Kevin Borba found Sarge lying in the brush on a quiet Sunday in August 2015. When Borba, a cattle rancher in Nevada, and his two children happened upon the wild horse, the sky was a soft lavender against the mountain range. The family coaxed Sarge to stand and led him to a fence. They put a halter on him and gave him a drink of water from a 50-gallon tank sitting in the bed of Borba’s pickup.
Borba, then 48, took out his cellphone and started recording. The small palomino appeared in the video as if he had just endured a savage fight. There were gashes on his flank. One cut oozed pus. Dustin, Borba’s then-19-year-old son, opened Sarge’s mouth. Borba maneuvered the cellphone inside and told his son to move his fingers so viewers could see the horse’s rotting teeth.
“See that right there? It’s all the way to the bone,” said Borba. “Poor guy.”
“It smells like dead,” said Borba’s daughter, Sage, then 11. She kissed the horse’s neck and playfully placed her trucker hat on his head.
Borba sent the footage to Dave Duquette, who worked at Protect the Harvest, a controversial nonprofit that opposes animal rights groups — and sees euthanasia or slaughter of horses as humane options. An imposing man at 6-foot-3, Duquette is an outspoken supporter of ranchers’ rights and had previously spent several days in Nevada with Borba, documenting a herd of mustangs that had congregated on a dry lake bed near Borba’s ranch. He had uploaded videos chastising wild-horse activists as hypocrites who claim to love wild horses but let them starve and dehydrate on the range.
A snippet of Sarge from Borba’s video soon appeared on the Protect the Harvest website accompanied by a block of text, which read in part: “Activists are disguising their attacks on the animals as compassion for the majestic creatures when in reality activists don’t really care what happens to them.”
In fact, this was not Sarge’s first appearance in the debate between ranchers and animal rights activists. The beleaguered animal was already part of a bitter online battle: Laura Leigh, an anti-slaughter activist, had previously documented Sarge’s story on the website of her group, Wild Horse Education. She accused Borba and Duquette of running a “misinformation campaign” and later wrote that “if one horse could speak to every betrayal it’s Sarge.”
The fight over Sarge continued after a representative with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which owns the majority of the country’s wild horses, took Sarge to an adoption facility and put him up for auction. Although Duquette thought Sarge was “ill-shaped, probably lame everywhere” and “had a foot going in every direction,” he didn’t want the animal activists to have the horse, so he bid alongside 916 other people.
The price quickly topped $11,000, considered by many to be embarrassingly high. It costs a minimum of $25 to walk into a BLM facility and adopt an untrained wild horse. On Facebook, Protect the Harvest criticized animal rights groups for bidding up on one horse but didn’t reveal that Duquette was also bidding.
Duquette was driving across Nebraska when the auction clock began to run out. He pulled over whenever he found cell service to keep bidding. He lost at the last second to a pair of activists who had pooled their money and bid $14,825 — which BLM says was likely an online record for an untrained horse. “So they got their little stallion,” Duquette says. “ ‘I’m just going to take him and eat him’ is what they thought.”
The question of what to do with America’s wild horses is an emotional battle over livelihood, freedoms and how humans view animals. Many ranchers see the mustangs as an overpopulated invasive species that competes for the public land their livestock grazes. Animal rights activists see an icon of the American West that deserves better protection.
There are over 100,000 wild horses and burros on 26.9 million acres of BLM land, according to the agency. This doesn’t include mustangs on Native American reservations, national parks, several U.S. Forest Service territories and lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLM has failed to keep populations at what it considers a sustainable level. To deal with the so-called excess horses, the agency rounds them up, usually using helicopters, puts them in short-term holding pens, tries to adopt them out, and then sends the unwanted ones — currently over 47,000 — to private, grassy pastures in the Midwest.
With unchecked herds doubling every four years, the program is now in crisis mode. “We’re at a point that we’ve never been before,” says Jenny Lesieutre, a spokeswoman for wild horse and burro issues at the bureau’s Nevada office. “It’s more than three times what the land can sustainably support in the long term, and we are a multiuse agency. That land is shared by all kinds of wildlife and plants.”
It’s illegal for the bureau to euthanize healthy horses, though it euthanizes ones that have such ailments as blindness or club feet. Officials also can’t ship horses to slaughter or sell them to someone who intends to ship them to slaughter. (Though widely taboo, eating horsemeat is technically legal federally; some consider it a cheap source of protein.)
