Finding a common trail to help working horses on tribal lands in Arizona

By on May 24, 2017 with 15 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

The Havasupai Reservation village of Supai, Arizona, located just outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park but sharing the extraordinary beauty of the region, is in its own right a popular and scenic tourist destination. Its waterfalls and swimming opportunities draw tourists and motivate them to descend a lengthy and tortuous eight-mile trail to get to the scenic destination at the base of the canyon.

But in the past year, Supai has drawn attention for the wrong reason: the abuse and neglect of horses used by villagers to carry visitors’ luggage and other goods along the eight-mile hike from the canyon’s entrance to Supai. Earlier this month, Genesis Award-winning reporter George Knapp of KLAS-TV in Las Vegas — entirely independent of any work that The HSUS did — captured very disturbing mistreatment of working animals in a series of reports aired by the station. Knapp discovered burros and mules with open sores and broken bones being forced to carry more than 100 pounds of weight over the treacherous trails. Some horses went down and couldn’t get up, with some terrible outcomes for the horses.

This past weekend, the horses of Supai got some relief: 12 people, including representatives of Equine Voices Rescue & Sanctuary and Healing Hearts Animal Rescue, veterinarians, and equine hoof care specialists, under the leadership of HSUS Arizona state director Kellye Pinkleton, traveled there to provide veterinary medical treatment and education to the village’s horse owners, with the consent and cooperation of tribal leaders. There are approximately 175 horses at Supai, and more than 70 were vaccinated, dewormed, and given dental and hoof care. The team also provided treatment on-site at the homes of several Havasupai tribe members. Dogs in the village were vaccinated for rabies, and everything was done at no charge to the tribal members.

Dr. Richard Fisher of Fisher Equine Dentistry examines a horse in Supai. Photo by Carrie Allan/The HSUS

There is no veterinarian in the village, no feed store, and little access to supplies, and as a sovereign nation, they are not covered by current state animal cruelty laws. That’s precisely why our Kellye Pinkleton opened up discussions and met with tribal leaders in 2016, following up with a proposal to provide education, training, and resources to caregivers, and veterinary care for the horses. She’s taken a collaborative approach, and the results have been extraordinarily beneficial for the horses.

We coordinated our work in Supai this week with tribal animal control officers. The veterinarians and equine hoof care specialist provided on-site training and education to the animal control officers and horse owners, treated and vaccinated horses, trimmed and shod hooves, and performed dental treatments, including extractions. The group also delivered equine food, pellets, salt blocks, bales of hay, and donated farrier tools and other supplies to the tribe.

The tribe surrendered five puppies, who went to the Coconino Humane Association in Flagstaff. A blind horse was transported to Equine Voices Rescue & Sanctuary located in Green Valley, where he will receive lifetime care and a loving home, with financial help from The HSUS. We are most grateful for the cooperation of the tribe.

The HSUS has always maintained, as evidenced by The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association’s Rural Area Veterinarians (RAVS) program, that any work done on tribal lands must be in partnership with the tribe and its leaders to ensure sustained, effective outcomes. Tribal lands are governed as sovereign nations and we believe cooperative efforts yield lasting positive results and allow for trust and opportunities to create additional ways to support the animals in tribal communities.

This effort embodied that spirit of cooperation and, Kellye said, the tribal leaders were pleased with the service and care provided by the team to their horses. “We are encouraged by conversations with the tribal council members about our visit and look forward to continuing our discussions about future trips and exploring additional ways to partner,” she added.


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  1. Jennifer says:

    How often will HSUS trips like this be conducted? What is the consequence for Supai packers that will continue to over work, underfeed, under-hydrate, and violently abuse their livestock?

    Is there water for them now at Hilltop? If so, are they required to allow to drink from it?

    • Dawn says:

      Good question..

      You can lead a horse to water, but will his head be tied as such he cannot drink?

    • Riley says:

      As of October 13th, 2017, there is no drinkable water at the hilltop for the mules/horses. Inside the hilltop stable there is a plastic horse trough that is only 1/4 full of nasty, brown looking, smelly water that has been there for who knows how long. However, even if the mules and horses wanted a drink of the nasty water, they can’t because their heads are tied tightly to the fence until the next load is ready to take down.

      When I got to the campground where the mules drop off the tourists gear, I witnessed one mule train arrive. Once the wranglers unloaded the tourists gear, they quickly replaced it with more tourists gear and were quickly off once again what looked liked to me as though they were headed right back up the 10 mile trail to the hilltop. I did not see any mules/horses drinking any water at the campground stable. I also did not see any mule trains getting water in the village.

      So my question is, are these wranglers making these mules/horses work these loads all day long and then finally give them water at the end of the day??

      They aren’t just trotting up the 10 mile trail, the wranglers make them run. I would LOVE to see the wrangler run up the 10 mile rocky trail on his own with no water in 110 degree temperatures!! Lets see how far you get buddy!

