Wild Horse Cash Cow?

By Cynthia Kennedy & Patrick Kennedy

Virginia City News

Reporter Finds Horse Auction To Be Eye-Opening Experience

Father, mother and baby Cremellos with bay and buckskin herdmate at the Nevada Livestock Marketing Yard in Fallon on Jan. 9. Photo by Patrick Kennedy

Father, mother and baby Cremellos with bay and buckskin herdmate at the Nevada Livestock Marketing Yard in Fallon on Jan. 9. Photo by Patrick Kennedy

My editor asked me to report on the latest auction of Virginia Range wild horses, at the Nevada Livestock Marketing yard in Fallon.

These are estray horses, not on BLM land and not subject to federal protection, trapped by the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) and considered property of the state.

There had been reports of “shilling” at these recent auctions, and Karen wanted to know if these claims were true.

Everyone should have the opportunity to visit a livestock sale once in their lives. It’s another link in the food chain, as most of the beef, pork and lamb you eat is sold under the gavel.

Nevada Livestock Marketing is located in the middle of Fallon, just south of Highway 50. The first impression you have when you step on the property is the smell.

I’ve been around plenty of cutting horse events and rodeos, and have owned horses most of my life, but this was that smell multiplied by a thousand.

The auction is in a cinder block building and behind it are dozens of pens, linked by alleys, and two wooden catwalks 20 feet above, from where you can survey all the pens. We saw that the wild horses were in corrals on the east side, but the alley to them was blocked by chained gates, so we walked up onto the catwalk, that was still a considerable distance from the horses.

After walking the length of the catwalk, we realized we could step down at the other end and walk up the alley and see the horses. So we did.

There were 41 estrays in the auction, located in several adjacent pens, and they appeared to be comfortable in their surroundings, eating hay from bunkers.

Recently gelded stallions sparred through the fences, but it seemed more play than animosity. Patrick quietly took some photos. We’d been warned in advance by others that photography might not be allowed, but the photos we were taking could never be considered incriminating.

Before they’d been hauled to auction, the males had been gelded, and each horse had been micro-chipped, had a square block of hair shaved from its rump and a large, crude “N” freeze-branded there. None seemed the worse for wear.

As we neared the end of the alley, a cowboy on horseback from afar yelled, “Hey, I’m going to run cows down that alley! You get outta there or I’m gonna call the sheriff!”

We’d gotten our photos, so we responded, “Sure! We’re leaving right now!” and we retraced our steps back up to the catwalk. As we made our way down the rickety boards, stopping to chat with other groups of people who were looking at the stock, three deputies from the Churchill County Sheriff’s Office approached us.

“There’s been a report of people jumping over the fence into the horse pens.” Deputy Lewallen stated. “We’ve been here for 40 minutes Deputy, and haven’t seen anyone in the pens.” I replied. “Well, they’re trying to run cattle, and they say people have been in the alley.” I motioned to the deputy to look down over the railing at two small calves, laying in the straw way below us. “See those two calves? Those are the cattle they’ve been running in that alley, and the horses are over in that far alley.” Lewallen smiled, and we were ready to walk on. “I’ll need to see your IDs.” Now this was getting ridiculous, but Patrick and I gave our IDs, Lewallen ran a search on both of us with his phone, and then we were allowed to go on our way. He and his deputies had been polite and pleasant the entire time, but was this really necessary? After all, this was a public auction of “state property.”

Unfortunately, we’d gotten our timing wrong, and had to wait more than three hours for the horses to go on the block.

During that time, I saw dozens of cows, bulls, steers and calves run through the half-moon shaped pen, that was also a scale, and sold by the pound.

The process was quick, and there were about 30 people in the small indoor amphitheater bidding and watching. I wondered how the wild horses would react to the shaky metal floor, slamming doors, and the odd enclosure into which they’d be driven and separated from their herd. An auction yard has no place for natural horsemanship.

Finally, the bovines were all sold. The bidding ranchers in their crisp, starched Wranglers and Stetson hats left the building. Several cowboys were in the stands, mostly canner bidders. There were also some “grade” domestic horses in the sale.

These horses are victims of the poor economy, high hay prices, and the fact that few little girls long for horses as they did in decades past.

A nice quarter horse or Arabian that would have sold for $1,000 10 years ago, goes for around a hundred. People bidding on these horses have no concern for how well they’re trained, or if they have a friendly personality. Their only interest is in their weight. Now, that horse will sell for around $100, get loaded on a truck with 26 others, and make the long haul to a slaughter house in Canada or Mexico, with no stop to relieve themselves outside of the trailer, or even a drink of water. This is the fate of the free horses that you see on Craigs List every day. Most of them end up at an auction yard.

