Amid Rancor, Advocates Scramble to Find Homes for Wild Horses

Adelina Sosa, a longtime volunteer for the nonprofit organization Placitas Wild, pets one of the free-roaming horses she cared for on a daily basis outside of Placitas, New Mexico, in February. A month later, Placitas Wild had to find new homes for all the horses that were living on a preserve in San Felipe Pueblo. | Photos by Diana Cervantes

Adelina Sosa, a longtime volunteer for the nonprofit organization Placitas Wild, pets one of the free-roaming horses she cared for on a daily basis outside of Placitas, New Mexico, in February. A month later, Placitas Wild had to find new homes for all the horses that were living on a preserve in San Felipe Pueblo. | Photos by Diana Cervantes

July 7, 2019

By: Diana Cervantes/ Commissioned by Bitterroot Magazine

In many areas of the rural West, wild horses present a fundamental controversy. They are bastions of frontier freedom to some, a nuisance to others. Proponents say they belong on the range, while opponents note the rangeland that holds them tends to be degraded. In New Mexico, nowhere is the debate around horses more heated than the tiny town of Placitas, 25 miles outside Albuquerque.

New Mexico’s wild horse population is relatively small — the Bureau of Land Management estimates about 240 live there, compared with more than 5,000 in Utah and a whopping 43,200 in Nevada — but many of those horses live in and around Placitas. There, the horses roam free both on federal and private land. For years, residents have fed and watered them, leading them into town and onto the highway, where numerous collisions have taken place. Nobody seems to know exactly what to do about them.

For Sandy Johnson, Adelina Sosa, and Karen Tyler of the nonprofit Placitas Wild, the horses are everything. In late 2014, Placitas Wild partnered with San Felipe Pueblo, a reservation outside of Placitas, to provide sanctuary for dozens of horses shortly before a routine roundup by the BLM could have removed them from the area.

Though the Placitas horses are often called “wild,” the federal government labels them otherwise. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act states that only horses and burros in locations where they were present during a survey after the law was passed, in 1971, receive that designation. All other horses that are free-roaming today, including those under Placitas Wild’s care, are considered feral.

According to BLM estimates, 88,000 horses and burros roam free on range its biologists say can support just 26,600. To decrease the population, BLM conducts roundups on its land and attempts to have the horses adopted out; today, more than 50,000 horses and burros are held by BLM in off-range holding pens throughout the West.

Since 2014, Johnson, Sosa, and Tyler have taken responsibility for the horses in San Felipe Pueblo, delivering bales of hay each day and water from a well — the 400-acre preserve does not have enough forage for the horses to survive on. But in December 2018, Johnson received a letter from Pueblo leadership saying it was ending the partnership, “to give the terrain time to recover.”

The Pueblo declined to comment for this story.

Placitas Wild had until March 18 to find homes for the horses. So, for three months this winter, Johnson, Sosa, and others worked constantly to move 87 horses around a region that’s unsure what to do with the species as a whole.

Placitas Wild 5 edited.jpg

Adelina Sosa, seen above carrying a bale of hay to the horses on the San Felipe preserve in late February, has been helping with the free-roaming horses since she moved to Placitas 19 years ago. The 69-year-old has tended to their wounds, nursed starving horses, and helped deliver a foal that was stuck in the birth canal.

“Once they accept you as part of their herds, they kind of greet you even better than people [do]. They are just loving, caring animals like us, and they suffer like us,” she said.

Placitas Wild 7 edited.jpg

In 2018, Sandoval County commissioned a survey to determine how residents were feeling about the free-roaming horses in Placitas. “One thing is clear,” the report from the survey stated, “the community of Placitas remains divided about how to manage the free-roaming horses. … It appears that many people in Placitas want action taken, and most options would require at least some financial resources.”

That year, the county created the Free Roaming Horse Advisory Council in hopes of coming up with a solution. So far, the council meetings have been fraught with disagreements, shouting matches, and division among horse advocates and residents who want the horses removed.

Some residents, like Lynn Montgomery, a chairman of the local Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District, say the horses are to blame for the devastation of the native landscape. “These horses have destroyed the ecology of Placitas. … There’s no grass hardly at all,” he said at an April meeting.

When a veterinarian at the meeting suggested landowners could fence out horses, some were incensed. “What I’m hearing today is that you want people who don’t want horses on their property to take on the expense,” Doris Forshee told the council. “You want the horses to be free-roaming, but you don’t want to take on any expense.”

