Written and photographed by Alexandra Buxbaum


The hay barn at the SRWHMG sanctuary and headquarters. The hay is also used as part of an emergency response feed program and provides supplemental feeding to the wild bands during times of prolonged drought which brings on food scarcity. The entire herd gets sustained and left in good condition even under the worst of natural conditions.

The wild horse, known as Mustangs, stands as an enduring symbol of the American West, an embodiment of the American Spirit that conjures up images of untamed beauty, unwavering independence, immeasurable strength, and unmatched nobility. These magnificent creatures, descendants of the Iberian horse the Spaniards brought over in the 16th century, have freely roamed the expansive landscapes of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest since 1790. Today, the Salt River wild horses, inhabitants of this very forest, were almost gone forever but saved at the 11th hour due to the tireless efforts of Simone Netherlands, a lifelong horse advocate and founder of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. (SRWHMG) Their swift action commenced when the U.S. Forest Service posted an impound and removal notice on July 31, 2015, stating the horses would be removed or otherwise disposed of, most likely consigning them to the fate of slaughterhouses.

Wild horses hanging outing the pen space near SRWHMG headquarters. The horses can roam where they want on 19, 980 acres and hang out everywhere. Different bands have favorite locations to hang out and different territories. The horses know near the land by SRWHMG headquarters they will be left alone, as the volunteers are not allowed to interact with them.

This announcement sent shockwaves of alarm throughout the general public, and for Simone this cause struck a deeply personal chord. She grew up around horses and had professionally trained them, and her dedication to the plight of horses was sparked when one of the horses she had trained was sold off at auction. With unwavering determination, SRWHMG sprang into immediate action, galvanizing the press, forging connections with over 6000 media outlets, the public held rallies, they tirelessly lobbied legislators, filed a lawsuit, and flooded the offices of the Forest Service with an avalanche of calls, letters, and emails. Through these heroic efforts, Simone and SRWHMG successfully championed the cause with the Arizona State Government and congress, advocating for a humane solution at the federal and state levels. This all culminated into the Arizona Revised Statue 3-1491, commonly known as the Salt River Horse Act, which bestowed protection upon the Salt River wild horses. In a groundbreaking partnership, SWHMG forged a contract with the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA), entrusting them to humanely manage this unique herd, currently numbering around 400 horses.

Supply barn at the SRWHMG headquarters and sanctuary where different volunteers help care for the recued wild horses 24/7. Some horses are on specialized individual diets tailored to their needs.

Simone and SRWHMG possess an intimate knowledge of each and every individual horse that graces the 19,980 acres of their territory. Each horse band, or family group, is vigilantly monitored, as different groups have preferred areas to hang around in. A network of over 100 dedicated volunteers, available around the clock, stands poised to aid and rescue any injured or distressed horses. The headquarters houses a sanctuary, where horses that cannot be reintegrated back into the wild find a permanent home. There is always someone on the premise 24/7, and volunteers take turns staying overnight to provide constant care. Most of the sanctuary’s permanent residents were rescued as foals, separated from their mothers and bands, found wandering alone. Elderly horses, unable anymore to keep pace with the rest, find solace in the sanctuary where they can live out their remaining days with dignity.

Spending time with these volunteers reveals the depth of their love for the horses under their watchful eye, exposing the wellspring of compassion and unwavering dedication that defines they’re very being. A special connection often forms between one particular horse and a volunteer, an inexplicable bond that transcends the ordinary. Even during my visit, a particular horse was drawn to me, gravitating in a manner unseen with other visitors. Within the sanctuary, a foal barn nurtures and cares for rescued babies until they can learn to eat on their own and safely join the company of their kind.

Managing the herd involves a multifaceted approach, carefully maintain their numbers in accordance with the mutually agreement forged with the Forest Service. To control population growth, SRWHMG advocated several years for the approval of the PZP birth control darting program which was approved in 2018. Fertility is managed through the use of PZP birth control, expertly delivered by certified darters in the field, avoiding the need for capturing any horses. Unlike traditional birth control, this immuno- contraception ensures that the horses’ behavior and herd dynamic remain unaffected. The goal for the next few years is to just allow only a couple of foals to be born, ensuring a low population count. Mares are carefully selected to ensure enough genetic diversity within the herd. Given the Salt River horses’ constrained habitat, surrounded on all sides by civilization, maintaining a balanced population proves vital, warding further roundups and Forest Service intervention. With a survival rate of a mere 65% for foals born in the wild, where three out of ten perish, the conservation efforts of SRWHMG take on an even greater urgency.

In addition to the fertility program, rescue operations, and sanctuary, SRWHMG meticulously collects data to monitor herd health, recording information for each individual horse. Supplemental feeding sustains them during periods of drought, and there is ongoing work to improve their natural habitat, eradicating any safety hazards. Through a vigilant road patrol program, the horses are shielded from perilous areas and the dangers of road traffic.

The Sanctuary at the headquarters where the horses that cannot be released can live out the rest of their lives.
In the supply barn at the sanctuary, the names of each individual horse and their dare of birth and date of rescue are posted alongside a photo of each. Some of the horses are on special, individual diets catered to their health needs.

The humane and groundbreaking approach adopted by SRWHMG stands as a beacon of hope, unique to wild horse management, illuminating a path unseen in conventional wild horse management. Simone envisions the triumphs achieved with the Salt River herd as a blueprint, inspiring these methods to be adopted across the country.

Simone and SRWHMG achieved remarkable success in their noble mission to safeguard the wild and free existence of these iconic horses. Their unwavering resolve granted a voice to the Salt River horses, ensuring that future generations will bear witness to their majestic presence. Yet, another battle is on the horizon – the fight to protect the Alpine herd in Northeastern Arizona. The Alpine horses face a dire threat, currently rounded up and sold by the Apache Sitgreaves Forest Service to make room for cattle grazing. Public auctions are held without any limitations to slaughter.


Text and images © Alexandra Buxbaum



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