But this is the sixth auction of estray horses trapped by the NDA since September, attended by the wild horse advocates. It’s easy to pick them out in the crowd: middle-aged women, sitting in groups.

One of them is Shannon Windle of Hidden Valley Wild Horse Protection Fund. Another is Anna Orchard, who lives at the foot of Toll Road. She’s there to buy some of the horses in the Bay Bunch, most of whom have been seen roaming in the foothills, and in the subdivision on Equestrian Road

Orchard comes from a ranching family, “I’ve bought horses in the past from the state prison sale and at the Wild Horse & Burro Expo. For these horses, I’m going to gentle and saddle train them, and then send them up to my family in Canada who will use them as ranch horses. They’re wonderful.”

But how do you bid on a horse when you aren’t even allowed to get near it to evaluate it? Nevada Livestock Marketing does not allow bidders near the horses in advance of the auction, and it’s true that one can’t even take a photo or video. When he pulled out his camera to take photos during the auction, Patrick was sternly reminded of that by owner, Jack Payne. It was all the horse advocates could do, to try to match up the hip numbers with the horses’ brief descriptions on the sale sheet during the auction.

Windle had told me that at past auctions, she’d not even been allowed up on the catwalk nearest the wild horse pens. She’d take the list of sale horses and her binoculars and go up on the far catwalk, and try to match descriptions and hip numbers. Every time, a cowboy down below would yell, “Camera!” and the catwalk would clatter with the running boots of a yard employee bent on stopping her “photography,” only to realize she had binoculars.

The grade horses were first on the block and sold by the pound. An 1100 pound horse sold for around $100. Then the wild horses were prodded through the door. Often, they slipped on the slick metal floor strewn with sawdust, and feces, and had to be chowsed to get up and go on. Neighs rang out as herdmates were separated from one another. At one point, a mare was sold, and several lots later, her nursing foal came through, whinnying frantically for his mother.

“That foal should have NEVER been separated from its mother! You need to stop bidding on that foal and just put it with its mother,” Tam Resovich of the Starlight Sanctuary commanded. Looks were exchanged between Jack Payne and the auctioneer. The usual practice at sale yards is to never separate a nursing animal from its mother. They gave in to Resovich’s request.

But while this would seem to reflect a degree of fairness, what was happening once the wild horses came across the block was decidedly unfair. The estrays that averaged in weight at around 700 pounds. were selling for around $300! Over twice the amount of the much larger grade horses. This was only due to the fact that sale yard owner, Jack Payne, was sitting in a front-row seat bidding on every lot.

Toe-to-toe he went with Shannon Windle, who had bidder numbers from Hidden Valley, as well as several other advocacy groups. Horses from Stagecoach, Fernley, Rhodes Road, and   the Toll Road area went through. But why would Payne bid so much for these horses that were worth far less than the grade horses? He seemed bent to drive the prices paid by Windle, Orchard and the others as high possible.

In two instances (of 41), he did buy horses. Windle dropped out. Later on in the office when bidders were settling their accounts, she asked Payne if she could buy the two horses he’d bought. “Sure, you can pay what I did.” Windle spent $7,720 at the sale that day, and not one wild horse went to slaughter. The horses she did not buy were bought by Orchard and other advocates.

This sale left more questions than answers. I’ve been to many auctions in my lifetime, and never have I bid against the auction house owner in the stands. I know about absentee and phone bidders, but this seemed nothing like those scenarios.

My notes on the auction consisted of hastily scribbled weights and sale prices. If Patrick hadn’t been helping me find the lots on the sheet as they came through, completely out of order, I’d have lost count.

Each horse was in the ring for less than a minute, and the next lot was pushed through before the prior was even bought.

What if a Fandango Pass herd had been sold tonight? It was bad enough seeing these confused animals’ fate hanging by a thread between a sad ending, and the efforts of some good-hearted people. I really don’t think I could have borne it, to see wild horses I personally know go through an auction like this.

Many of the bidders were actually experiencing that conflict and as a result made winning bids.

Is Bidding by the Auction Yard Legal?

To get this answer, I called another livestock auction yard. The owner asked that he remain anonymous, but he angrily complained that Nevada Livestock uses photos of his operation to represent theirs.

He was very proud of his clean yard and pipe pens and catwalks, that starkly contrasted with Nevada Livestock’s. He said that “their yard is a wreck, and we do not bid against bidders at sales here. It’s just not ethical.”

