Fran Jurga The Jurga Report
by Fran Jurga
Fran Jurga keeps you up-to-date in this blog on news about horse health, care, equine science and research that affects horses. © The Jurga Report. Content cannot be reproduced without permission. View more blogs

Free Range in Paradise: The “Wild” Horses of the Caribbean Attract Tourists and Research

By Fran Jurga,
January 16, 2017
Sarah Richter photo
Credit: Sarah Richter photo
A "wild" mare and her foal on the Caribbean island of Vieques.

Wild horses are supposed to be in the wild west, scampering up and down mountainsides or galloping across the desert, right? That’s what most of us have always thought. But as support for the preservation of feral horses in the western rangeland of the United States has grown, so has the awareness and appreciation of large and small herds of feral horses around the world.

Feral horses are those who live in the wild but are descended from domestic horses. The only true "wild" horses live in Mongolia.

When The Humane Society of the United States announced it was heading to a place called "Vieques" (pronounced "vee-AAAY-kez") to help wild horses there, many followers just scratched their heads.

Feral horses show up in unusual places. They live on the remote Canadian sandbar known as Sable Island, off Nova Scotia. They live in the Balkan nations of eastern Europe, the south of France, and the mountains of Spain. You’ll find the largest concentration of free-roaming horses thriving in the extreme wilderness of Australia’s Outback. Horse herds live in the brutal desert of Namibia in Africa.

The island of Vieques from the air, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Vieques is about eight miles off the coast of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea.

Feral and wild horses are a key part of the ecotourism industry. People are willing to travel to places where they can see horses in their wild, natural state, as evidenced by feral horse advocate Madeleine Pickens' landmark Mustang Monument ecotourism resort in Nevada.

One of the most unusual herds lives on the U.S. territory of Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. Much of Vieques was once a bombing practice range for the U.S. Navy, but when the bombs stopped falling, and the military base was converted to a wildlife refuge, tourists from around the world took it as an “all clear” to visit.

Some came for the beaches. Some came for the quiet. And some came to see the "wild" horses. Over decades, hundreds of domestic horses, many of Paso Fino blood, had been turned loose to roam by their owners. They gradually spread out over the island, reproduced, and learned to live among the citizenry. Now they are not only part of landscape, they are also part of the island's allure.

Here's a short tourist video from showing a herd near Sun Beach on the island:


Over the years, the island has become more settled and widely-known not for its highrise hotel resorts but for the peace and quiet and, yes, the horses. They have helped put the island on the map, as a wildlife feature that sets the island apart. Their presence makes a hike to the beach an adventure, when you realize that you might frolic in the surf next to a mare and her foal.

These horses may not be very wild, given the way they have been fed by locals and tourists alike for generations. "Free ranging" might be a better description. Tourists enjoy “capturing” them on film, cell phone cameras, and video, and the herds don’t seem to mind being a little bit famous. Many are approachable, up to a point, and some are claimed as the unfenced property of local residents, as evidenced by their brands.

Lately, it’s not only tourists who are seeking the horses on Vieques. Researchers, animal advocates, photographers, filmmakers, and even a veterinarian are looking for hoofprints in the sand, as well. 

The off-islanders' interest in this fascinating home turf for free ranging equids extended to an equine contraceptive mission led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on the island last week. 

International show jumper Georgina Bloomberg was a guest of HSUS on Vieques last weekend. Here she is getting to know one of the feral horses. (HSUS Photo by Meredith Lee)


Back in 2015, HSUS announced a strategic partnership with the island’s government to improve all animal welfare on the island. The programs have ranged from educating law officials about animal abuse to schoolroom programs and vaccination/spay/neuter clinics for small animals. 

But you can’t go to Vieques and not be aware of the horses. Who was looking out for their welfare? And who was working to insure their future? While the island has plenty of wild terrain, its natural vegetation can only sustain so many horses. And the herds were growing larger each year.

Last year, the mayor of the island, Victor Emiric, asked HSUS what could be done to improve welfare and simultaneously control the growth of the horse herds on the island. Whether tourists are motivated to visit the island because of the horses or not, the public image of the island will not be enhanced if the ubiquitous horses don’t look like they are healthy and happy.

Contraceptive vaccines are delivered to mares via a dart gun. (HSUS Photo by Meredith Lee)


First things came first, in the HSUS program. Fresh water access is a problem for the horses; many of the herds moving around the island are motivated to meander by their search for fresh water sources. HSUS has begun to install water troughs closer to unpopulated areas, to lure horses away from congested town areas with a guarantee of clean, unsalty water. 

