Spirits of the West

When we talk about horses, emotions run high and American values collide

In a difficult period for horses, it was a small but important victory.

In a difficult period for horses, it was a small but important victory.

Under large, clean cowboy hats, two tiny Hispanic boys swaggered into the Clark County Commission chambers behind their mom. They wore fine leather boots and matching belts with crisp jeans; appropriate attire for budding charros—participants in a traditional Mexican charreria, an equestrian event similar to rodeo.

Like a charreria, the political arena was packed and the emotions were high, but it felt contentious rather than competitive, a touch surly rather than celebratory.

At issue was whether the World Series of Charreria, which for months had been scheduled to take place September 25-29 at South Point, would be allowed to include horse tripping, which is roping a galloping horse by its legs. Event organizers had asked the commission to pass a temporary moratorium excluding them from the existing ordinance that prohibits roping a horse’s legs.

The two-plus hours of testimony on August 20 ranged into issues well beyond horse abuse. There were questions about cultures colliding, respect for different heritages, and points made about money and tourism—we let the National Finals Rodeo rope calves by their legs, after all.

Charreria proponents—including the boys’ mother—argued that the charros have a long history of responsible animal husbandry, that the event is about skill and grace, and that it’s a fundamental part of some Hispanic cultures. In opposition, animal-rights activists asserted—sometimes through tears, sometimes citing Christ or Gandhi or holding handwritten “No Cruelty” signs—that horse tripping is brutal treatment of horses and often results in severe injuries or even death.

After fielding all the passionate arguments for and against horse-tripping, the commission voted. The result: a 3-3 tie. That meant the existing animal-protection ordinance, which does not allow horse tripping, would stand. Event organizers canceled the charreria. It was a small but important victory for horses in what has been a difficult period for them throughout the West. In the days before the hearing, the U.S. Forest Service allowed Northern Nevada’s Paiute-Shoshone Tribe to round up 148 unbranded horses and take them to the Fallon Livestock Exchange, where animal advocates feared they would be sold for slaughter. Canada, Mexico and Japan already have horse-slaughter plants; Iowa and New Mexico are debating whether to allow livestock plants to slaughter horses and export meat for consumption. In this case, wild-horse advocates argued that because the Paiute-Shoshone’s horses were unbranded, they were actually wild, and therefore federally protected by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The act itself—which charged the Interior and Agriculture Departments with maintaining an ecological balance for their survival—has proven controversial: As the number of wild horses has grown, it has not brought the sought-after balance. Ranchers have argued for decades that mustangs’ foraging is a costly problem. Meanwhile, drought threatens the more than 30,000 wild horses in Nevada. In recent years, the Bureau of Land Management has rounded up thousands of wild horses and corralled them at various sites around the West. Nearly 50,000 wild horses are currently in packed government corrals, awaiting adoption or auction or, if found to be unhealthy, euthanization.

In the wake of the Paiute-Shoshone roundup, a small group of horses ultimately won a reprieve: Animal activists swiftly partnered with an unnamed benefactor to save the 148 in question. But, as the Los Angeles Times reported, another 150 branded horses were sold to kill-buyers.

Sitting outside at the Mount Charleston Ski & Snow Resort on a summer day, a group of relaxed hikers watches four wild horses, one of them a foal, nibble on the grassy ski slope. One hiker tiptoes up as close as he can get without scaring off the skittish horses, takes a picture, and then leaves them be. The animals are beautiful in so many ways: big and elegant, powerful yet gentle, “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” as the 1971 federal protection act worded it.

But it remains to be seen where we ultimately place the horse in our value system: livestock or companion animal; symbol of the Western free spirit, or symbol of the Western free market.