Suzanne Williams of southwest Reno sees wild horses on her street four or five times a week these days, but her most memorable encounter with equines happened about 15 years ago.
A friend of Williams’ son had stayed late at her house and spooked a herd of horses as he was driving home in the dark. The animals panicked, and in their haste to escape, jumped over—and on top of—the young driver’s car. He drove his trampled vehicle back to Williams’ house and called the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office to file a report.
It was a routine call for the deputy, but when the driver filed a damage claim, the insurance agent involved, who was based in the Midwest, had trouble believing a mob of mustangs had trampled the car.
“The (agent) wouldn’t believe him,” Williams said. “He had to send her the sheriff’s report.”
Development in South Reno has intruded on the range of the feral horses, which are managed by the state and aren’t federally protected by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Last year, vehicle crashes killed 17 wild horses in the area, but no humans died. This year, four horses have been killed in crashes to date—but that number is almost certainly about to increase.
Tracy Wilson, Nevada state director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said the arrival of winter will herald more crashes and horse deaths. As the rangeland dries up, the herds forage over a wider area. They cross streets and highways more often than in the warmer months, so September through December is a “high strike period” for the animals, Wilson said—and due to the rapid growth in the area, there are more roads for the horses to cross, and more vehicles for them to dodge.
“This is a very fast-growing area, (with) lots of development,” Wilson said. “We’ve also added Veterans Parkway as a major north-south thoroughfare. Not only do you have the residents of this area using the roadways, but also people using that as a way to avoid Highway 580. That was the whole purpose. All that’s great, but if you’ve ever driven Veterans Parkway through Damonte Ranch, those streets are lined with grass.”
Williams said avoiding horses during the daytime is simple, but at night, the equines don’t wear reflectors. The good news is that the American Wild Horse Campaign, state government and others have installed fencing and cattle guards at trouble spots, she said, meaning she sees fewer horses in residential areas than she did a few years ago.
“Once they opened the new highway up on the mountain, and the car traffic went way down on Old (Highway) 395, there were a lot of horses wandering around on that highway for a while,” Williams said. “Now I haven’t seen a horse out there since they put in all the cattle grates. That was a very effective thing.”
Flashing signs also have been installed on Veterans Parkway, alerting drivers at night that horses may be sharing the road. More fencing also is planned. The biggest challenge, Wilson said, isn’t fencing off the horses, but educating their human neighbors. Some people feed the wild animals, so they keep coming back—and crossing roadways to do it. In addition, some foods, including hay cubes, carrots and apples, can seriously harm the horses. Wilson noted that it’s illegal to feed the feral animals.
Marty Wright, vice president and director of Wild Horse Preservation League, has seen horses in distress after they’ve been fed by well-meaning residents.
“One of the colts that I remember, about 6, 8 months old, got choked,” Wright said. “He’s looking around, and he can’t breathe. He’s aspirating into his lungs. They are thinking he got pneumonia because of the aspiration in his lungs. He finally got the choke out.”
Wright said helping wild horses in distress can be a dangerous task. “You don’t just go up to a wild horse like you do a tame one,” he said.
As wild horse advocates are working to protect the animals, they also have to contend with people who tear down the fences to go off-roading in the hills.
“There are people out there who get a little upset (about the fences),” Wilson said. “That’s been a little bit of a challenge to get most people to understand that when they look up in those hills, they’re not looking at public land; they’re looking at private land. Much of it is owned by developers who have the right to develop that land as long as they meet all their permit processes.”
This year, officials from the city of Reno, the Nevada Department of Transportation, the American Wild Horse Campaign and other nonprofit groups and agencies have collaborated to host informational sessions about the wild horse herds, and what’s being done to keep them off the asphalt. Some residents who attended the Oct. 10 presentations said they were concerned about getting access to the Virginia Range as new fencing goes up. Others worried that people moving to the area won’t be aware of the danger of running into horses—or even realize that they are about to become acquainted with herds of four-legged neighbors.
“I feel like there are two kinds of people in the area,” one resident said. “There’s those that love the horses, and those that hate them. We have driven slower; we’re more cautious; we’re more careful, because we know that they’re all around us. I wonder if people have moved into the area not knowing what they’re moving into.”