Key to the HSUS involvement is a program to administer the contraceptive known as Porcine zona pellucida (PZP), which has been used on many different types of wildlife, including wild horse mares in the American West. HSUS planned to inoculate more than 150 mares during this initial program.

HSUS guest Ariana Rockefeller posted on Twitter and Instagram about her weekend with the "wild" horses of Vieques during contraception clinic last weekend. 

According to a comment by HSUS President Wayne Pacelle in his blog recently, PZP “has been studied extensively for more than 20 years, and it has been proven to be more than 90 percent effective and safe.” HSUS, in fact, was involved with its development.

“Treated mares will see increased health benefits and will lead longer and healthier lives without the stress of repeated pregnancy and lactation in an environment with few basic resources,” Pacelle wrote. “In the long term, the competition for scarce resources will decrease as the population stabilizes and declines to sustainable levels.”

PZP has been used on Assateague pony mares on federal land in Maryland since 1988. According to HSUS,  last month the National Park Service declared the wild horse fertility control program on Assateague such a success that the herd will be allowed to reproduce again for the first time in six years.

According to Liz Davis, education coordinator for Assateague Island, "The Maryland herd of wild horses currently contains a large proportion of mares aged 20 to 33," she told the website "These older mares are unlikely to foal again, so in order to refresh the reproductive population in the near future, an increase in foaling among the younger mares needs to occur."

When tourists come to see the horses, they love to see foals romping around. The decrease in foals caused by the PZP program will need to be explained to the tourists.

The medication is not without its critics. Friends of Animals is one organization opposed to the use of PZP.

Wild horses wander through town on the island of Vieques in the Caribbean. (HSUS Photo by Meredith Lee)

The HSUS program last week, which centered on “darting” mares with the contraceptive vaccine, included a visit to the island by an equine practitioner. Dickie Vest, DVM, staff veterinarian for the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, had the honor of being the island’s first-ever horse doc during his stay.

According to HSUS, Vieques will serve as a positive model for large-scale horse population management. They suggest that their Vieques program can be replicated by other municipalities, as well as state, federal and tribal agencies that are actively searching for ways to manage feral horse populations.

Special guests enjoying the wild horses last weekend were celebrity supporters of HSUS (and equestrians), such as Georgina Bloomberg, Stephanie Riggio Bulger and Ariana Rockefeller. Tourists and HSUS staff and guests alike had an unusual opportunity to see the horses up close during the clinic. 


Most of the horses didn't mind posing for photos with the celebrities and staff. Then they just wandered off, as if nothing was going on. It was just another day in paradise, for them.


by Fran Jurga


Learn more:


Europe Plans for Eco-Friendly (Re)wild Horses on the Edge of the Landscape


Where the Wild Horses Are (Australian Geographic Society): Australia is home to a million wild horses.


Whither the wild horses of Louisiana? 


Is PZP Safe? Immunocontraceptive Vaccines and Their Regulation  (HSUS document)


Critique of PZP from Friends of Animals website 




Fran Jurga The Jurga Report
by Fran Jurga
Fran Jurga keeps you up-to-date in this blog on news about horse health, care, equine science and research that affects horses. © The Jurga Report. Content cannot be reproduced without permission. View more blogs

“And your horse is ugly, too!” Bullying in the horse world hurts us all

By Fran Jurga,
January 09, 2017

Words can hurt. In an age when we toe the line to protect equine welfare, what are we doing to protect each other? 

Are horses--and the future of the entire equine industry--at risk?

• • • • • 

When a British boarding stable launched the #notonmyyard social media campaign last fall, the world didn’t stop to take much notice. Perhaps they didn't know what it meant. 

When the world governing body of horse sports, the Federation Equestrian Internationale (FEI), endorsed the hashtag and featured the campaign on its website, no one seemed to take much notice, either. 

The unusual campaign exposes something we really don't want to talk about: bullying in the horse world. Launched by Tudor Rose Equine in England, #notonmyyard urges trainers and stable owners to take a stand against harassment by adopting a policy of zero tolerance for bullying of anyone, by anyone.

We all know that bullying exists, we all see it, and we all claim to abhor it. But controlling bullying is like not cleaning your tack because it looks like it’s clean. The dirt and dust and potential mold are there. If you don’t clean it, you may smell an unpleasant odor the next time you want to ride.

