EMINENCE, Mo. -- From his pickup on a rise above the Current River, Bill Smith scanned the wild horses grazing below to see if all were members in good standing.
That's not always the case these days with Missouri's only wild horse herd, which descends from animals set free in the Great Depression by farmers who couldn't afford to feed them.
Because it's happening again in the Great Recession. Strapped owners are dumping horses in what is now the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, apparently thinking they will be warmly received by the wild bunch that runs the thousands of public acres along the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.
"Don't work that way," said Smith, part of a group called the Missouri Wild Horse League that keeps an eye on the local herd.
Stallions will run off, even rise up and fight the old pets and saddle horses, he said. Wild horses have to forage for food, know how to dig through snow to find grass and acorns. Coyotes will prey on colts and old horses. There are even a few cougars around.
In other words, being wild ain't easy. No oats, no shoes, no roof, no pats on the nose.
Not long ago, a would-be rescuer literally lifted the front hooves of a dumped gelding and two mares to get the weakened, starving horses into a trailer. They all died. Another abandoned animal got hit by a truck.
In recent months, Jim Smith, Bill's second cousin, helped pull out at least 25 dumped horses from the Shawnee fields east of Eminence.
"Two of them had brands from a ranch in Utah," Jim Smith said this week. "I called out there. They said they were adopted by somebody in Missouri. Don't know how they ended up here."
The Wild Horse League, which foiled the National Parks Service's efforts to remove the animals in the mid-1990s, tries to find the orphaned horses and adopt them out. But lately there have been too many.
"They don't know how to forage," said Carolyn Dyer, the league's secretary who also runs a large trail riding operation. "In the summer they can eat grass, but this time of year they don't know to paw through snow and leaves to find acorns. They will literally starve to death.
"I know why people think they can't keep them. But they don't belong out here."
Bill Smith is 75, a retired iron worker. He started riding these wooded, rocky trails back when he would climb up behind his daddy so he knows horses and doesn't need long to spot one that's not supposed to be in the wild herd.
Good thing, because the wildlings he came across on the recent day didn't stick around long.
Always wary, the lead mare took off and the others kicked dirt to follow. The bunch galloped across the clearing, tore through the trees and splashed into the cold water of the Current River before clamoring up the far bank and hightailing out of sight.
No posers in this crowd. Wild horses, all.
Some horse people say the lame economy may not be the only culprit with what's going on in Eminence. They point to a federal appropriations bill in 2006 that closed every horse slaughterhouse in the country.
People no longer have an outlet for old and sick horses, they complain.
Mindy Patterson, board vice president of the Missouri Equine Council, recognizes that hard times can lead people to make unwise decisions. But she also blames the 2006 decision by Congress -- after intense lobbying by the national Humane Society -- to halt funding of meat inspectors for horse slaughter operations.
In effect, the result was a backdoor ban on horse slaughter because meat can't be sold without a USDA stamp of approval.
But Patterson says the ban's effect has been the opposite of what the Humane Society says it wanted.
"Many old and sick horses are dying terrible deaths because the owners don't have anyplace to take them," Patterson said. "Some people can't afford to hire a vet to come out and put a horse down. If they can, then they've got a dead horse so they have to hire a backhoe to dig a hole. All that gets expensive.
"This is going on all over the country."
In November, Congress restored money for the inspections, but some people doubt a slaughter operation will start up because the funding could go away in next year's appropriations debate. And the Humane Society has pledged an all-out push to make that happen. Simply put, it doesn't think horses should be raised for meat in America.
Society officials say the "horse slaughter proponents" twist the truth when they say most horses going to slaughter were old and sick. They cite a USDA study that says of more than a thousand horses that arrived at two slaughter plants in Texas, 92 percent were "in good shape."
The study did not address age.
Of the country's 9 to 10 million horses, about 700,000 die each year, according to Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle. But only 130,000 were being shipped to slaughter.
That means most owners were acting responsibly, Pacelle said.
Slaughter opponents say horses were being raised for export meat to Europe and Asia. Some American horses are now being sent to Mexico for processing.
"The predatory horse slaughter industry has cash signs in its eyes, and it is unrestrained by any compassion for these creatures," Pacelle said. "Its profiteers treat horses like commodities on the hoof."
As for owners of old and sick horses, the society says that if people are going to own a horse, they need to be responsible for its care, to the very end.
Folks in Eminence just know a lot of horses are showing up that don't belong. The Wild Horse League has never had a problem adopting out wild ones when the herd exceeds its maximum of 50. People want them.
Dumped ones -- not so much. They have little value. The league works with 4-H clubs and Boy Scouts troops to take a few, but some have to be left in the wild.
They are run off at first, but if they're strong enough they keep coming back to the herd.
"You want one -- go get it," league president Allen Akers said recently. "People can't take the wild ones, but the dumped horses are free for the taking."
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