In the past, locals who wanted horses removed from their property would corral them and call the New Mexico Livestock Board to pick them up. But, since a 2015 appellate court ruling against the board, the NMLB no longer deals with feral horses, leaving residents to call on the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Department and the advisory council instead.

Sheriff’s Captain Allen Mills said that, in the last few years, four horses were severely injured in car accidents around Placitas and had to be euthanized.

Placitas Wild 8 edited.jpg

Sandy Johnson, 71, looked out at the pens at Mustang Camp in Milan, New Mexico, on March 3. Mustang Camp agreed to train and assist in finding adoptive homes for 54 of the horses from Placitas Wild.

Johnson began caring for the free-roaming horses of Placitas shortly after she and her husband moved there from Seattle in 2002. During a bad drought in 2004, she, Sosa, and Tyler began feeding two horses roaming Placitas and the surrounding BLM land. By 2014, when Placitas Wild opened the preserve on the San Felipe Pueblo, they were caring for more than 70 horses.

Johnson and Sosa do the bulk of the Placitas Wild work, and it comes with sacrifices. “A lot of times there are things that come up with the horses that require immediate attention, and you have to drop whatever you had planned to do,” Johnson said. “Then the hours daily that you spend taking care of them — lots of hours —  I don’t regret it, but … we made a commitment to keep them safe and well.”

Placitas Wild spent around $1,600 per week on hay to feed all the horses. The money came from donations and, at times, out of the women’s own pockets.

“I can’t tell you how much I lay awake at night thinking, How the hell am I going to pay $1,600 a week for hay? That doesn’t happen easy,” Johnson said. “We are getting older, too, and we have to realize that we can’t do this [forever].”

Placitas Wild 9 edited.jpg

One of the Placitas Wild horses, Cheyenne, waited to be transported to Mustang Camp on March 18. There, he will be gentled and trained for adoption. Although Johnson and Sosa would have preferred for the horses to remain free-roaming, domestication seemed like one of the few solutions at their disposal.

“If it means they are going to be all right, then I can deal with that,” Sosa said.

Trained horses are much likelier to be adopted. For this reason, among others, the BLM began in March offering $1,000 to those who adopted untrained horses. It even launched a website last year to facilitate online adoptions.

“The BLM is taking action where it can to increase the number of animals adopted or sold to good homes,” said Jason Lutterman, public affairs specialist with the bureau’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program. “We’re also continuing to work with our partners to train more wild horses and burros to increase their chances of finding a good home, and the BLM continues to supply trained horses and burros to other public agencies, such as for the U.S. Border Patrol and local mounted law enforcement programs.”

Back in San Felipe, horses that have wandered onto the preserve since the others were relocated have been left behind. Their fate is unknown.

“It breaks my heart, but we can’t save them all,” Johnson said, holding back tears.

Placitas Wild 10 edited.jpg

When the horses arrived at Mustang Camp, Johnson thanked Patricia Barlow-Irick, its founder. Mustang Camp typically receives horses from BLM holding pens, but the federal government shutdown in December and January slowed their supply of BLM mustangs, creating an opening for the Placitas Wild horses.

“I felt bad for the people involved,” Barlow-Irick said. “Sandy Johnson has put a lot into doing this and trying to make it work. She basically was just being crushed by what was happening. I mean, that’s just a huge, devastating turn of events for her.”

Placitas Wild 11 edited.jpg

Sosa, seen here saying goodbye to a horse, Happy Boy, as he waited to be transported to Mustang Camp, appreciates the connection she built with the horses. “I like animals. I observe them, I try to understand them. I read them and respect their boundaries, their space — they also do that with us,” she said. “You just have to pay attention to the animal’s behavior and know when to get in their space and when not to.”

Placitas Wild 12 edited.jpg

Barlow-Irick, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, created a 26-step training program to domesticate wild horses; the first is taking food from a person’s hand. Placitas Wild will fund the horses’ training and care, at $600 per horse, until they are adopted. Horses that aren’t adopted will remain at Mustang Camp until Placitas Wild can find another placement.

Placitas Wild 14 edited.jpg

On April 7, Kimberly deCastro toasted the Placitas Wild crew after finalizing the adoption of 10 horses, which will range on 160 acres she owns southeast of Santa Fe.

Johnson and Sosa hoped to send all their horses to homes where they could continue to roam free. After deCastro decided to take some of the horses, the women of Placitas Wild decided to pick the ones that they felt closest with for this relocation. “The minute we knew Kim would take [some] we said, ‘Who is most deserving?’” Johnson said.