Most of the time, we just dismiss bullying, make mental notes of who the mean people are, and move on. We think it will go away. The children will grow out of it. The “barn witch” will move to a new place. We'll never take a lesson with that trainer again, or hire that farrier a second time.

Two stories in the news recently point to a different way of thinking about bullying. But instead of being about weak and helpless victims, the victims are athletes at the zeniths of their careers.

We're all aware of cyberbullying, whether we've seen it on Twitter or Facebook or those horrid mean comments left on YouTube videos and in forums. Anonymity emboldens people. There’s no one for the victim to confront. Welcome to the Internet. 

What is bullying? According to The Pony Club, bullying is defined as "deliberate hurtful behavior by an adult or child, usually repetitive behavior, which may result in pain or distress to the victim. It can take different forms including emotional, physical, racist, verbal, sexual or online bullying". In organizational behavior terms, particularly among adolescents, bullying is termed "relational aggression".

Just ask Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Critics of her subdued award ceremony behavior on television at the Rio 2016 Olympics gave rise to an especially vicious social media hate campaign that targeted Douglas at the moment when she should have been at her highest. 

Last month, Douglas came forward, told her story on national television, and announced that she would work as a spokesperson for a social media campaign called #HackHarassment. She’s standing up for herself, and for everyone who’s been the victim of haters online.

This story might end here except that, a few days after Douglas's story broke, it took an equestrian twist.

On New Year’s Eve, the horse world stopped in its tracks when it read a British newspaper interview with Irish equestrian Susan Oakes. Oakes holds the world record for sidesaddle puissance and triple bar jumping. She, like Gabby Douglas, is at the top of her game, but she has been at the bottom of her self-esteem and even contemplated suicide. 

Bullying advice from

The picture that Oakes paints of equestrian sports is of a world so corrupted by bullying that harassment is compromising participation in sports, or even the decision of some people to own horses or take lessons at all. According to Samantha Thurlow, founder of #notonmyyard, about five people a week come forward to tell their experiences, and how many came to leave equestrianism because of the way they were treated by others. Oakes was one of them.

In Susan Oakes’ case, she was harassed by horse dealers. She said in her interview with The Telegraph, “I went down some roads so dark that I didn’t think there would be a tomorrow. At night, I actually prayed that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning.”

“I have seen people hospitalized for depression caused by stable bullies,” she continued. “This campaign - Not On My Yard - can really make a difference. If people feel protected and empowered to speak up, it will help immensely.”

According to Thurlow and Oakes, people who are bullied change their routines to avoid harassers. They ride at odd hours. They don’t go to certain shows. They might move a horse to a stall at the other end of the stable. They start investing in more padlocks for their tack trunks. They think about where they park their cars. Most alarmingly, they fear for their horses; they lock up medications, feed and supplements, and scrub buckets extra clean. They check their tack straps and stirrup leathers. They start to show up to take their horses out for paddock time themselves. They stop trusting.

They start to wonder if their harassers know where they live.

While most say that their reputations were damaged, or even ruined, by their attackers, it can be much worse than rumors. The ultimate fear for a horse owner is always wondering if your horse is safe and if you can trust the people with access to his stable or paddock. People gave examples of horses that had had their tails or manes cut. Gates that were left open. Trailers that were vandalized.

The campaign has been endorsed by horse world icons like Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks, dressage judge Stephen Clarke, and British showjumper Geoff Billington.

Great Britain doesn’t have a corner on the market for equestrian bullying awareness. Websites in Canada and Australia also focus on equestrian bullying.

In the United States, we have countless examples of harassment, including intimidation of horse show judges and stewards during competition, and even pressure on horse show organizers over the selection of the judges. 

Going horse shopping must have been the origin of the expression “buyer beware”; potential buyers quickly learn that it is more important to know even more about the seller and/or agent, than about the horse itself.

What we don’t have yet is a global campaign to promote what we should take for granted: a culture of fairness and respect for each other. It seems so obvious. It is the picture that all breed and sport associations paint, but who’s working to make sure that it’s a reality for the people who are potential lifelong competitors and owners?

If we lose them, we have lost our future.

Of course, it is easy to say that the world is a less friendly place these days, and that equestrianism simply reflects that. It’s also easy to say that it’s a tough world out there, and both children and adults need to learn to stand up to bullies, face adversity and "get on with their lives". And doesn’t the love they receive from the horse make up for the pain?