The agency is at a standstill, partly because options like euthanasia or slaughter face intense backlash. “It’s political suicide for a politician to take on the cause of, ‘Let’s save our perennial grasses by killing symbols of the American West,’ ” says Ben Masters, a member of the bureau’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board from 2015 to 2018. He voted for euthanizing horses and says he received death threats because of it. John Turner, a professor at the University of Toledo who has researched the effects of one birth-control drug on wild horses, puts it this way: “When the agency wants to try something, there are always some groups or organizations that will say, ‘Not on my watch.’ ”
For decades, it was the normal and legal way of life for cowboys and ranchers in the West to round up wild horses and sell them to slaughter for extra cash. These cowboys were called mustangers, and wild horses were considered nuisances that added no value to the land. One Nevada rancher I spoke with said mustanging used to be his “Christmas account.” He received 7 cents for every pound he sent to a slaughterhouse in Nebraska.
He would rope the horses around the neck, pull them down until they fell, and secure their front and hind feet with a hobble, a cuff-like device that makes walking difficult. The horses were usually exhausted and unable to move much. Some mustangers left the horses on the range overnight before hauling them to the corrals; a few might die this way.
In 1950, a secretary and ranch owner from Reno, Nev., named Velma Johnston was driving to work and got stuck behind a cattle truck dripping blood. Wild horses were being transported to slaughter, and from the blood, Johnston deduced that mustanging injured the horses (she said one horse had its eyes shot out). Incensed, she spent the next 20 years fighting for the protection of wild horses. She testified before Congress, appeared on television and was responsible for a Nevada state law banning mustangers’ use of vehicles. In 1961, a film called “The Misfits,” starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, brutally portrayed mustanging.
A national letter-writing campaign Johnston orchestrated, involving schoolchildren penning pleas to members of Congress, led to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. That law — which passed Congress unanimously and was signed by President Richard Nixon — called for the BLM to protect and manage the wild horses that roamed its public lands. Johnston became known as “Wild Horse Annie”: a hero in some circles, an oppressor in others.
After the act passed, the bureau no longer issued permits to ranchers to round up wild horses and claim them as their own. It became illegal for anyone to gather wild horses except the BLM (though that hasn’t always stopped cowboys from mustanging). Paired with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which created grazing districts, public land became even more restricted for commercial use.
The bureau had never before been responsible for an animal, and wild horses and burros are still the only species under its jurisdiction. Neil Kornze, who led the agency during President Barack Obama’s second term, told me it makes no sense that the agency is in charge of wild horses. Many people I spoke with in the world of wild-horse management had little faith in the BLM and offered their own suggestions on how to do the job. Ross MacPhee, a paleomammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who has studied the origins of wild horses, says the only solution is to create special land preserves similar to those that protect the bison herds at Yellowstone National Park. Trent Loos, a friend of Duquette’s and a rancher on President Trump’s agriculture advisory committee, wants a “stud-hunting season.” Then again, he says, “You could imagine what kind of controversy that would cause.”
In its nine-year existence, Protect the Harvest has gained a loyal following among ranchers, farmers and cowboys, most notably those with extreme and vocal anti-government views. It was founded by the oil tycoon Forrest Lucas. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but last summer — while appearing on Mark Levin’s Fox News show “Life, Liberty & Levin” — he discussed his “rags to riches” story growing up as a poor farm boy in Indiana with an alcoholic father and leaving home at 14. Later he hauled semi-trucks and one day discovered a secret ingredient for oil additives.
Today, he owns Lucas Oil; the naming rights to Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Indianapolis Colts play; Lucas Oil Rail Lines; a television production company called Lucas Oil Production Studios; the Lucas Oil Speedway racetrack in Missouri; and Lucas Cattle Co. He is also reportedly friends with Vice President Pence. Lucas told Levin he started Protect the Harvest to fight “environmentalists that are trying to take control over and do away with — you know, vegans who want everybody to be vegans.”
His fixation on animal rights groups can be traced back, in part, to a 2010 Missouri state ballot proposition called the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act, which sought restrictions on dog breeders, such as allowing them to own no more than 50 breeding dogs. Lucas vehemently opposed the proposition. It passed, but a law enacted the next year made significant changes, including repealing the 50-dog cap. Sarah Barnett, a former spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States, considered the act “gutted.” Lucas believed the Humane Society’s heavy support of the bill was an attempt to stop animal husbandry. “I got enough brains, enough money, enough nerve. I’m going to go out and take them on,” he said on a podcast.