Placitas Wild was able to send a few other horses to private owners like deCastro, but the group is still caring for more than 20 horses that are being kept on private land near Placitas. Recently, a donor funded the purchase of 40 acres for the nonprofit. There’s still a need for its work — about 75 horses still roam freely around the area, Johnson said.

Placitas Wild 15.jpg

DeCastro already feels a connection to the horses, including Milagros, Tiny, Blossom, and Rosita, pictured above. Free-roaming horses stir passion, strife, and controversy just for their existence. DeCastro epitomizes the unusual place these horses occupy in the Western psyche. Their charm comes from the lack of corrals, restraints, domestication. But the horses Placitas Wild took care of did, and still do, live within fences.

“When they first came home, I cried — it was a powerful experience for me watching them unload and run to explore what would be their home for the rest of all of our lives,” deCastro said. “I go to see them every day, and each day is different. They show me new parts of their personality with each meeting, and I share a new part of me with them.” 

Inside a Wild Horse Ranch

February 19, 2018

By: Diana Cervantes/For Bitterroot Magazine

Jackie Fleming first witnessed the magnitude of wild-horse holding pens when she visited Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, in 2010. “They had about 600 horses ... all the pens filled with horses. I couldn’t believe it,” she said. Those horses were rounded up — as they still are — by the Bureau of Land Management from states throughout the West to maintain appropriate wild horse populations. The practice, along with fertility treatment, is the BLM's main strategy for keeping horse numbers at a level that won't damage the ecosystems they inhabit. The BLM estimates Western rangeland can support only one-third of the current 82,000-strong horse population, but the agency's strategy has long been controversial. Horse advocates argue that livestock grazing on BLM land have a much greater impact than free-ranging horses. In 2017, the BLM authorized grazing for the equivalent of 677,000 cow-calf pairs.

After visiting Pauls Valley, Fleming decided to begin adopting from the BLM. “It was like the floodgates opened up after I saw those pens,” she said. “I came home, and I was like, ‘I have to go back and get a few more.'”

Fleming’s ranch in northeastern New Mexico is home to 41 horses, but that’s a drop in the bucket: BLM is still holding more than 50,000.

Corrales man rides with, supports free-roaming horses

December 21, 2018

By: Diana Cervantes/For the Rio Rancho Observer

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Armed with his Nikon D200 camera, a 70-200 millimeter lens, his trusty horse Harry and his cowboy hat, Steve Simmons is ready to ride alongside and photograph New Mexico’s wild horses.

Simmons, an 18-year resident of Corrales, is a horse admirer. He owns eight Morgan horses, advocates for wild horses and documents and studies them through observation and photography, which he has done for 11 years in the wild.

“I love tracking and photographing them with my own horse. I love to ride, and being on a horse, looking for other horses just seems to be the way to do things … Doing this on horseback has made me a real student of horse behavior,” Simmons said.

One of the main changes and challenges Simmons has seen in the environment is man’s impact upon the landscape, which in turn affects the natural ecosystem of the land and its animals.

“The biggest problem out there is a lack of water. In Placitas, there is a lack of water and forage, although those needs are taken care of by residents who put out feed and water. Feeding free-roaming horses creates a lot of problems as the herd sizes will grow,” Simmons said. “They double in size about every four years.

“With no natural predators around much anymore, it would be much better to manage the herd sizes in the natural landscape with contraception, which is now available. But the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Livestock Board has been resistant to this except in very specific circumstances.”

Managing herd populations in place takes a lot of time and patience.

According to The Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Mont., darting wild horses with zona pellucida, a glycoprotein that surrounds the egg to keep it from fertilizing, requires training, which takes place at the center at ZooMontana.

Upon completion of the class, the program provides individuals with the necessary mixing equipment.

The individual will then begin the process of documenting the mares that have been darted with zona pellucida, or PZP, log the progress for a certain length of time, and observe if the mare gives birth at the end of the breeding season.

Based on research Simmons gathered from the National Academy of Science in 2013, managing the herd population in place through this method is the best solution to the wild horse conundrum in Placitas.

He engaged with the conversation in Placitas because he believes it’s time to give back to America’s wild horses.

“The horse is an amazing animal; they are amazingly strong and quick; they’re very athletic and their whole structure is built to move. In the wild, they are beautiful to watch,” Simmons said. “In general, we need to be better stewards of the natural world, and the horse in particular has done so much for this country and I think we need to be a little more respectful of them, and we have the tools to do it.”