When we hear of the equine studies major in Arizona who committed suicide after harsh criticism from instructors, or the farrier apprentice in England who ended his life, we know the answer. When we look at the comments on young riders' YouTube videos, we know the answer. When we see vilification of riders on Facebook, we know the answer.

The answer is to get involved, to stand up, and to be a friend or mentor to someone who may need your support. The answer is for trainers and stable owners to create a culture of helping others and of inclusion, even while teaching competition and improvement of skills. The answer is to intervene on social media when someone is being verbally beaten up. 

Bullying, especially by young girls, is an intense and complex behavior that may not be easily resolved. Some say that drawing attention to it either makes it worse or drives it into secret behavior instead of in the open. But it can be excluded from places where animals live and work, and where the safety of boarders and students and spectators is at risk. Horse activities and even shows can be adjusted to have more team-building activities.

Owning a horse should be a joy that you can share with others. It shouldn’t be about fear or embarrassment or dread or self-loathing. Please do what you can in 2017 to work with organizations and businesses to build awareness of bullying and to promote a more inclusive equestrian landscape where bullying is not tolerated.


To learn more:

Tudor Rose Equine's #NotOnMyYard anti-bullying campaign Facebook page

Gabby Douglas story in the Washington Post

Susan Oakes' world record puissance jumping video

FEI feature on #notonmyyard campaign

World champion horse rider reveals bullying ordeal as intimidation in equestrian sports reaches 'epidemic'

Arizona: Professors' bullying led to daughter's suicide


Also check weblinks to equine-assisted therapy and social work programs that use team-approach exercises, with and without horses, to de-fuse bullying. An interesting document is a teacher education essay, "It's Not Just Girls Being Girls: Relational Aggression at the New Hampshire Equestrian Academy Charter School" by Casey Robinson.



Top photo: Roger H. Goun






Fran Jurga The Jurga Report
by Fran Jurga
Fran Jurga keeps you up-to-date in this blog on news about horse health, care, equine science and research that affects horses. © The Jurga Report. Content cannot be reproduced without permission. View more blogs

Along for the ride: Are horse-drawn city carriages being pulled in different directions?

By Fran Jurga,
January 03, 2017

Wherever you live, you probably aren’t far from a commercial carriage or sleigh ride. Whether you’re skiing in Colorado, touring Manhattan, or viewing the pyramids in Egypt,  a horse and carriage ride may be an option for your tourism dollars.

Are carriages rides quaint or cruel? That used to be the question, but in 2017, you might need to check your GPS before you answer. Events in 2016 showed us how complicated a carriage ride can get, as attorneys, veterinarians, protesters, lawmakers, police, researchers and even street maintenance experts and a United Nations agency brought new ammunition to the battle for and against your decision to go for a carriage ride...or not.

• • • • • 

If you think you’re going to go on a romantic carriage ride with your significant other some night on your next vacation, you’d better be prepared to move over. It could be pretty crowded in the back of that carriage, thanks to all the special interests who want to be sure they know what’s going on.

In 2016, we saw our usual share of news about both accidents involving horse carriages on city streets and protests against their very existence. It’s been going on for years. But also in 2016, we saw the subject broaden out, particularly in the area of city politics. 

The question is no longer whether city officials will bow to the wishes of protesters and ban the carriages; the question is how and if protester concerns and carriage owners rights to make a living can be balanced out so the rides continue, but are safer for the horses.

Let’s begin in a European city that seems to be the world capital of carriages: Vienna, Austria. You might think of this city as being identified with the dancing white stallions of the Spanish Riding School, but for those who have never had the privilege of watching a performance in the ancient riding hall, the symbolism of horses in Vienna is rooted in the “fiakers”, equally-ancient horse-drawn carriages who will trot you around the city center on a tour, or take you to a destination. 

Consider this: you can pull up to Mozart’s grave in a horse and carriage, since the fiakers offer a horse-drawn tour of the cemetery where he is buried. All you need to bring along is your own string quartet.

When the Spanish Riding School was granted protection as a cultural heritage treasure by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015, you can imagine that the less royally-bred carriage and draft horses out on the street might have felt a little snubbed. Given the pressure to end the carriage trade from animal advocate organizations, the fiakers need all the ammunition they can muster to insure their future. So, they have applied to the UN for protection as a cultural icon. 

