It was all hoof and saddle Saturday at the San Juan County Sheriff's Posse Grounds for a mustang adoption and health clinic.
A sea of open-air pens with rehabilitated mustang horses were available for adoption for $125 per horse. The U.S. Forestry Service and animal welfare nonprofit groups, Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance and Four Corners Equine Rescue, organized the event.
Volunteers from both nonprofits offered information on horse care, wild horse populations and horsemanship classes. Tables were piled high with refurbished equipment boots, hats, saddles, harnesses, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits and harnesses to help riders "tack up" in grand style and support the groups' efforts.
But most of the action was around veterinarian Joe Quintana and an assistant from Animal Haven Clinic. The duo examined and treated a long line of horses brought by their owners for teeth floating (grinding of sharp teeth), vaccinations and Coggins blood tests to check for infectious diseases. Quintana donated his services for the day.
Phoebe Bechtolt drove down from Durango with her daughter Annie, 5, decked out in pink cowgirl boots and hat, and their two horses, Stella and Sunshine, to see "Dr. Q." They planned to gallop along nearby Farmington Lake trails after their horses' exams.
Stella, an adopted mustang, stood groggily beside her owners after having her sharply pointed teeth contoured. Sunshine, a grade horse, only needed vaccination shots.
"It's so nice for us to have Dr. Q offer free care today," Bechtolt said. "The expense for animal care can be a lot. Plus, we can get in a ride out here afterward."
Rusty, a mustang captured in Carson Forest east of Bloomfield, stood in line with owners Angie Krauss and Roy Hudgens, who live in Aztec. They brought four of their horses to see Quintana.
"We come for the Coggins test and vaccinations every year," Hudgens said. "But it's always fun to take a look at all the beautiful mustangs the Forest Service has here, too."
Roughly 400 wild horses roam in the San Juan County area, and that's about 300 too many for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service too effectively handle, said Barbara Kiipper, co-founder and director of the Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance.
Started last year, the alliance seeks to preserve the three remaining horse herds in the state by managing population size, rehabilitating captured wild horses and finding them good homes.
"Fertility control is the first best place to start to address the overpopulation problem," Kiipper said. "But placing them in nurturing environments is also our mission. Mustangs are wild, yes, but they make great kids', ranch and trail-riding horses. You can teach them anything."
Kiipper decries the massive capture and slaughter approaches to managing herd sizes throughout the country and hopes animal welfare groups, the community and local governments can help to eradicate their practice.
"There are over 50,000 horses sitting in holding pens across the country right now," she said. "And the slaughter practices are deplorable and not solving the problem."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 140,000 horses are sent to slaughter in the U.S. each year.
Debbie Coburn of Four Corners Equine Rescue admits the one-two punch of the recession and drought conditions throughout the state have left horses in jeopardy. She and her group of volunteers work with local animal control to take neglected or abused horses and place them in loving homes.
"We get many calls from people who just can't afford to care for their horses," Coburn said. "Recently, a woman battling stage four cancer asked that we take her two horses because she just couldn't care for them anymore. We see a lot of that, mostly, financially caused but some from abuse, too."
Of the 67 horses the rescue group has taken in, half are adoptable, while the rest are too old or unable to make another living transition.
Coburn, who grew up in northern Wisconsin and has been around horses all her life, laments the country's frayed connection to farm life and agriculture.
"We need to reconnect people with horses," Coburn said. "We have an obligation morally to the animals and to ourselves to ensure that we nurture it. The challenges are many but not insurmountable."
James Fenton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.