Wild vs. Domestic Horses – Exploring survivorship in the harsh desert environment of the Tonto National Forest

This week, we explore what makes the Salt River Wild Horses wild, and the differences from domestic horses in relation to survivorship within the wild and harsh desert environment of the Tonto National Forest, AZ.

Enchantress Aug 26 2016 – Awaiting rescue after found wandering on Bush Highway along the Salt River

To illustrate this very topic, we share with you the story of a 21 year old retired Off the Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) Race Horse named Enchantress, who was rescued by Wildhorse Ranch Rescue.

Last year, on August 26th 2016, Enchantress, was found abandoned, wandering alone and confused down the middle of a desert highway in the Tonto National Forest near the Salt River. She miraculously avoided being struck by cars after a few very close calls. Several quick thinking good Samaritans put their heads together to get Enchantress off the road and to safety while her rescue was authorized by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department and other appropriate parties.

We wondered, how did this domestic horse come to find herself in this predicament? Did she escape from her home? Was she abandoned by her owner? Was she stolen and dumped?

With increasing public attention on the wild herd in the Tonto National Forest, we want to make a clear distinction between domestic horses and wild horses and their ability to survive in the Tonto National Forest.

Enchantress – Aug 26 2016 – Stepping onto Wildhorse Ranch Rescue trailer and headed to safety after being found abandoned at the Salt River.

Every year, several domestic horses are dumped off in the desert of the Tonto National Forest by owners that may not be able to care for their horse and might think that the horse can join up with the wild ones and be OK.

We wish to clarify that this idea and action on behalf of the owner is not mercy for a horse, it is a death sentence for a domestic horse. It is a slow, painful and traumatic death sentence.


Naturally maintained & healthy hoof of a Salt River Wild Horse

The Salt River Wild Horses of the Tonto National Forest have evolved genetically over time and learned since their births from their family bands, how to survive and be in symbiosis with the ecosystem.

Wild horses know where to go to eat, what to eat, where to drink, how to get there, how to read and react to other wild horse behavior in order to stay safe and alive.



Salt River Wild Horse shows off his naturally maintained smile

Wild horses walk for miles and miles a day, keeping their feet healthy. They graze for approx 16-18 hour a day keeping their teeth healthy. They have been doing this without our assistance or interference for 100’s of years. The weaker horses do not survive and the horses that do survive get stronger and breed those strong genes into their offspring. It is truly survival of the fittest, with the domestic horse being on the bottom of the chain. The wild world is harsh and unforgiving, but the wild horses are in balance with each other and the land.

The vet examines Enchantress teeth upon intake at Wildhorse Ranch Rescue and determines that care maintenance is needed to maintain her health and comfort

Domestic horses are at a disadvantage in the wild. They are rejected by wild horses, they are beat up and chased and are unable to assimilate with wild herds.

Without a herd, as a domestic horse in a harsh desert environment without human care, there is a challenge of not knowing what to eat, where to eat, where to find water and stay safe from other wild horses, predators, humans and roads. The acceptance in a herd not only depends on one horse, it depends on all horses in the herd.



Sharp points on domestic horse teeth. Without human intervention, and regular maintenance, the sharp points on the teeth disrupt the domestic horses ability to chew, digest properly and cut into the cheek causing mouth ulcers, which can cause a great deal of discomfort.

Genetically most domestic horses feet are weaker and grow long, as well as teeth, which make it challenging for survival without any human intervention. These two items are what a horse depends on for survival.

Without healthy feet or a healthy mouth, this is no healthy horse.

Enchantress was one of the lucky ones to be saved from a harsh painful death. We are thankful no one was hurt that was driving the busy highway that morning. Enchantress did not have a choice. She was looking for a way home. They only thing she knew was to stay on the road and find a way out. We are so thankful that she was rescued before tragedy struck and we hope that her story brings awareness.

Enchantress (domestic horse) before and after – Hoof trim needed after intake to maintain healthy hoof structure and comfort

Here are a few resources for domestic horses needing homes, or assistance:

If you find yourself in a desperate situation with your horse, there are resources available to help you. Please reach out to local horse rescues for guidance. Even if they are at capacity and cannot take in another horse, they have a network of individuals that may be able to take in the horse in need or be able to assist with guidance and decision making on the most humane option for the horse. If you are not a horse owner, consider donating to an organization that can help equines that are in need. Also, consider adopting or rescuing a horse, instead of shopping. Rescue horses make wonderful equine partners and are waiting for their second chance. One rescue horse adopted

Wildhorse Ranch Rescue
Click here to learn what you can do if your Horse needs a home

Enchantress – arriving to safety and out of harms way at Wildhorse Ranch Rescue after being abandoned at the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest

If you would like to volunteer to help take care of Enchantress and her equine friends at Wildhorse Ranch Rescue, please attend one of their  Volunteer  Orientations. Email VolunteerMgr@whrr.org for details or questions.

Click Here to see the Wildhorse Ranch Rescue calendar on the events page of our website for more volunteer orientation opportunities and all age events like Horse Grooming.

Wildhorse Ranch Rescue is a 501c3 charity and operates on donations from the public. If you would like to donate and help support rescue horses like Enchantress, please Click Here

Arizona Coalition for Equines

This organization is a great resource for Arizona domestic horse owners. There are grants available for feed, hay and end of life needs for equine in AZ.

Humane Society of the United States

Homeless Horses – Click here to read about this issue and learn what you can do


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