At his sales, “You can look at horses in pens until 20 minutes before the sale. We ask on the PA for people to leave so no one gets hurt. But, we don’t allow photos as the animals could spook and cause problems. If there was an insurance claim, photos could be used against us.”

For another opinion, I called Greg Williams of Lightning Auctions in Sparks. I knew that Greg was formerly a large animal veterinarian, and he would have an informed, unbiased opinion about the question.

“If I bid against my bidders, no one would come to my sales.” he answered. “I had a sale for some 4-H kids who had adopted and trained five wild horses. They were selling them as a project. I could not even get the opening bid of $125 for any of them! I finally bought them all, and gave them back to the kids, as there was no one else who wanted them.”

I told Greg about the wild horses selling in the sale for around $300, and Jack Payne driving up their price. He could not understand why anyone would do that.

To find out why Jack Payne was bidding against his customers, I decided I had to ask him personally. It was a bitter, cold day, and Jack was out working in the yard. I could hear the sounds of the cattle in the background of his phone. I told him I was appreciative that he would talk to me when he was in the middle of work.

“Why did the state choose your facility?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long are the horses in the yard before they’re sold?”

“They come in the night before.”

“How do you feel about the sales?”

“It’s just another commission to me, but they’ve caused a lot of controversy. I feel that if these wild horse people wanted to do good, they’d use the money for orphanages, feed hungry children. These aren’t wild horses, they’re feral. I’m bidding on them just to prove a point, and I’m donating my commissions to charity.”

He went on and talked about how he won’t allow photos or video because, “They’ll use it against you.” But, he did say one could take photos when the horses were coming in, and under the yard’s supervision. I asked him if there was something he’d like to say to the advocates. “Well, the State Brand Inspector, Blaine Northrup, was talking to one of them about the car wrecks they’ve caused, and how a child could have been killed, and they answered that they cared more about the horses than little children! They just don’t care!

“At the first auction they cussed at me, but by the second, they cleaned up their act.”

I then asked him why he was bidding on these horses?

“I have to have competitive bidding. Every sale barn I know, has owners who bid. Price is established by what two people will pay for something. At the first auction, they paid considerably more, and I’ve slacked up on them.”

I also wondered about a buyer’s commission. There is none, and the NDA pays a 5 percent seller’s commission on every lot.

I put in a call to the USDA Packers & Stockyards Administration office in Aurora, Colo., to find out if any regulations were being violated.

There is a “Prompt Payment” regulation that requires that any lot must be paid for by the close of the following business day.

What would Payne do if he was stuck with a wild horse he’d bid $200 for, but was worth only $75 to the canners? That predicament hasn’t happened, as all the lots he’s purchased, even at inflated prices, have been bought by the advocates when settling up after the auctions.

Next on my list was James Barbee, Director of the NDA. He wasn’t in, and his answering machine said he wouldn’t be back for over a week. I left a message.

Next, I called the NDA office in Elko, and they directed me to Ed Foster, their spokesman. He was not in his office, and I left a message. No one returned my calls.

Next, I turned to Shannon Windle, to see if she could answer my management questions. She told me that the estray horses are rounded up and transported to the prison in Carson City. There, they’re held for branding, micro-chipping and gelding. Any male horse a year old or older is gelded, but they’ve been known to geld foals 8-10 months old. There’s no set time for how long they’re there. They run legal advertisements in newspapers in the county seat where the horses were picked up, but all ads also run in the “Nevada Appeal.” People who might own any of the horses have five days after the ad runs to claim their horses. After that, the horses are taken to the next sale.

What About the Horses of the VC Highlands and Virginia City?

I asked Bob Maccario, of the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association, to comment about all of this.

He said, “The horses on the Virginia Range are under NDA control, unless they leave the Virginia Range; then they are under BLM control.We cannot do anything like birth control without their authorization. Bottom line is NDA doesn’t want the horses, doesn’t have the resources to deal with them, but tells us, under current NDA policy they cannot enter into any cooperative agreements with any of the groups so we can help. The Director of NDA has very specifically told me, ‘You have no authority to do anything as an individual or as a group (VRWPA).’ and he is correct. As a 501c nonprofit, we will always follow the laws. But we do have the authority of public opinion, and that is why we need everyone at our meetings before it is too late and the horses are removed.”

(Call Bob at 847-7390 for information)

Who is Shannon Windle, and How Can She Buy So Many Horses?

Shannon spent over an hour answering my questions about horse rescue, and I felt very privileged to be talking to someone who has taken on such a huge, costly and emotional task.

