With local partners, the Humane Society of the United States is heading to the remote Supai Village in Arizona to help treat the reported abused horses and educate owners on equine welfare.
The Havasupai tribe has been under public scrutiny for its horsemanship practices for the past year: in early April of 2016, Horse Nation reported that tourists had been sharing stories of horrific horse abuse at Havasu Falls at the hands of local tribesmen who made a living by packing tourists and their gear up and down the canyon. One of the most beautiful locations in the Southwest, Havasu Falls is also one of the most remote, and is one of the last places in this country that is only accessible by foot or horse (some also choose to helicopter their gear in and out of the canyon).
Reportedly, the horses are overpacked and undernourished, suffer from saddle sores due to ill-fitting and unbalanced packs, are often lame or injured and are made to hustle as quickly as possible up and down a steep eight-mile rugged trail. While staged at the top of the canyon at Hualapai Hilltop to pick up loads, the horses are often in direct sunlight with no access to feed or water. Horrific accounts describe horses being beaten to move faster, with injured or ill horses abandoned right on the trail.
The reported abuses have been taking place for decades, but it was only in April of last year that a concerted effort was made by Susan Ash and the Stop Animal Violence or SAVE Foundation to raise public awareness and put pressure on the Havasupai tribe to crack down on abuse and improve conditions for the working horses of Havasu Falls. Organizations and individuals do and have been volunteering their time to treat injured animals and aid the horse owners of Supai Village, and were reluctant to speak out against what they may have seen — as the canyon is sovereign territory, the Havasupai can choose at any point to bar access completely.
The efforts of such aid trips is certainly a critical need for injured or ill horses, but unfortunately does little to create long-term positive change. However, the Humane Society of the United States has recently announced a project with the Havasupai, in partnership with local organizations and individuals, that should seeks to create permanent, positive change. We spoke with HSUS Arizona State Director Kellye Pinkleton for details.
“We’ve been working on this project for over a year,” Pinkleton explains. “There were many moving parts that needed to come together and we did not want to go public with this until we had gained the tribe’s trust. There was obviously a lot of public pressure on the tribe and it took us until the fall of 2016 to actually be able to meet with the tribal council.”
What’s different about this program is the coalition of organizations coming together to make it happen: the HSUS is spearheading the efforts, but it’s a true cooperation between the Havasupai tribe, local rescues incuding Healing Hearts Rescue and Equine Voices Rescue, both part of the Arizona Coalition for Equines, and the outdoor companies who rely on the Havasupai for their packing services in and out of Havasu Falls.
“We’re taking out first trip into Supai Village this month,” Pinkleton states. “It will be a four day trip; we’re going with a veterinarian from a local equine practice and an assistant, an equine dentist and a farrier. We’ll be doing a lot of basic care for this first trip, and we’ll be coming back with a lot more information and experience to help plan for future efforts. We’d like to continue to provide regular care — quarterly, if possible.”
In addition to providing basic care, this first trip will also be critical to set the stage for the future: “We want to identify individuals within the village with a passion for the work that we can train and teach to be able to continue the work without us,” Pinkleton describes. “That’s part of the long-term vision for this project, and one of the ways we’re going to be able to create real change.”
It’s not as easy as donating hay and supplies, Pinkleton cautions. “I had to go see the village and the setting to understand how truly unique of a project this is going to be, and the logistics of getting everything to this location. It’s a unique opportunity for vets to do remote work, but it’s not a place where a vet could be set up full time. There are a lot of challenges given the setting of the village.”
One of the most commonly-held beliefs about the Havasupai horses is that the abuse is widespread and systematic, rather than isolated. Pinkleton doesn’t necessarily agree: “I think the lack of resources at the location is a big issue — it’s not necessarily an animal control issue. I believe more of the problems we’re seeing are due to neglect and ignorance rather than intentional cruelty. The tribe sent an animal control officer to a previous training we held at the county level, which is encouraging that they are trying to create change themselves.”
“Tribal support is needed to make changes, and what we’ve found in our conversations with the tribe is that there truly is a lot of willingness to change for the better. We’re not trying to tell the tribe they can’t use their horses any more — we’re just trying to improve the quality of life for the animals and help create long-lasting change.
“I think energy will build around this as we move forward.”
Meanwhile, Ash and the SAVE Foundation plan to continue their work. “It’s imperative we keep the pressure on,” Ash states. “These are not isolated incidents. How many ‘isolated incidents’ need to occur before the tribe admits it has systematic abuse? We have to keep the public pressure on or there will be no change at all.”
Kellye Pinkleton and the coalition team will be back after May 21st and we look forward to the HSUS report. Until then, you can make a direct donation to the Havasupai Horses project by visiting the Arizona Coalition for Equines donation page and selecting “Havasupai Horses Fund.”
More information about the SAVE Foundation can be found at the organization’s Facebook page.