Such a grant would be as an “intangible asset of culture”, and the fiakers and Lipizzaners wouldn’t be the only horses protected in this way. In Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, UNESCO protects the ancient mounted game of kor-buru. French classical equitation as practiced at the Cadre Noir of Saumur, in France, is also protected, along with the National Horse Breeding Farm in Kladruby, Czech Republic.

Whether their request will be granted is a horse news stories for a future report, but one thing is certain: if the fiakers are protected by UNESCO, other cities’ carriage trades may also qualify, or at least be able to point to Vienna and UNESCO as evidence of legitimacy for the use of horses on city streets.

Critics of the fiakers’ application to UNESCO question whether the agency needs or wants to be associated with questionable horse welfare practices, but horses and donkeys work hard every day at many UNESCO sites worldwide.

In Vienna, the horses face opposition from an unlikely foe that is completely unrelated to animal advocacy. The city road maintenance department estimates that it would cost 700,000 euros (about US$728,000) to repair the streets that have become pitted from the carriage horses’ studded shoes. The city mandated a test of non-abrasive plastic shoes in 2007, but the drivers didn’t like them and went back to steel shoes with the offensive tungsten studs, which may help prevent the horses from slipping but which dig expensive trench-like furrows on the surface of streets.

New York

While Vienna’s horses are certainly making the news, and stimulating conversations worldwide about the role of carriage horses in a city’s culture, other cities are facing more politically-potent problems. The 2013 election promise made by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to rid Central Park and mid-town Manhattan of its carriage rides is legendary. Almost four years later, the horses are still there and the brouhaha over their right to be there has, as with the fiakers, elevated the discussion of carriage rides to the realm of politics, rather than what animals should be doing in service to humans and in the face of danger.

The mayor earned 73 percent of the votes in the election, yet 61 percent of New Yorkers said in a poll that they wanted to see the horses stay in the city. He quickly found himself up against both public sentiment and some powerful interests who came to the defense of the horses and their drivers, such as the Teamsters Union, which was originally founded as the union of horse freight drivers.

The New York horses were back in the news last week when three leaders of NYCLASS, an anti-carriage political action committee that was a high profile donor to de Blasio in his election. Celebrations by the carriage trade may be short-lived, as the NYCLASS resignation press release includes a promise that the three are working on “new endeavors for animal rights”. 

The success of NYCLASS--and its deep pockets--in helping get de Blasio elected has opened the door for other political advocacy groups in other cities with animal-friendly agendas. Animals have legitimate clout on election day now.

Kansas City

When a carriage horse bolted in Kansas City, Missouri last month, it made the news. The horse, its driver and two passengers were injured when the runaway horse's fearful flight was finally stopped in a collision. Within days, anti-carriage campaigners collected 15,000 signatures on a petition, insisting that carriage rides be stopped in the city. At the same time, a petition was launched to save the carriage horses. Kansas City has been the scene of 40 carriage horse accidents since 2014, according to a news story in the Kansas City Star.

St. Charles

Also last month, a frightened carriage horse in St. Charles, Missouri bolted himself and his carriage right into the nearby icy Missouri River, where he drowned, still attached to the carriage. Rescuers were unable to save him.

PETA was quick to respond to the unusual drowning death and is encouraging people to work to ban carriage rides in their cities and towns. According to PETA, carriage rides have been banned in these US cities:  Biloxi, Mississippi; Camden, New Jersey; Key West, Palm Beach, Pompano Beach, and Treasure Island, Florida; and Salt Lake City, Utah. 

“Watch out, New York City! You’re next” PETA promises on its website.


If you visit the city of Charleston, South Carolina, you can’t miss the horse and mule carriages. They are almost a “must do” activity for tourists. But behind the scenes, Charleston is a city that has worked hard to make things fair to the horses, while also pacifying animal advocates’ concerns wherever possible. 

While traffic safety may be the main concern in some cities, hot weather is the concern in Charleston. This month, the city will vote on new regulations that will withdraw the animals from city streets when the mercury climbs above 95 degrees, down three degrees from the old limit of 98. The city also measures the heat index, or “feels like” temperature, placing the limit for horses at 110 F, down from 125.

