May 17, 2012 - The iconic image of a wild horse running free across a Western landscape -- mane flying, hooves pounding, dust rolling -- is one of America's most cherished. At one time more than two million horses ran wild in the West, including a million or so in Texas, but the numbers are down into the tens of thousands. Anybody who saw the horses on Ron and Janet Helms' ranch between Fort Davis and Van Horn would swear that they are among that number, but they are not.
Most of the horses are former performance horses -- barrel racers, jumpers and the like. They are past their peak performance age but still have a lot of life in them. The horses have "retired" from the arena and the racetrack to enjoy a life they were born to, but which they never had a chance to experience. Ron and Janet operate the Natural Horse Retirement Program (NHRP) on his ranch, taking horses that owners can no longer afford or tend to and helping them live out their lives roaming free over the vast expanses of the Helms' ranch.
Ron Helm, a lifelong rancher and horseman, got the notion after the horse slaughterhouses closed. No matter where he went, he said, horse owners wondered what they were going to do with their horses when it was time for them to retire. Helm said he saw this as an attractive option for a horse's retirement.
"We're not a rescue or adoption agency," Helm said. "Most of the rescue places have run out of money or they are out of space. People try to give us their horses, but that's not what we do here. We're a sustainable, for profit business. We won't run out of money and we won't run out of space.
There are 11 horses in the program now and Helm said he could handle as many as 150. The main business of the ranch is a cow-calf operation, but he said he would cut back on the cattle numbers if the horse retirement program proves successful. The program is limited to geldings and open mares with current health papers; no bred mares or intact stallions are allowed. The cost is $200 per month or a one-time $5,000 lifetime fee. A month-by-month temporary option for recipient mares, bred mares or turn-out horses is $300 per month, payable quarterly in advance.
"Believe me, this would be on any horse's bucket list," Helm said.
The ranch sits halfway between Fort Davis and Van Horn, on the northwestern slope of the Davis Mountains. Ranches in the Trans-Pecos tend to be large, tens of thousands of acres, and Helms' spread is no different. Located in a semi-arid environment, parasites are less problematic than they are in wetter climes. Vet bills are the responsibility of the horse owner, but Helm has been handling the basic medical needs of horses all his life. He said a lot of the medical problems that horses face are caused by confinement. Free to roam, many of those problems disappear.
"It's sometimes a challenge to educate people," he said. "We don't take a horse to the vet every time it coughs. The horses here don't have problems like colic, cribbing and other behaviors that you see with horses that are kept in confinement. Horses simply aren't meant to be confined."
That doesn't mean the horses arrive raring to gallop wild and free across the prairie. For most, there is a transition period.
"I transition them slowly, at their own pace," Helm said. "I like to get them together with a gentle old saddle horse and let them companion up. I open up the gates and let them wander into a big pasture with the other horse. I leave the gate open and they have access to hay or grain during the transition, but after a while they don't want to come back. Then we turn them out with the herd. They will take some licks out there as the group settles the pecking order, which usually takes about three hours. After that, everything's fine and they go on about their business."
The horses, divided into three groups currently, live on the natural grasses and forbs of the Trans-Pecos, and watering holes are situated strategically across the ranch. Helm or his wife usually sees at least one of the groups every day. They keep the horse acclimated to people by visiting them with feeding cubes and inspecting them. It's a business, like Ron said, but it's also rewarding and, well, fun.
"Not many people get to see horses running wild like this," Ron said. "It's fun to go out there and see them. Sometimes they'll come running up to the truck to get cubes and be inspected, but sometimes I goose it and they love to run with the pick-up. It's really a sight to see."
For more information on the NHRP, visit the website at naturalhorseretirement.com.