Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming non-fiction book:
Two young, muscular stallions, driven by their undeniable reproductive instinct, suddenly reared up and violently struck each other with their front hooves. They were in a territorial fight to establish dominance over hundreds of acres of pasture and a band of fertile mares that were in heat. Situated in a remote meadow between two spring-grass-covered hills, amid the peacefulness of a gentle breeze, the big, black stallion and the black-leopard-spotted stallion tried to overpower the other, alternately kicking and biting. Despite their open wounds, they persisted for several minutes, completely focused on the other. It was a primal act of nature. They fought and whinnied as they tried to assert their authority, until the black stallion finally retreated, putting an end to the bloody battle.
While this scene evokes images of wild horses fighting for domination, it was actually an abandoned herd of domestic horses that were left behind on a ranch that our family acquired when we bought the property from our neighbors in 2013.
What had begun as a vision for a sporthorse breeding program devolved into a desperate situation when the business partners—friends since childhood–split up their operation. The horse breeder took some of the foundation horses with him and re-established his successful breeding program elsewhere. The partner who owned the 800-acre property kept the remaining horses and allowed them to free-breed there.
The landowner and his 15-years-younger wife turned out the remaining horses–which included high-quality Appaloosas, Percherons, and warmbloods—and gradually introduced other breeds, including Mustangs, off-the-track Thoroughbreds, Paints, ponies and Quarter horses. During the 17 years the ranch supported horses, it is suspected that hundreds of foals were produced. There were all kinds of Appaloosas: leopard-spotted, Appys with snow blankets on their hindquarters, and few-spot Appys that looked solid-white from a distance. There were white, black, dark bay and light bay horses, buckskins, duns, chestnuts, pintos and palominos, and a number of equines with unusual patterns such as Pintaloosas. The majority of them were not handled, which resulted in feral horses of all sizes, shapes and colors, running free on the ranch.
The horses grazed the grass on the hilly property. But a drought paralleled some tough times for the landowners and in 2012, the county animal-control service got involved and required removal of the horses, a number thought to be about 200. The actual number was impossible to confirm as there were several different bands of horses living on various sections of the ranch, which was situated in the foothills of Northern California’s Coast Range. Since the horses were untamed and an economic recession was in full swing, it was difficult to find homes for them. At the time of the liquidation, there were some benevolent people in the community who adopted a few horses. The majority of the feral horses were hauled off by a buyer who specialized in challenging situations such as this. He allegedly took about 70 horses to an auction in the San Joaquin Valley, while the other 40 went to out-of-state auctions and undisclosed local brokers.
Twenty-three horses were left behind when our family and the Anderson family jointly purchased the property in March 2013. Seven mares quickly foaled, bringing the total to 30 horses. There was speculation that the remaining horses simply evaded capture and hid in the hills.
We planned to graze sheep on the property, which meant that we needed to remove all the horses. One horse consumes roughly the same amount of forage as 10 sheep, and our sheep production would provide the income we needed to pay for the land. It was not economically feasible for us to keep the horses.
My husband called the previous owner’s wife and told her they needed to remove the remaining horses. We gave them an extra week of access to the ranch so they could retrieve their horses. The week came and went, but no one showed up to get the remaining horses. Some of their friends stopped by the ranch, unaware that the owners had relocated elsewhere, but nobody arrived to take away any horses. We had no choice but to make immediate plans to take care of the remaining herd. Our plans included capturing the forsaken horses, several of which were bony and emaciated, and finding new homes for them, which turned out to be quite a challenge.