In Charleston, horses and meteorology are subjects that often overlap. Veterinarians and animal advocates also worked on the new regulations. Critics complain that the new regulations are based on information that was not researched using working carriage horses. They have suggested that new research studies be launched so working horses’ unique needs can be studied and met. The research was based on meteorological data for the city over a four-year period, in exactly the conditions experienced by the horses.

Charleston’s carriage horses and mules were the subject of a research paper published in Elsevier's Journal of Equine Veterinary Science in 2014. “Retrospective Review of Carriage Horse & Mule Welfare in Charleston, South Carolina (2009-2012)” by the University of Vienna’s Dr. Julie Rosser is one of the few studies on commercial carriage horses in the United States.

The Charleston Animal Society (CAS) is also worried about maximum load limits for the large tour carriages, and about traffic congestion along the routes that the horses and mules travel.



The caleche horses of Montreal are popular, and the city is reminiscent of Vienna in its old world charm that makes riding in a carriage seem like a quick immersion into a PBS Masterpiece filmset.

But Montreal is also a very modern city, and many people feel the horses are incongruous. To work on the problem, the mayor announced a one-year moratorium on carriages in the city last year. The drivers would lose their jobs. And what would become of the horses who could no longer earn their keep?

The moratorium lasted exactly two days, and the horses were back on the streets under a judge’s court order. But the news had already traveled around the world: a major North American city had banned horse carriages.

The reversal of the order was not so widely publicized.

This story took on another dimension in December. In one of the most dramatic pro-carriage news stories of the past decade, the city government in Montreal did an about-face and voted to appropriate $500,000--or the equivalent of $20,000 per horse in the city--to upgrade the service. The money won’t go directly to carriage owners but will be used to improve the infrastructure and make the industry more established. The city would also pay to microchip the horses, build shelters for the horses and potentially invest in a citywide uniform code for drivers.

"The first priority is to respect the horses and make sure they are in conditions that are decent," the mayor said.

The city may not intend the funding to be interpreted “pro-carriage”. It is more like "pro-solution". Like every other city where carriages on the streets, there are no easy answers and almost no possibility that either side is going to back down.

However you look at it, the situation is not where it was ten years ago, or even five years ago. It’s no longer protesters and carriage drivers shouting at each other. Each side is armed with consultants, researchers and attorneys...and maybe even a politician, meteorologist and pavement expert or two.

That’s a heavy load for a horse to pull down any street in any city. You have to wonder where it is headed next.



Fran Jurga The Jurga Report
by Fran Jurga
Fran Jurga keeps you up-to-date in this blog on news about horse health, care, equine science and research that affects horses. © The Jurga Report. Content cannot be reproduced without permission. View more blogs

Whither the “Wild” Horses of Louisiana?

By Fran Jurga,
December 19, 2016

Herds of wild (more properly called “feral”) horses roam the United States under many jurisdictions, and they're not always welcomed with open arms. One of the most unusual--and contentious--flareups has been the fight over the fate of a herd in Louisiana that chooses to range the US military base at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The US Army wants the trespassers to leave. The horses' defenders want the Army to keep their hands off them. The next range they’ll roam will be the US court  system, as advocates sue to protect the rights of the wild horses most of us never even knew were there.

An advocacy group called the Pegasus Equine Guardian Association (PEGA) is rounding up support for its day in court with the US Army at Louisiana's Fort Polk. The struggle between advocates and the military goes back to the first roundups in the 1990s. At that time, state officials were accused of pressuring federal interests to the horses off their land. 

When they stand before the judge, the advocates will have legal assistance from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), a group that prestigious Tulane University describes as “Louisiana’s premier public interest environmental legal services organization”.  In the meantime, the first group of 50 rounded-up Fort Polk horses has been transported to the Humane Society of North Texas, where they will be put up for adoption.

The formal legal action was filed on December 14, 2016, on behalf of those who believe the horses should stay--and have every right to do so. The legal defense is built on the implied protection of the horses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). PEGA claims a historic standing for these horses, based on the existence of feral horses in this part of the state dating back to the days before Louisiana became a state in 1812. Early settlers in the area mentioned the feral horses. A genetic cross-populating of Native American and Spanish Colonial horses is believed to be at the root of the herd’s ancestry; the lawsuit claims that these horses are “a critical component of the cultural history in Western Louisiana”. In the years just before World War II, the land at question--feral horses and all--was appropriated as a military base and became known as Fort Polk.

