Main Problems

  • High Horse to Staff Ratio bogged down training
  • Taking 31 stallions without consideration for effort to get them gelded
  • Horses in Holding take time to care for, but don’t progress toward adoption
  • Limits of Design of Facility: no shelter for horses, no open pen areas (wide rail spacing allows horses to fight), no barn for hay storage. Does not meet BLM standards for rail spacing.
  • Zoning does not allow equine in Commercial district (except horses across the street)
  • Too much Public Access
  • Lack of Housing. This could be alleviated with RV park plan.
  • Less appealing environment for (unpaid) staff and students/volunteers
  • Unclear Contractual Relationship with Horse Owner
  • Lack of Interest in Our Solution from government agencies, no major clients beyond Placitas Wild
  • Inadequate chute for a mass gelding of horses
  • Costs of leasing

Main Benefits

  • Access to Veterinarian
  • Access to Highway
  • Design of Facility: lots of individual pens
  • Production Capabilities
  • Access to Community


In August of 2018, we became aware that the Bureau of Land Management was interested in contractors that could get 1000 horses trained and adopted in 2019. We did not think it was a realistic goal, but we drafted a proposal. They said the chosen respondents would be asked to prepare a formal proposal. Our plan required $1.3 million to start and then $1,000 per horse adopted.

With just a few months to prepare, we felt that we should start initial preparations to scale up. We held a fund drive intending only to generate a show of interest from 200 people and, in three weeks, raised $12,000 from 215 individual donations. We cut it off after 200 donations. Realizing the BLM was dragging its feet, we revised our plan to train 200 horses the first year and 500 horses the second year for a smaller start up cost. We started seeking funding from the major foundations including the ASPCA, the HSUS, and the Right Horse Initiative. None of them were interested in the $350,000 proposal.

The government shut down on 22 December, 2018 and remained shut down until 25 January. The Mustang Heritage Foundation did not immediately restart and for several more weeks it was not clear if the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) would restart. We were looking at the prospect of having no horses to train.

The Placitas Wild organization contacted us about taking a large number of horses for emergency rehoming. With unclear prospects for BLM horses, we agreed to take them for $600 each. We located the old livestock facility in Milan, NM. and started renovating it to be horse safe. Just before horses were due to arrive, the Village notified us that the facility was not zoned for animals. They agreed to let us operate for 90 days and horses started arriving the next day.

Placitas Wild sent 51 horses, 31 of which were stallions and required individual pens. We were able to house the stallions in the facility and the mares in pens we constructed around it. We started training with inadequate staffing. Most of the time there were two people and sometimes there were three. Occasionally, we would have additional help for a week or more at a time. No one was paid wages, it was all done by volunteers. The care and feeding of the horses took away from the time and energy to train the horses, but at least 10 horses were in training every day.

The Village notified us that we would have to leave by the 9th of June. We were able to get the 31 horses gelded in the last week of May. The Village then extended our special use permit to August and limited us to 50 horses. It also prohibited us from using RV’s on the property for living quarters. We put horses and burros in foster care with other people to get to our limit. More volunteers started showing up, we squeezed more beds into the building, and I was able to train up to 20 animals a day by myself.

In August an intern arrived and we were able to increase the number of animals in training to 30. Eventually the intern was handling 10 horses a day. We kept detailed track of all tasks completed and were focused on maximizing the rate of training. We got down to having met criteria on 1000 training tasks (of the 1250 we started with). We had placed about 25 Placitas Wild mustangs into adoption.

Placitas Wild was given access to 40 acres for a wild horse sanctuary and they decided to discontinue training and adoptions and return the remaining horses to Placitas. We held them for a week until they were picked up.

Without horses to train, we considered our options. The MHF has changed its paperwork requirements to a system where the adopter is responsible to submit their own forms by mail. The trainer has no ability to expedite the adoption process. We feel that this is a serious impediment to adoption as adopters rarely have the tenacity to get through the adoption process by themselves. Extending the time required for approval makes it very likely that the potential adopter will find another horse that is easier to acquire. We decided to close down for the winter and reassess our options for 2020.