      But then I did some reading about the Havasupai School. I was down there for 4 days during the week, not a weekend, and noticed the school was closed all 4 days, with nothing posted on the marquee as to why the school was closed. I came across this article:
      which helped shed some light on one of the many issues in Supai. I came to the realization of: If the majority of the tribe members don’t care about their children’s education and future, why would they care about these horses?
      So sad.

  2. Cynthia Marrs says:

    I was horrified last week when I read the graphic story of these animals. I am so glad that HSUS has been trying to help the animals by working with the Havasupai people.
    Thank you and HSUS for caring about animals.


  3. Tracy Poulos says:

    Thank you for caring , these animals deserve to be treated humanely with proper food & care ..

  4. J Marie Sheppard says:

    I would be remiss if I did not applaud the HSUS for this coordinated effort to help, what is obviously an egregious animal abuse situation. However, to state that this is “disturbing mistreatment” is so inaccurate and misleading that it defies rationale thought. The sad truth is that the HSUS and Ms. Pinkerton only responded after a widespread social media campaign exposed the tribe and their systematic abuse which has been clearly documented for decades. DECADES!

    It should also be clearly noted that this coordinated effort is now allowed by the tribe due to this recent public exposure. Similar efforts have been repeatedly tried in the past with no sustainable change enacted, no long term improvement in the quality of life for the animals noted. This will become another “band aid fix” if the tribe does not hold themselves responsible and remove those members who habitually, and without conscious, continue to torture these animals. This includes the tribal leadership which stood idly by while the abuse occurred. None of the HSUS or Ms Pinkerton’s efforts address this.

    Many may lament the harsh public scrutiny/treatment the tribe has received due to the recent media exposure and there is ongoing criticism and debate over this approach. The hard truth is that none of the current “collaboration and cooperation” would have occurred without it.

    I fervently hope that Ms Pinkerton, the HSUS and all involved are doing more than treating the animals. That is the result. If the cause, the graphic, documented abuse by individual tribal members and the complacency of the tribal council is not addressed and rectified, then authentic, systematic change will not occur.

    Kindness is free. So is responsible ownership. The tribe has money generated by the tourist industry as well as the Arizona Gaming Commission and other sources of income. That they continue to live in abject poverty while horrifically abusing the very creatures who are the backbone of their livelihood is beyond tragic. It also begs the question of how those funds are dispersed.

    This is what the HSUS and Ms. Pinkerton should be focused upon.

    • Susie J says:

      I totally agree. Still over a 100 animals who did not get any treatment or help.

    • Dawn says:

      Thank you for most thought provoking post. I commend you for accurately stating and commenting on Ms. Pinkertons seemingly “no action” approach.

    • Catherine Ritlaw says:

      thank you

    • Norma Faith Rockman says:

      I agree with your truthful insight and comments. That state animal cruelty laws do not apply to the Tribe just because they are a sovereign nation is appalling. I have always revered the Native American approach to life, but now I am forced to reconsider, what in the world has happened to these beautiful indigenous peoples that would allow this to happen. I hear things are rough for animals on the reservations. There is no excuse for this. Genocide is not an excuse. Many peoples have been subjected to the killing fields but we must grow our consciousness and never lose sight of our higher calling to expand consciousness and our hearts to all sentient being. Thanks for letting me vent, but I along with many are sickened by this situation. Let’s reach out until this stops.

  5. Kathryn A Baker says:

    I am so glad to read of this great effort to help the horses and other animals of Supai. Education and veterinary assistance plus gifts of feed and supplies and farrier work will make a huge difference in their lives.THANK YOU to everyone involved in this.

  6. Sheri says:

    This care won’t last. it will be business as usual in a few months. Tourist are the ones who can make a difference. Don’t “rent” the animals and let them know why.

  7. Mary M Tarallo says:

    Some questions: As to education on horse care: Who is providing the education? What is included in that education? What is the timeline? Those animals need continuing help – not just periodic visits as that encourages falling back into the same bad situation for those poor animals.

  8. Denise Raymond says:

    I believe sovereign nations should still be held to some basic accountability. Where is the line for what they are allowed to do- or is there one? Do we also look the other way if they are mutilating children, manufacturing meth, or sex trafficking? I am real sorry for what happened to their ancestors and all but that doesn’t mean they can inflict a similar level of cruelty on other beings as a result.

  9. Mayme Kratz says:

    I appreciate the efforts of HSUS in helping the horses in any way they can, however it is not enough. I still do not understand why there is such an issue getting water to the horses at hilltop, or allowing them to drink if there is water? It seems apparent that a cultural shift within the tribe is needed for significant change to happen. If the tribe is not willing then it should become the responsibility of all the outfitters making the profits to monitor packing weights on site and to insure the health of the horses. They are making a lot of money off the backs of these animals. Tourists should be educated up front regarding the situation and not allowed to pack unnecessary baggage. If the tribe won’t make the changes then the users need to.

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