In the latest attempt to oust the equines, the US Army called for public comment on the possible removal of the horses. In May of this year, according to the lawsuit, the military issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (“FONSI”) regarding removal of the horses. As a result of the FONSI, the military declared that an Environmental Impact Statement would not be necessary, and the horses could be collected by base personnel in groups of 10 to 30 horses at a time. Outside agencies would have a short window of time to claim these horses for adoption, with any leftover animals being sold to a bottom tier of contacts for public sale.

The suit names the  U.S. Army, Brigadier General Gary M. Brito (in his official capacity as Commanding General), the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), and Fort Polk itself as defendants. 

The military has been rounding up and removing horses from the base since at least 1993, according to a timeline for the herd. Back in 2002, the TELC was instrumental in gaining a court order that stopped a planned roundup on Fort Polk until the Army could develop a management plan. As a result, in 2010, the Army decided  to attempt sterilization of the horses, to return them to Army land, and to allow them “to roam free” rather than to remove them. That lawsuit named the Army, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service as co-defendants.

Fast forward five years, and they’re headed back to court again.

At the heart of the matter is whether the horses are indeed “trespassing” or if they have a right to be there. Are horses truly at risk, as the Army claims, when the military undertakes night training on the base? Or, should the military plan to work around the horses as long as they decide to stay? Are they part of the environment or an impediment to military operations?

It may be up to a judge who has never seen the horses or the land or the military base to decide.

No two herds alike

While most publicity is given to feral herds that roam on tracts of federal land administered by the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the fate of our feral horses is actually decided under a tapestry of jurisdictions, some of which may or may not have official policies on how to handle the horses that live on their land, or that may wander onto it.
The National Park Service makes decisions about the horses roaming in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over feral horses on the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in such strikingly different places as the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. Some feral herds fall under managed by state wildlife or coastal management departments. On the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico, wild horses roam the abandoned U.S. military base, but are being helped this winter with a contraception program from the Humane Society of the United States, at the request of the local mayor.

But how many are facing decisions made by the Pentagon? Possibly, only one.

In the more conventional jurisdictions, federal agencies work on management plans to monitor the growth or attrition of herds and to gauge the effects that the horses have on other species and on the ecosystem. Horses are longtime residents on these lands, but their status has changed over the years, and thanks to public pressure, for some. 

In most cases, government policies contend that feral horses are a non-native, or even invasive, species, since horses were re-introduced to North America in colonial times. Advocates believe that they deserve protection as a legitimately re-introduced species--and that if horses are not native, then cattle certainly have no more rights to graze on the land than they do.

Pubic pressure is not always a positive force for the future of horses, since influence can be felt from agricultural, mining, hunting or recreation lobbyists who want more access to more land for their sponsors, and who have plenty of bargain powering at the state levels, as well as in Washington. Horses are not their priority. 

Feral horses don't have lobbyists. Their route to salvation is through direct public pressure, of the "write to your congressional representative today!" type.

The problem for feral horses is one of public relations. Their future is often not an issue until they or their habitats are threatened, triggering publicity campaigns by advocates to build public support and legal funding on behalf of the horses. Sometimes advocates have small volunteer-only organizations with limited resources and political access. These campaigns may be based as much on emotion as on facts, since there may be little time to educate the public on the history and ecology of a group of feral horses in a remote location, and because horses--especially the idealized concept of “wild” horses--appeal to many people as a part of nature that should be protected and even revered.

In the case of the horses at Fort Polk, a precedent may be set for other feral horses who migrate onto public or military land, or for how the government may proceed when appropriating or acquiring land that is home to feral horses. It might be the biggest decision yet about a herd of horses no one ever heard of, until today.

How many more are out there?

Read the text of the lawsuit here:

Fran Jurga The Jurga Report
by Fran Jurga
Fran Jurga keeps you up-to-date in this blog on news about horse health, care, equine science and research that affects horses. © The Jurga Report. Content cannot be reproduced without permission. View more blogs

Research: Horses exhibit their cognitive skills by asking humans for help with a problem

By Fran Jurga,
December 15, 2016

Is your horse trying to communicate with you? Japanese researchers went out into the field (literally) to observe how horses communicate to humans that they have a problem they'd like solved. Other animals might not exhibit this ability; the ability for some level of two-way communication may be a cornerstone of the horse-human bond. (Sara E. Carter photo)

Has your horse asked you for a favor lately? Scientists in Japan tested horse behavior to document that our equine friends are capable of and often do initiate requests for human assistance when they need a problem solved. The horse that knows its feeding time (and announces it with a banging hoof of the stall wall) is a simple communication, as is trying to extract that mint from deep in your parka pocket.