Simmons has a special bond with his horse Harry. He came across Harry by a stroke of luck or miracle — whatever you’d like to call it — but to Simmons, Harry is his guardian angel.

Simmons recalls being 10 years old and his grandmother telling him he had a guardian angel that would keep him out of trouble.

“As a 10-year-old boy, I probably said, ‘Sure, can I go play baseball now?'” Simmons said. “I am convinced that the angels were watching over me when I got that horse. I made one phone call to one breeder, and got a horse that wasn’t even for sale. She was going to keep him for herself. She liked him a lot … He’s taken care of me in very difficult situations and, like I said, I trust that I can get on him and go do anything I want to.”

Simmons believes Sandoval County has an opportunity to do something and to do it well with the Sandoval County Free Roaming Horse Advisory Council.

“We need to put out the work to do it because if we don’t, we are going to destroy this planet. You know horses are a part of that,” Simmons said.

Felician Sisters in Rio Rancho devote life to prayer, service

December 2, 2018

By: Diana Cervantes/For the Rio Rancho Observer

The sound of hymns echoes through the hallway of the Felician Sisters Chapel on a crisp Wednesday morning in November.

It’s 7:15 a.m., and two of the three sisters have been up and going since 5 a.m.

Every morning, the sisters open the chapel to the public to join them in Mass. The women pray twice a day together and individually as needed.

“Well, the most important thing is our prayer life. We have to start our workforce with our prayer life and end with prayer life, or even when we walk, we pray,” said Sister Angela Parkins, the CEO of St. Felix Pantry.

For each sister, the calling of becoming a nun happened at different times in their lives, at different ages and different education levels. A calling is a spiritual leading or a sense of direction from God.

 For Sister Jane Mary Gawlik, it was as young as 5 years old. Parkins had a full career before she entered the convent at 47, and Sister Barbara Kopecki at 17.

 “I remember at the end of sophomore year (in high school), one of the girls said …‘I’ve been thinking of becoming a sister.’… I laughed out loud and said, ‘That is the last thing I will ever be,’” recalled Kopecki. “And then that summer, things just changed and I felt that’s what I was called to do. I was 17, and I’m now 77.”

Juggling their own ministries from their everyday lives isn’t easy. Parkins is caught between being a full-time CEO and being present at the convent.

“Well, to be honest with you, I get up at 5 a.m., assess what I have to do, then I go to chapel. I was late today because as you could see, the phone was ringing off the hook to set up schedules. I think I had five phone calls before I got to chapel this morning and then I had another one,” said Parkins. “The sisters know I try to be there whenever I need to be … I’m doing my best to balance it, but it’s all hours.”

According to Gawlik, living as part of a sisterhood can be a mix of emotions.

“Some people will say it’s the best thing, and it’s the worst thing, because No. 1, you have community, it’s your family. These­­ sisters, you cry with them when there’s sad times and you laugh with them when there’s happy times, so you are family,” she said. “But we are human, too, and there are personalities and sometimes you want to tear your hair out.”

 Comfort and the companionship of sisters who share the same goals and are supportive of each other are the redeeming qualities of living life in a convent, according to Kopecki.

Despite their busy days, the sisters make time in the afternoons to pray together in their private chapel, followed by dinner together.

Afterward, the women read or catch up on sports. For Parkins, it’s watching the Ohio State University football team during Monday night football.

The convent is undergoing a renovation to better accommodate the women.

“Transition is much needed in keeping with the times,” Gawlik said. “We need to be good stewards of our land and our property. It is important to look at how best to use the land and the building.”

The Felician Sisters Convent is located at 4210 Meadowlark Lane and has been a part of the Rio Rancho community since 1976. If you are a woman interested in more information on how to become a Felician sister, contact Gawlik at 892-8862.

Honoring the Saints, blessing the Ojo spring

June 23, 2018

By Diana Cervantes/For the Telegraph 

Clouds of dirt swirled around the matachines feet as they danced up the Tijeras hills to bless the Ojo spring on a smoldering Saturday morning in June.

As they danced they were covered from head to toe in copilas resembling a bishops mitre, veils over their eyes, and black decorated blazers with ribbons and rattles. Maneuvering up the winding and at times narrow hills was not an easy feat, yet, the matachines did not miss a step as they moved in mesmerizing unison.

According to legend the Ojo dried up one year when the church father failed to bless the spring. The procession carries on 200 years later for the faithful churchgoers of San Antonio Church. Those in the procession hope each year that once again water will flow from the hilltop.

