-horse mentoring group based in Lyon County.

The Nevada Department of Transportation reported 21 accidents involving horses on Highway 50 between Carson City and Silver Springs, from 2000 to 2004.

The car is usually damaged, and the horse's legs are broken. That's when Holmes gets the call.

"I don't enjoy that part of my job," said Holmes, who has had to put down wild horses with broken legs. "People think it's great to feed a horse and see it up close. Well, it isn't. They end up indirectly killing it."

As housing developments expand into rural areas and newcomers move in, horse populations have become more vulnerable, according to Sheila Swadell, a wild-horse expert.

"The horses get the short end of the stick," she said. "They're used to finding their own food and water. They don't need handouts from humans. I've had arguments with residents who put out food for the horses, who say I don't know what I'm talking about.

"People have the best intentions, but are misguided," Retzer said. "They read in the newspaper that we're having a drought, and they see images of horses with their ribs showing and think they're starving."

Nothing could be further from the truth, Lamm said. "We don't need to tamper with nature. These horses have adapted to this environment through centuries of evolution. Once you start feeding them, they become free-roaming pests, desensitized to humans. The state has no alternative but to round them up. It's not worth people getting hurt in accidents."

With so many residents unaware of the dangers of feeding horses, the Wild Horse Preservation League has purchased and put up signs in Dayton and Mound House saying it is illegal to feed or harass wild horses.

The league is asking Lyon County for permission to post the placards next to existing county signs, which are more visually prominent. So far, the preservation league has only erected the signs on private land.

"It's a very emotional issue," said league president Bonnie Matton. "We hate to see the horses go, but it's for the better. If one person complains about a single horse trampling their back yard, then the whole herd gets rounded up."

The Nevada Department of Agriculture oversees 860 estrays along the Virginia Range.

"When they cause a public hazard, we opt for the path of least resistance and round the horses up," said department spokesman Ed Foster. "What we have here is a group of adamant people who think they're doing the right thing. But you just don't do that. The same logic applies to bears. If I moved to southern Oregon, I wouldn't start putting out food for wild bears."

Foster cited Mound House as "an area of concern we're aware of and monitoring."

True horse lovers should have no problem quitting the practice of leaving out food for them.

"I'd rather see them from a distance, knowing they're better off in the end," Willis said.

n Contact reporter Dan Moreau at or 887-2430 ext. 351.


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