The Trump administration has been good for Lucas and his Protect the Harvest team. Lucas told Range magazine that Pence offered him the position of secretary of the interior after Ryan Zinke resigned. According to Politico, Lucas was also a driving force behind the nomination of Sonny Perdue to the post of agriculture secretary. Brian Klippenstein, the former executive director of Protect the Harvest, was put in charge of managing the Department of Agriculture transition after Trump’s election.
“This is a group that has money, and this is where it gets dangerous,” says Barnett, who called Protect the Harvest extremist. From 2013 to 2016, the Protect the Harvest super PAC, which recently folded, received $372,001 in large donations, including three from Lucas. From 2015 to 2017, the Protect the Harvest nonprofit received $1,055,046 from donors, according to tax forms.
Duquette told me Protect the Harvest isn’t focused on wild-horse slaughter, though he personally advocates for it and wants mustangs to be sold without limitation, a term sometimes used as a euphemism for slaughter. “These advocates put animals way above human life,” he says. “I care about people.”
In early July last year, I drove east along the Columbia River Gorge to Hermiston, a town of 18,000 in Oregon’s high desert. I turned off the highway and onto a wide gravel road. A double wrought-iron gate was swung open to reveal a 25-acre compound with a ranch-style house and a horse-training facility. Each gate was topped with a circular statuette of a man riding a horse inside the words “Duquette Quarter Horses.” Beside the horse corral, an American flag and a Marine Corps flag flew on a tall pole.
Duquette was in the yard weeding with his girlfriend, Molly Russell. Duquette’s older son, Colton, was in California working on a movie for Forrest Films, Lucas’s production company. In 2016, Forrest Films released “Running Wild,” a movie featuring Sharon Stone as a money- and publicity-obsessed wild-horse activist. Ali Afshar, a producer of the film and co-founder of Forrest Films, told me the company doesn’t “take sides” and that although Protect the Harvest brought them the idea for “Running Wild,” the movie isn’t based on real circumstances.
After serving in the Marines and cowboying in several small towns around the Pacific Northwest, Duquette started Duquette Quarter Horses, a horse-training company, in the early ’90s. For several years, his business was profitable. He also sold horses to families as pets or show horses. Then in 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the country, in Illinois, closed after Congress prohibited federal funds for inspection and a state law banned horsemeat for human consumption. As a result, the entire domestic equine industry took a hit. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that the closure of the slaughterhouses led to less frequent horse sales and auctions in the States. The average sale price for horses dropped by over $100. Owners then had limited options for getting rid of horses they didn’t want, and cases of abandonment, abuse and neglect increased as horse value declined.
In 2012, the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover investigation revealing abuse to a breed called the Tennessee walking horse, including chemicals being cooked into their feet to create an exaggerated gait known as Big Lick, which is valued in shows. Duquette felt that animal activists were butting their noses into other people’s business. “They started attacking the horse industry, and the deeper I got into it the more I realized how many bills were out there to stop the horse industry,” he says.
About a year after the last horse slaughterhouse closed, Duquette started a nonprofit called United Horsemen to achieve “humane and realistic solutions to the unwanted horse problem,” according to an online posting. He brought on Sue Wallis, a now-deceased Wyoming state legislator, as his vice president. The duo pushed to reopen horse slaughterhouses, earning Wallis the nickname “Slaughterhouse Sue” among wild-horse activists. Duquette and Wallis proposed opening a $3 million plant in Hermiston that would slaughter 25,000 horses a year. The town’s mayor and City Council members stood against the idea. According to the Oregonian, Hermiston was in the midst of a boom and they thought the plant would discourage newcomers. The project fizzled.
Regardless, Duquette has become an outspoken proponent for slaughter. “He’s such a loud voice in advocating for horse slaughter and will take any platform to do it,” Barnett says. In 2011, Duquette and Wallis organized a conference in Las Vegas called the Summit of the Horse and invited Bob Abbey, an Obama-appointed Bureau of Land Management director. Abbey regards slaughter as a legitimate option for wild-horse management, but a last resort. He told me he attended the summit to “bring divergent points of views” together. Before the event, he recalls, law enforcement officials briefed him about potential violence from wild-horse activists. It was around this time that Lucas approached Duquette about joining Protect the Harvest.