At the helm of such procession are generations of families that have taken up the mantel to pay homage to the local church’s patron saints such as the Chavez family.

Ted Chavez, 53, has been leading the danza or dance as title of Monarca (monarch) for 20 years, but has participated in the procession for 37 years.

“I started dancing when I was 16, and I’m 53 now,” Chavez said. “It’s a great family tradition for me, my dad used to dance [and I] had two uncles who were monarcas. My dad danced for years.”

Chavez’s granddaughter, 8-year-old AnnAlycia Trujillo has started leading the procession alongside Chavez in the role known as La Malinche, who represents purity and all that is good.

Apart from the homage of the procession, the church fiestas also consist of visperas, feasts and plays that bring together all members of the community.

Next year San Antonio Church will be celebrating their bicentennial.

DACA: Dreaming Past the New Political Landscape 

April 6, 2017

By Diana Cervantes/ For the Daily Lobo

Since the election of President Trump, the future of students under DACA is unknown and many Dreamers are worried not only about what this means for their future, but also for the safety of their families.

Medical student Yazmin Irazoqui Ruiz remembers the moment when her world didn’t seem so certain anymore, just five days after President Trump’s inauguration.

“Jan. 25 was the first border security executive action, and that was the proof I needed to realize that Trump was going to go after what he said he was going to do,” Ruiz said.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was first enacted by the Obama administration in June 2012, and the UNM Dream Team estimates that there are approximately 500 undocumented students at UNM alone.

Trump’s hard-hitting executive order has awakened the long held dormant fears of the undocumented student population.

For Ruiz, this meant taking a leave of absence from the UNM School of Medicine.

“Before I took my leave of absence in February, I was doing fine, up until the inauguration," she said. "Then the border executive order happened...and that is where mental health plays a huge deal, not just in your own mental and emotional health, but physical health as well. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus. It was really difficult, because here I was studying for an exam — I felt wasn’t going to do anything for my community.”

Josue de Luna Navarro, a chemical and biological engineering student, understands what it’s like to sit in class attempting to learn, yet deal with more pressing things on his mind.

“It’s like your mind can’t stop because you’re in class learning about whatever it is you’re learning about, but what you’re learning about feels so disconnected to your real-life problems,” Navarro said. “You’re worried about the assignment and out-of-class real life issues, like ‘Are my parents going to be deported?’”

Although DACA holders are not protected against ICE and deportations, they are on lower priority on deportation lists and do have certain benefits.

One of the benefits is the ability to obtain a worker permit, which would allow the individual to work in the U.S. without the need of a social security number.

For one UNM alumni, who seeks to remain anonymous due to her work status, DACA afforded her the means to pay for college, as she could obtain a work permit.

“Prior to DACA I didn’t have a job, I didn’t want to risk anything by getting a fake identity or social (security number)," she said. "So, I paid for my undergrad through scholarships. The latest thing that DACA has done for me is the ability to be a counselor, get my Masters and work in a field that I’m passionate about. I was able to get my license with no problems, basically everything that a person needs to survive.”

Undocumented students not only face the pressure to maintain scholarships, but deal with the uncertainty of possibly having family members deported.

So much so, that the UNM Dream Team Field Coordinator Felipe Rodriguez has helped devise Deportation Protection Plans for students and their families.

“We are starting to implement deportation emergency plans, which includes a list of documents that will help families in case someone gets detained, to start a campaign to stop the deportation,” Rodriguez said. “We are still figuring parts of it out, but it’ll be through 'Know Your Rights” trainings.'”

With so much on the line, some say it seems almost impossible to have a moment of tranquility. For Navarro, he finds solace in meditation.

“I like to meditate to a point I don’t feel anything," Navarro said. “To the point where you are so relaxed you are almost floating. It’s just a way to kind of keep myself grounded and remind myself that I am a human being, and that in itself is powerful. This is something no immigration policy or fear can take away.”

For Ruiz, tranquility comes in the form of dancing “bachata,” a style of romantic music and dance from the Dominican Republic. She also finds solace in speaking Spanish and being a part of the Dream Team.

“I came back to the Dream Team," Ruiz said. "I had been gone for almost a year because of school and I came back to my people and my community because we are all experiencing the same thing in the same magnitude. We deal with it differently. Josue meditates; some people cling to their families. I have taken up dancing bachata in my living room. Just being in my culture and community has been very healing for me.”

 Originally ran online at the Daily Lobo: