The Controversial Wild Horses of Fort Polk

The Fort Polk horses are said to have descended from cavalry mounts. Fort Polk Horses of Kisatchie/Facebook

There are hundreds of wild horses roaming on or around the U.S. Army's Fort Polk in Louisiana. But not for long.

The horses have stirred up controversy ever since the Army proposed removing them in 2015, saying they were a safety hazard to military personnel training nearby. Opponents of the move say the historic herd should stay put. The horses reportedly can trace their heritage back to Camp Polk cavalry horses from the 1940s and to early settlers' farm horses. Even further back, they can be traced to the mounts of Native Americans who lived in the area.

But in August 2016, the Army decided to round up the horses that live in Kisatchie National Forest, which is used for training, reports KATC in Louisiana. The horses were to be captured in groups of 10 to 30 at a time and offered first to animal rescue groups and then to citizens who will take them. After that, if any horses remain, they will be sold at livestock auctions.

In a statement, the Army said it was also looking for any landowner who might be able to take the entire group of horses. The Army will also try to find another government agency to remove and accept responsibility for the herd.

The Army has has developed an ongoing list of animal rescue groups and individuals interested in adopting horses.

"The alternative that was selected offers the best opportunity to find a new home for every horse and protects American soldiers from a catastrophic incident while training at Fort Polk," said Brig. Gen. Gary Brito, commanding general of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center. "This plan gives all interested parties the opportunity to be involved in helping the Army solve the problems it faces."

pair of Fort Polk horses
The majority of the wild horses at Fort Polk have never been handled. Fort Polk Horses of Kisatchie/Facebook

But local opponents haven't been taking such an optimistic tone.

Pegasus Equine Guardian Association is a group that was formed to make sure these wild horses are treated humanely.

In December 2016, Pegasus filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army at Fort Polk, charging that the plan to eliminate the horses violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

"The suit is about the historic and cultural significance the free roaming Heritage Horses have on the landscapes of Western Louisiana and the Army’s intention and actions to “eliminate” them. Wild horse herds across the United States are remnants of our country’s earliest history," said the Pegasus group in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

Despite the lawsuit and public outcry, in early December 2017, Pegasus noted that at least 18 more wild horses were caught and removed from the land.

Other alternatives

Many equine activists would like to see all the horses sent to rescue groups, but that might prove to be difficult.

"It would be wonderful, but we're talking about generationally wild horses that have never been handled and have never had a halter on. We want good people to get these horses, but it's not going to be the same handling scenario as your average horse," Amy Hanchey, president of Pegasus, told MNN.

So far, according to reports, The Humane Society of North Texas has adopted 50 of the horses, and plans to take more.

Sandy Shelby, executive director of the organization, told Courthouse News the horses are in “great health” and “settling in really well.”

She said she understands why some supporters would want to keep the horses in Louisiana in order to "protect their heritage," but said they are currently in North Texas on protected pasture land with shelter, food and water.

“From an animal advocate’s standpoint, I think that I would just be happy that they’re with a reputable organization that’s going to do right by them,” she said. “We feel a very protective role here in making sure we do what’s right for them.”

Shelby said it’s commendable that the Army is reaching out to “legitimate, respectable horse rescue organizations,” instead of letting kill buyers take them.

“It could be a lot worse,” Shelby said.

Some activists fear these wild horses won't all be so lucky and will end up in sale barns where they can be sold to slaughterhouses, Hanchey says.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, some people might look for riding horses or ponies at an auction, however, "the majority of horses sold at auctions attended by HSUS staff were purchased by 'killer buyers' who represent or sell to horse slaughterhouses."

The ideal situation, Hanchey says, would have been to find another spot for the horses in the 604,000 acres of Kisatchie National Forest, away from Army training.

"Obviously, we love and support our military," she says. "We just really would've loved to have an area somewhere in there for the horses to go."