So far she has, “Spent over $49,000 on 136 horses sent to auction by the NDA, and they are boarded on private property. We get the money from donations, but barely have enough for feed and transport. Fundraising is a constant. We’ve been extremely fortunate in getting the word out, and the response from the public in northern Nevada, the United States, and around the world has been absolutely incredible. People are outraged, and that’s reflected in their financial support to save these horses. I think it’s driven by all the news about the NDA, and their constant barrage of pricing up horses. I believe the BLM has 55,000 horses in pens across the country. More than on the range, and now the Virginia Range horses are being threatened.”

I asked her how she felt about Jack Payne bidding up the prices (some for more than $600) at his sales yard.

“I wrote a complaint to the Nevada Attorney General, and he forwarded the letter to Blaine Northrup, the Brand Inspector, who brings the horses to the auction. Northrup responded that what Payne did was not unethical or against the law. It’s no different than what he does with the cattle. I told him that Payne doesn’t run up the prices of the cattle. If they were selling for a dollar a pound no one would buy them! I protested that he only ran up the prices on the estrays, but Northrup said the prices were the same as South Dakota and other states where horses were culled. I couldn’t believe that the Attorney General had the department that needed to be investigated, investigate themselves! The agency that was profiting, turned the investigation over to themselves!”

When asked about the major responsibility with these horses, Windle said, “It’s not just me, there are a lot of people involved in this, and a lot of support. Volunteers in the Reno area have grown tremendously, especially the “trailer brigade.” The township of Stagecoach has energized and organized itself and bought the eight horses who were trapped, and put up a fence along the highway. It’s not just me. I’m just a voice. None of this could have taken place without a solid network of wild horse advocates that reaches across this country and around the world. I don’t believe the NDA was prepared for this outpouring of support, nor was Governor Sandoval. I feel I play a very small role in this machine that we are creating. Our next step is to go for a sanctuary.”

But Aren’t These Nuisance Horses?

Windle “Counted 30 horses out of the 140+ horses they’ve trapped as nuisances. Only those 30 needed to be picked up and relocated. The rest were not a public safety issue. The Pleasant Valley horses that caused that big accident, have NOT been picked up. They picked up horses that were eating a woman’s lawn. She was so upset, because she’d only asked for help from the NDA in keeping them off her lawn. They weren’t horses on a highway. They also tried to trap horses way up on Toll Road. How could they be a nuisance or hazard?”

I wondered where most of the horses have been trapped.

“Stagecoach, Hidden Valley, Virginia City, Dayton, Fernley, Rhodes Rd., Damonte Ranch, and Clean Water Way.” Windle related.

What Is Going to Happen Now?

An optimistic Windle replied, “With the 18,000 letters the state has received, they should realize that the majority of the people in this state, and 80% of United States citizens, don’t want to see the horses go to slaughter. The NDA should be working with the advocates. We are willing to assist the NDA in managing them, finding out which ones are causing a public safety issue, identifying areas where these horses should be relocated, and if they become repeat offenders, then & only then, be picked up. They should be given to us so we can find homes for them. We’re 100% behind management, birth control, starting a data base, etc. and we’d use our donor money to as sist. We’d purchase the birth control supplies, computer software, and maintain a volunteer base.

“The worst thing that has happened is that communication has been lost entirely. The NDA will not communicate. If they did, they’d find that some of the beliefs they have about us are wrong. For instance, relocating the horses. I asked Northrup if he would move a group from one area to another, and he said, ‘No way, we don’t do that.’ It’s not their agenda, or one of their options, but if you manage these horses correctly with birth control, and move herds that are causing problems, you can satisfy the needs of developers, residents, and advocates who don’t want them in the streets. It’s amazing what you can accomplish. But now, there’s no communication at all, and the public is upset, and the State of Nevada gets bad publicity.

Will The Upcoming Legislative Session Deal With This?

State Sen. Mark Manendo of Las Vegas believes in setting up wild horse sanctuaries to draw visitors. He recently made public a joint resolution for this that will be introduced in this session. His resolution says, “Building eco-sanctuaries that enable the public to view and photograph wild horses and burros may provide a much-needed boost to the Nevada economy.”

Senate Joint Resolution 1, if passed by both houses of the Legislature, would not have the effect of law, but merely encourages advocates and the state and federal agencies to work together to preserve the horses.


For further information about this issue, and the entities involved, see the addresses below.

“Slaughter House Bound” Virginia City News 1-11-13

Next Week – Department of Agriculture’s Views

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