AZTEC — It's too easy, not to mention inhumane, to slaughter horses.

That's the message from Debbie Coburn, director of the Four Corners Equine Rescue, a nonprofit organization in Aztec dedicated to finding humane solutions for wild horses throughout the region.

Coburn recently returned from a meeting in Albuquerque of the stakeholders taskforce -- a statewide group appointed by the governor -- to protest the number of horses channeled into the slaughter pipeline, which delivers horses to auction lots and then across the border to Mexico. There, the horses are slaughtered for meat, an accepted food source in Europe and abroad.

"Slaughter begets more slaughter," said Coburn, who is also chair of the New Mexico Equine Rescue Alliance, a statewide horse advocacy group that tackles horse overpopulation. "It is championed by some as a simple solution to the state's overpopulation problem, but we're blaming the animals for the sins of the people who at some point abandoned these animals."

Animal rights groups like Coburn's decry the roughly 60-year practice as de facto torture and abuse to the animals.

More than 160,000 horses were sent to slaughter in 2012, according to the Humane Society of the United States' website.

Tackling overbreeding and increasing adoption rates is key to addressing the state's homeless horse problem, Coburn said.

Along with sterilizing male horses, Coburn sees hope in an injectable birth control vaccine called PZP, an affordable way for mares to avoid pregnancy.

Coburn is also battling cultural differences when it comes to population problems with New Mexico horses.

"The Navajo Nation considers the number of horses owned as a sign of personal wealth," she said. "They, too, have population problems like everywhere else across the state, but making progress there has seen some resistance from their own."

Last month, Coburn received a call from a Navajo woman who chose to intervene. With the help of younger members of her family, she collected a days-old foal abandoned near Shiprock.

The woman told Coburn that she faced criticism for the rescue from members of her own family.

"Much of the attitude she described was a leave-and-let-be attitude to wild horses, even those in distress," Coburn said.

Coburn met the woman and delivered the starving foal to a local veterinarian. While the foal showed promising signs of recovery -- at times it was able to stand on its own -- it did not survive, ultimately because of acute kidney failure.

Helping abandoned horse populations could also be aided by increased law enforcement, Coburn said.

"If people were held accountable, horses would not be reduced to stray bags of bones and sold off to the nearest sale barn," she said. "Responsibility has got to factor in here, but slaughter takes away the incentive to act ethically."

An agriculture appropriations law from 2006 to 2011 banned funding from being used for horse meat inspections, stopping horse slaughter in the U.S. Without inspections, there could be no slaughter.

In March, Congress dropped prohibitive language on inspections from a 2012 agriculture appropriations bill. The bill now allows horse slaughter inspections, which gives slaughter facilities the impetus to open.

Horses that Debbie Coburn is caring for munch on hay on Thursday at the San Juan County Sheriff s Posse Grounds in Farmington. Coburn, director of the Four
Horses that Debbie Coburn is caring for munch on hay on Thursday at the San Juan County Sheriff s Posse Grounds in Farmington. Coburn, director of the Four Corners Equine Rescue in Aztec, recently returned from a meeting of the stakeholders taskforce in Albuquerque to protest the number of horses channeled into the slaughter pipeline, which delivers horses to auction lots and then to Mexico. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

The Safeguard American Food Exports Act of 2013, which prohibits the sale or transport of equines for slaughter or human consumption, is currently moving through subcommittees on Capitol Hill.

Both Gov. Susana Martinez and Attorney General Gary King have actively fought against the legalization of horse slaughter practices within the state.

"A horse's companionship is a way of life for many people across New Mexico. We rely on them for work and bond with them through their loyalty," Martinez said in a statement. "Despite the federal government's decision to legalize horse slaughter for human consumption, I believe creating a horse slaughter industry in New Mexico is wrong and I am strongly opposed."

In a statement released last week, King opposed the opening of a slaughterhouse in Roswell, citing the state's Food Act and the potential health risk to humans if horse meat is available in the country.

"Our legal analysis concludes that state law does not allow for production of meat that is chemically tainted under federal regulations," King said. "New Mexico law is very clear that it would be prohibited and illegal."

But for advocates like Coburn, the encouraging news was somewhat tarnished by events closer to home.

Recently, Coburn learned that the executive committee that oversees the San Juan County Sheriff's Posse Grounds in Farmington was unwilling to continue allowing her group to use a portion of the land at the end of Marseille Boulevard for horse care and events.

In a May 21 letter, the three-member executive committee wrote to Debbie Coburn's husband, Terry Coburn, to announce that his membership on the committee and the rescue's use of the grounds was terminated.

The letter cited a conflict of interest. Calls left for the three members of the committee were not returned.

Debbie Coburn is now looking for new digs for her horses.

"We have five range horses -- three mares, a foal and a yearling -- we will have to find homes for," she said. "This is an unfortunate surprise blow to the rescue and means having to find adopters for them quickly."

One of the mares is pregnant, a worry that underscores the urgency Coburn faces.

She and her husband do much of their work from their Flora Vista home where they currently care for 58 rescued horses.

Last week, Coburn received a glimmer of hope from DeLaws Lindsay, a Bloomfield horsemanship teacher, former jockey and self-described "cow mumbler."

Lindsay agreed to help Coburn by lending his horse training expertise for a nominal fee.

"Any horse should have a chance," Lindsay said. "If I can step in and help make it possible for these horses to become companions to people, I'm glad to do it."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.