While it seems obvious that horses are very good communicators with their caretakers, the researchers remind us that this type of horse behavior is not well documented. Their experiments went further, and set up horses to need a human's help to get what they wanted. Would they ask for it with cues or just exhibit frustration? 

Apparently a horse doesn't need to Mr. Ed to get its message across.

The study also suggested that horses alter their communicative behavior based on humans’ knowledge of the situation, and that they do use visual and tactile signals to communicate their need. Kobe University shared a summary of the research, which was published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Animal Cognition

Research Fellow Monamie Ringhofer and Associate Professor Shinya Yamamoto of the Kobe University Graduate School of Intercultural Studies published the evidence about horses' communication with humans.

Communicating with other individuals in order to get information about foraging sites and predators is a valuable survival skill in the wild. Chimpanzees, who are evolutionarily close to humans, are especially skilled at understanding others. Studies suggest that chimpanzees distinguish the attentional states of other individuals (seeing or not seeing), and they are also able to understand others’ knowledge states (knowing or not knowing). 

Some domestic animals are also very good at communicating with humans – recent studies of dogs have revealed that they are excellent at understanding various human gestures and expressions. It is thought that these abilities were influenced by the domestication process.

Since they were domesticated 6000 years ago, horses have contributed to human society in various shapes and forms, from transport to companionship. Horse-riding has recently drawn attention for its positive effects on our physical and mental health. 

The researchers suggest that the high social cognitive skills of horses towards humans might partially explain why humans and horses have a collaborative relationship today. However, the scientific evidence for this ability is still scarce.

The researchers documented eye movement and body actions. In photo A (above), the horse lightly pushes. In photo B (below), the horse looks at the caretaker standing outside the paddock. Food is hidden inside one of the two silver buckets behind them. When horses cannot obtain this food by themselves, they give humans visual and tactile signals. The horses used different signals based on whether they knew the human was aware of the location of the food they desired. You might expect the horse to stay near the food (in the silver buckets) but instead the horse moves to the human to get the problem solved.

In this study, scientists investigated horses' behavior in a problem-solving situation where food was hidden in a place accessible only to humans. The experiment was carried out in a paddock belonging to the equestrian club at Kobe University, where eight horses from the club participated with the cooperation of their student caretakers.

For the first experiment, an assistant experimenter hid food (carrots) in a bucket that the horse could not reach. The researchers observed whether and how the horse sent signals to the caretaker when the caretaker (unaware of the situation) arrived. The horse stayed near the caretaker and looked at, touched and pushed the caretaker. 

These behaviors occurred over a significantly longer period compared to cases when they carried out the experiment without hiding the food. The results showed that when horses cannot solve problems by themselves, they send signals to humans both visually (looking) and physically (touching and pushing).

Building on these results, a second experiment tested whether the horses’ behavior would change based on the caretakers’ knowledge of the hidden food. If the caretaker hadn’t watched the food being hidden, the horses gave more signals, demonstrating that horses can change their behavior in response to the knowledge levels of humans.

These two experiments revealed some behaviors used by horses to communicate demands to humans. The results also suggest that horses possess high cognitive skills that enable them to flexibly alter their behavior towards humans according to humans’ knowledge state. 

This high social cognitive ability may have been acquired during the domestication process. In order to identify the characteristic that enables horses to form close bonds with humans, the team is planning research studies to compare communication between horses, as well as looking more closely at the social cognitive ability of horses in their communication with humans.

By deepening our understanding of the cognitive abilities held by species who have close relationships with humans, and making comparisons with the cognitive abilities of species such as primates who are evolutionarily close to humans, we can investigate the development of unique communication traits in domesticated animals. This is connected to the influence of domestication on the cognitive ability of animals, and can potentially provide valuable information for realizing stronger bonds between humans and animals.

The next time your horse gives you a nudge (or even a shove), remember that it is important to teach horses to have good manners, but your horse is really just showing off its higher cognitive skills to get your attention...and what it wants.

To find this article online:

Domestic horses send signals to humans when they face with an unsolvable task.
Ringhofer M, Yamamoto S
Animal cognition, 2016 Nov 24 (Epub ahead of print)
doi: 10.1007/s10071-016-1056-4



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