Benton City woman rehabilitates wild, orphaned horses as state's horse population grows too large

An Eastern Washington woman is rescuing orphaned horses out of the kindness of her heart. Her selfless actions are shedding light on a bigger issue about a growing wild horse population in the state, and also the looming effects of inflation on current horse owners.

A passion for horses has become a calling for Suzanne Thomas. She has dedicated her life to giving young foals like Ginger their chance at life.

"I do this because I couldn’t say no, I couldn’t turn my back on them," said Thomas.

She rehabilitates wild orphaned horses rescued from reservations like Yakima, Colville and White Swan. Thomas nurses the foals back to health at her Sugar Shack Horses rescue in Benton City. Most of the foals arrive to Thomas malnourished, injured and clinging to life. It’s her delicate care that gives them a fighting chance at survival.

"These guys, they have a future. Even though they’re orphans right now, and it’s sad, and they come in here and they’re sad. By the time the leave, they’re happy babies and healthy babies," said Thomas.

She started rescuing wild orphaned horses in March 2022. So far, Thomas has had about 30 babies looking to her for motherly comfort in their time of healing.

The foals have been separated from their family of wild horses in Central and Eastern Washington, where officials said the wild horse population is growing too large. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the population of wild horses on state land through sterilization injections. However, reservations don’t have the resources to operate that process. So, they resort to questionable methods to round up the horses themselves. This often ends with foals falling behind their mothers – injured and lost from the herd.

"Worst part of the babies getting gathered up is sometimes when they get caught, they’re roped and hog-tied, and they can be left hog-tied for a significant amount of time until they get back to a trailer," said Thomas.

The horses that do get round up are either sold at an auction or sent to a feed lot for possible slaughter. For some orphans, they’re purchased by horse traders who contact people like Thomas to rehabilitate them. She makes sure they have veterinary checkups and are fed regularly. Only thing is Thomas doesn’t get paid for her work.

"I go in and pick them up, and it’s on an I.O.U. He sets the prices, they come here and get the love and care that they need. And then when they get a home, he gets his money," said Thomas, referring to her partnership with a horse trader.

Though earning money would support her efforts, Thomas said it’s not why she does this kind of rescue. She said she has the time to put into this labor of love, helping helpless animals have a new start. Much of what Thomas does at her rescue relies on donations. That money helps fund milk, blankets, feeding bins and other tools needed for the work. Sugar Shack Horses is accepting donations to support the cause. The rescue can be reached by phone at 509-528-2471 or email at sugarshackhorses@gmail.com.

In reference to the overall management of wild herds on federal lands, the BLM is looking to invest millions of dollars more into its fertility control programs under its 2022 budget. In the meantime, Senator Diane Feinstein of California has called on federal land managers to conduct an investigation to determine how many of the wild horses captured on public lands in the U.S. west end up at slaughterhouses.

In situations like this, Thomas said she has to keep her emotions in check for the sake of the young horses. She said it’s always infuriating when foals who were previously owned are surrendered to her rescue sick and skinny. She worries foals in similar conditions could be a sign of the times, just like what she saw during the 2008 recession. With prices of hay increasing by 100 percent due to inflation, Thomas said she anticipates more people will neglect their horses because they can’t afford to care for them.

Hay shortages putting strain on Washington animal rescues

Drought last year and a cold, wet start to 2022 is causing a new crisis for many farmers, ranchers and those that care for livestock. When the cost of caring for animals becomes too great, that can mean more surrenders to animal rescue operations like Pasado's Safe Haven in Snohomish County.

"You’re going to see a mass amount of horses getting dumped in the wild. And domesticated horses, they don’t do well in the wild. They don’t go and join the herd. They get beat up and torn apart by the stallions," said Thomas.

That’s why she’ll take any orphan she has space for—to protect them and raise them to be good horses at their new forever homes. Almost all the foals she has cared for have been adopted.

"It’s rewarding work. And I love updated pictures of the ones that come through here. They’re doing great and thriving. It’s just awesome. And to know they’re not going to end up in a slaughter, it’s all worth it," said Thomas.

She also understands not every foal can be saved, including one owner-surrendered horse she spent hours caring for—even sleeping in the same stable with it. As hard as they tried, Thomas said the veterinarian declared it was septic and had low brain function, due to him and his mother suffering starvation at the hands of the previous owner.

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"I know a lot of it has to do with the economy, prices for hay raised, people can’t afford them. If you can’t afford them, then call a rescue or sell them, or do what’s right by the horse before you let it starve to death, because not only did mom starve to death last night, but the baby as well," said Thomas as she shed tears.

There are other orphans out there in need of a new beginning. It’s what fuels Thomas to fulfill her calling.

"Little babies like this is what makes me do it," said Thomas. "I’m always hopeful. I will never give up, I just won’t."