NORTH OF FABENS, Texas - Where the blacktop ends and the sand begins, in the desert sea that surrounds the border city of El Paso, one enterprising rancher is testing a business model that promises to save horses from grisly deaths, and make a profit to boot.
For generations in the U.S., unwanted horses have been sold by the pound for their meat, viewed more as food than as friend in some parts.
But now so many horses are being transported to the border for export to Mexico that those deemed unfit are being abandoned in this region at an alarming rate.
There are just too many of them, and an increasing number of those horses are simply being taken "out back" and shot or left in the desert, local horse experts say.
The bodies of some rejected for export - too scrawny to even be rendered into glue or processed into dog food - are souring landfills, polluting groundwater and filling graves.
The abandoned animals are the latest victims of the economy and the skyrocketing price of hay, combined with a 2006 law that ended the slaughter of horses in the U.S.
But rancher Tom Heck is saving some of the abandoned horses and rehabilitating them, so he can sell the gentle ones to area dude ranches and the wild ones to area rodeos. Those too far gone will head to Mexico's slaughterhouses and rendering plants, he says.
"Here, all of a sudden, are horses that we can get for nothing. So if we have the medication, the hay, the minerals and such, we can rehabilitate them and sell them," says Heck, a lifelong rancher. "We think this can be a very viable business because nobody has done this before."
Out here on the 36,000-acre MH Ranch just northeast of Cattleman's Steakhouse, it's a different world entirely, a world of sand, grama grass and creosote bush. Nothing much grows higher than the Soaptree Yuccas. It's hard not to slip into clichés about the West.
It's also a place where ranchers have begun putting padlocks on their barns, as the price of hay has almost tripled in the last two years, Heck says.
Resting his arms on the steel pole of a corral, he explains that the 90-pound bale of hay in the corral cost about $95. Two years ago it would have cost maybe $35.
The root cause is the severe drought that has plagued Texas for more than a year, according to Rob Hogan, district economist for Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Fort Stockton.
Because of the drought, less hay is being grown, it costs more to grow, and it has to be transported ever farther distances to the region, Hogan says. It's bulky, doesn't transport well and increasing fuel costs have only exacerbated things.
"The price may go up some more; I don't know. God always sends the rain, but I just don't know if it is his time to send it," he says.
Factor in the economic downturn, and many people are finding they can no longer afford their horses. They're giving them away, abandoning them, or selling them to "killer buyers" who are bringing the horses to the border at an unprecedented rate to be slain in Mexico, according to those familiar with the trade.
In 2010, more than 53,000 horses were exported to Mexico for slaughter, according to the USDA.
Now it's estimated that 138,000 horses a year are sent out of the country for slaughter.
"They've been dumping horses by the river, in the desert, or they shoot them and take them to the landfill," says local equine expert Dr. Jose Ramos.
"These people can have a good business because they can take these horses, rehabilitate them, and give them a new life."
Heck says it costs him about $15 a day to rehabilitate a malnourished horse that he can then sell to a dude ranch for up to $400. Horses suitable for the rodeo can bring nothing or $50,000. Selling a horse for slaughter might bring 15-cents a pound.
There was something ranch owner Heck wasn't prepared for: the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and local animal rights activists.
On Dec. 8, Tim Webb, a friend of Heck's who works with livestock at the cattle border crossing in Santa Teresa, N.M., brought the first group of needy horses to the ranch, Webb says.
Horses can be rejected at the border for everything from a snotty nose to an open wound, but with the rising cost of hay, Webb says they mostly see malnourished horses.
"Some of them were already very thin and what I call ‘going south,'" he says.
Two of the emaciated horses had a habit of standing near the road by Cattleman's Steakhouse, which is not affiliated with the ranch. Someone noticed and called the sheriff's office to report possible animal abuse, Heck says.
Equine expert Ramos was hired by the sheriff's office to investigate. After hearing Heck's story a couple weeks ago and inspecting the horses, Ramos says he sent a letter to the sheriff's office recommending they not file charges because the horses were not being abused by Heck.
Then Ramos helped Heck develop a 12-point protocol for caring for the horses, everything from photographing them to monitor their condition, to injecting the horses with Vitamin B-12.
"We have two more scheduled visits, but they have followed through with five stars," Ramos says.
Right now, Heck says they have more than 80 horses, but the ranch can support up to 250.
"We want these horses to recover, we want to be able to sell them," he says.
In an effort to improve public relations, Heck has opened up his ranch to the media and invites anyone to visit.
As he surveys the ranch, a bright yellow plane with the word "Patrol" painted on it flies over.
"We're being flown," Heck says, jumping from his chair. After having a helicopter buzz his property during the investigation, he's become "a little gun-shy."
"Let's see if it circles back," Heck says. The plane just flies on and disappears.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.