Editor's note: The Daily Times' Rewind series revisits stories we have reported on over the past year. To read more Rewind stories, go to daily-times.com. This is the final installment in the series.
AZTEC — According to the Chinese zodiac, 2014 is the Year of the Horse, a hopeful sign for equines in New Mexico, says Debbie Coburn.
She and her husband, Terry Coburn, have run Four Corners Equine Rescue for the last 10 years at their ranch home just outside Aztec. It's a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving and rehabilitating abandoned, abused and neglected horses. The organization also takes in and cares for wild and feral horses. The couple currently have 62 horses at their sprawling facility in Flora Vista, south of the Old Aztec Highway.
Last year, the Coburns took in 30 horses -- "17 as wild as March hares," Debbie Coburn said.
"It was like the year of the wild horse, we had so many come in or picked up," she said.
She said wild and feral horses can take twice as long as domesticated horses to be handleable and ready for adoption, doubling the expense and effort each of those horses require. Worse, according to Debbie Coburn, is that those horses face higher slaughter rates when they wind up at sale barns or at public auctions.
"What they call loose horses at a sale barn, public auction -- the chances of anyone taking them home is like .000000001 percent," she said. "No, they end up slaughtered. They sell them to kill buyers. The public auction is whoever bids the most."
The greatest obstacle, as Debbie Coburn sees it, is the reality that many horses are sent to slaughter each year, often out of convenience, indifference or cultural views that see the horses as possessions. With added political pressure and greater awareness, she is hopeful that change is afoot.
"The more Americans -- members of the public -- become aware of what's happening (with slaughter practices), the more the resistance to horse slaughter grows, and I think we're closer now than we ever have been to changing the culture of horse ownership," Debbie Coburn said. "I feel like we're making positive change. It's changed."
She points to a new law she championed to include a donation box on state personal tax forms to allow taxpayers to check off a donation to the horse shelter rescue fund. The state's Livestock Board would oversee the distribution of money to help horse shelters like the Coburns'. Debbie Coburn testified in support of the law at last year's legislative session in Santa Fe.
"It was organized chaos, so busy, so many committees I visited," she said. "That was my debut as a citizen lobbyist. But the governor (Susana Martinez) signed the bill. Things like this represent positive, incremental steps in the right direction."
The Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife, an organization launched by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and activist actor Robert Redford, has jumped in to fight horse slaughter. Debbie Coburn said her organization received a $1,500 donation from the foundation in November.
Another sign of change is in an upcoming meeting Debbie Coburn has secured with Ray Baca, executive director of the New Mexico Livestock Board. Highest on her list of outcomes from the meeting is a greater understanding between the board and state rescues. The goal, she said, would be that board officials call rescues before allowing the horses to be taken to a sale barn and sold at public auction.
"We're supposed to meet with Baca to start forging a new relationship," she said. "We've been trying for a while. The first time I approached him, he said, 'No.' The fact that the (six) rescues (in the state) have bonded together, he's been more inclined to listen. It's the old guard, but the hope for change is there. Bit by bit."
Baca's board is still stinging after an investigative article in the Albuquerque Journal discovered that Baca signed a purchase order to place four abused horses with Southwest Livestock Auction, a feedlot in Los Lunas, in September. The feedlot's owner, Dennis Chavez, pleaded guilty in November to animal cruelty after four severely emaciated and dying horses were documented on his property. As part of a settlement agreement in the case, Debbie Coburn and two other state rescues received $5,000 last month.
"These rescues have saved a lot of horses," said Gary Mora, an area supervisor with the state's Livestock Board. "We have delivered horses (to Four Corners Equine Rescue). (Coburn) has picked up horses. She will attempt to help, but that is not always possible."
Mora, who has been with the board for 17 years, believes the board is doing all it can to place horses, despite a small budget, limited staff and no place of its own to hold horses indefinitely.
"We are faced with a problem with unwanted, abandoned horses. The economy didn't help," Mora said. "We can't just give these horses away. We have to follow the estray process, because they're not the property of the state. We hold onto them for as long as possible, and, most of the time, we're successful to adopt them out to private individuals or to rescues, but down the road we're going to run out of options. We don't have a facility to hold horses. After that, according to statute, we're required to sell them at public auction."
All of New Mexico's horse rescue groups, including Four Corners Equine Rescue, have banded together to form the New Mexico Equine Rescue Alliance, whose mission is to take all horses from the state's Livestock Board.
"This needs to stop," Debbie Coburn said. "We're willing to help. I'm not trying to pull their (agencies like the Livestock Board) wisdom teeth without sedation. We're trying to get along and make this a safer process for the horses. That's the point, but I am encouraged."