While we were preparing to vacate the property and return to Largo Canyon, Sena Fitzpatrick of the McKinley County Humane Society contacted us about taking two stallions that had been rounded up by the NM Livestock Board (NMLB). The other rescues could not take them as the NMLB facility in Santa Fe could no longer keep horses for gelding. We agreed to take them. The Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) contacted us about taking more horses from a failed wild horse sanctuary. We agreed to accept eight of them. There is obviously a need to continue helping wild horses in New Mexico.

Lessons Learned

Our old facility in Largo Canyon is marginally accessible down the 25 miles of dirt road. The Milan facility was adjacent to I-40. This made a huge difference in the amount of time needed to buy supplies, hay, pick up volunteers, or deliver horses. It saved money on vehicle repairs. It made consulting with a veterinarian possible and allowed better health care for the horses.

The Interstate is constantly noisy. A facility should be located near (but not on) a major highway. It introduces an undesirable level of distraction into training. Trains are more noisy but their sounds are less random than trucks and cars.

The facility must have adequate living quarters for staff and volunteers. An RV park as part of the facility is needed for recruiting volunteers from the vacationing public. There must be clear responsibilities for housekeeping. There should be a staff to horse ratio of no more than 10 horses per staff unless there is full time horse care staff.

The facility must be zoned for animals. Good water and good drainage are also essential. The facility must be gated to limit off hours interruptions. Signage must clearly indicated when visitors are allowed, but gates are required to enforce those hours.

The facility must have the chutes and pens to safely and efficiently do veterinary work. It needs to accommodate mares with foals as well as stallions. There must be individual pens for stallions and genders should not be in adjacent pens until after gelding. Post-gelding change in behavior takes about 6 weeks.

Training needs to take place in the animals home pen and in alley’s, plazas, or arenas. It needs to be safe from horse attack to lead a horse through the alley. The fences along the working spaces need to prevent horses from sticking their heads through. There needs to be turnout areas that are safe (no prairie dog burrows) and easy to gather from. There needs to be an obstacle course in a fenced training area.

There should be no gap between the ground and the first rail of the fence that could trap a horse leg (less than 1 foot). The pipe rails should be smooth and strong enough to withstand adjacent horses fighting (especially kicking). A portable welder should be available to repair fences immediately.

Gates should be freely swinging on hinges and should fasten with chain in slots. There should be strategically placed gates for moving horses through the alley system. Horses should be moved through alleys, not through open spaces.

The area for loading/unloading horses should be accessible in all weather. A way to crowd the horses in successive areas of the alley was very effective for loading horses. There needs to be security panels on each side of the gate to fold against the trailer and prevent horses from squeezing out.

The watering system needs to be easy to maintain, clean, and keep filled. Watering record keeping helps volunteers fill the water containers to the correct level. (Investigate automatic watering system?). Ice removal must be managed to not create hazards for horses or humans.

Hay storage under tarps is problematic, but possible. It would be much easier to have a barn for hay. It is easier to tarp individual bales than a whole haystack.

It was also possible to work without shelter through the spring and summer months at this elevation in this particular year. We did not receive much hail. The animals were hot at times without shade. Some kind of protection from wind and ice will be mandatory for winter.

There needs to be some kind of garage or concrete slab to work on equipment with tool storage nearby.

There needs to be a person designated to interact with visitors. People just wanting to tour should be asked to donate. There must be an effort to generate revenue from visitors.

It is much cheaper to procure horses from rescues than it is to pick up horses from the BLM. Rescue horses require vet care such as gelding. Approval for adoptions whether it is the BLM or a rescue can be a problem. There needs to be a very well defined process, delineated responsibilities, and an unambiguous adoption agreement with each animal owner (viz. BLM or rescue). It became a problem that we did not have a signed contract between organizations. It should have been required before starting the project.

Showing a potential adopter a small number of horses currently available results in more adoptions than allowing them to choose from the unfinished animals. Placing the finished horses in a place where they can be viewed from the street or parking lot attracts interested people to visit in an unobtrusive way.

Updating the training records and monitoring progress towards the overall goals of the program (training each horse to perform 26 tasks) can help keep staff motivated to work hard.

Finally, I learned that I might like to walk away and find something else to do, but when I feel that some animals don’t have a chance and I could help them, then I am unlikely to be able to turn my back on them.

In the end, it’s all about the horses.

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