As part of his job for Protect the Harvest, Duquette visited ranchers in remote corners of the West to document wild-horse activity on their public land allotments. He says he has found dead horses and dried-up water springs.
In Nevada, ranchers can obtain rights to water sources on public land. Wild horses drink from these sources, which ranchers maintain for their livestock. This fact served as a major point in Borba’s argument that ranchers, not activists, are the ones who care for the horses. “If it isn’t the rancher that’s giving them water, some of them horses got 30 or 40 miles to walk to get water,” he told me. “When you find 10 to 15 of them dead because they didn’t have water, it’s pretty sad. But that’s the truth.”
The BLM has been interested in spaying wild mares for at least a decade, but various approaches have failed or been blocked by wild-horse activists in court. Two attempts in recent years were met with such public outcry that the agency’s university research partners backed out of studies.
Meanwhile, amid all the controversy, Duquette handpicked and bought 12 wild fillies — female horses under age 4 — from a holding corral in Burns, Ore. He had an idea: Spay the fillies, auction them to trainers and show them off a year later, in 2018, at a show called the Wild Spayed Filly Futurity, put on by Protect the Harvest, for a chance to win first prize of $25,000. The competition would include herd, rein and fence work. This consists of, respectively, cutting a single cow from a herd of cattle; directing the horse to make stops, turns and figure-eight patterns; and running a cow up and down the arena. The point would be to show that spaying is painless and effective.
Animal rights advocates vehemently oppose the type of spay procedure — called ovariectomy via colpotomy — that Duquette used on the horses he bought for the event. “They’re pushing some of the most brutal tactics in the form of ovariectomy,” says Ginger Kathrens, the executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a nonprofit in Colorado that seeks to prevent herd extinction. Lisa Jacobson, an equine veterinarian in Colorado, says ovariectomy risks infection, internal bleeding and pain. She prefers gelding, or castrating, stallions. Duquette says activists have it backward: Spaying, he argues, is “a lot less barbaric than castrating a colt.”
The second annual Wild Spayed Filly Futurity began Sept. 13, 2019, at 6 p.m. at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center, opening with a prayer and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Over 800 people came to watch. The atmosphere was jubilant and boisterous, like a high school football game.
As the herd work got underway, Ramona Hage Morrison, whose family has been advocating for ranchers’ rights for decades, stopped by the Lucas Oil VIP section with her husband and young son. She wore black-rimmed eyeglasses and a long-sleeved T-shirt with an arm patch that read “Never Give Up.” She first met Duquette while he was filming with Protect the Harvest at Borba’s ranch. She was consulting for Borba about water rights at the time.
Morrison is adamant that the water in Nevada, where she lives, doesn’t belong to the wild horses. “The activists always want to say, ‘Let’s throw out the horses all over the western United States,’ but they don’t want to compensate anybody for that water or any of the range improvements or anything we had a mortgage on,” she says. “That’s the part the government doesn’t want to address either. They would rather just take it and steal what we own.”
In the stands, the spectators hooted and hollered. After a filly named Cold Springs Cricket twirled only twice during the rein work, people circled their pointer fingers in the air and screamed at the rider to turn one more time (the horse wouldn’t budge). By the end of the show, the clear winner was a strikingly beautiful pinto named South Steens Maggie Magpie. As the rider trotted her out for a final victory lap, Karen Gerfen, then communications director for Protect the Harvest, straddled a fence to shoot footage for a show about the futurity on RFD-TV, a channel focused on the West and owned by Rural Media Group. The show’s tagline: “The best gelding I ever rode was a spayed mare.” Beside Gerfen, two women sprayed bottles of champagne.
In an episode of the RFD-TV show, one of the riders says, “I think it’s really good what Protect the Harvest is doing. They’re showing that there’s a use for these horses and that they’re not just junk that should be out starving on the desert.” Duquette was proud of how the horses performed. “They looked like show horses,” he said. “They didn’t look like BLM horses by the time we were done.” But just like in the fight over Sarge, the spotlight wasn’t only on the horses themselves. The battle between Duquette and the activists was, yet again, playing out in full view.
Correction: A caption that describes a yearling with a shaggy, full winter coat misidentified the location of the photo. It was taken in South Dakota, not Nevada.
Britta Lokting is a journalist in New York.
Designed by Twila Waddy. Photos edited by Dudley M. Brooks.