When Paul Lincoln stepped outside of his Arizona home one day in early June, he found some surprise guests.
"Lo and behold, there were 20 or 25 horses standing behind the house with their heads down and they all looked in really bad shape," Lincoln tells MNN. "Being wild horses, it was kinda like their spirit was taken away from them."
He called his friend, Glenda Seweingyawma, to come outside and they watched a yearling fall over in distress.
"That's when we started scampering," he says.
They filled up a 5-gallon bucket, offering water to the dehydrated animals. The horses drank deeply, but for some, the water was too late. Several of the horses didn't make it, but the herd remained.
These were the wild horses of Gray Mountain on the Navajo Reservation, north of Flagstaff. Although they normally live on the mountain itself, because of the drought and a lack of vegetation, they made their way down the mountain, looking for sustenance.
"These are feral horses that have been living here longer than we have," Lincoln says.
The couple filled an old bathtub with water and Seweingyawma posted about the horses' surprise appearance on Facebook. Quickly, word began to spread.
Gathering the 'horse heroes'
The next day, a woman dropped off a bale of hay and a water trough. A man they didn't know brought another water trough. Then the couple came across others just a few miles away who were also feeding and watering wild horses that had wandered into the community.
"That's when everything just happened and people started getting involved," says Seweingyawma. "Each day, it seemed like we got something from somebody. And we noticed there were more horses every day."
As more people became aware and were working to help, Flagstaff Realtor Billie McGraw posted on Facebook about the horses and created a group for the Gray Mountain "horse heroes" so volunteers could communicate online. Her posts got the attention of the nonprofit Wildhorse Ranch Rescue, based in Gilbert, Arizona.
"We initially learned of the severe droughts effects on the Gray Mountain wild horses when nearly 200 horses perished after becoming stuck in the mud of a watering hole that was drying up near Gray Mountain due to the statewide drought. The horses came there for lifesaving water and they suffered a slow painful death in their quest for this basic necessity," Lori Murphy, herd health co-manager and wild horse advocate for the rescue, tells MNN in an email.
Then they heard about more horses suffering in the area.
"These horses were alive, but barely so. They were walking skeletons, dehydrated, starving due to lack of forage, and some were even dropping dead daily. With the drought persisting and no end in sight, the only option for the horses is a slow painful death and unnecessary suffering. The humans have a choice. You can turn a blind eye and walk away, or you can do something about it."
Volunteers and donations
As word continued to spread, more volunteers stepped up and more donations came in. People donated a few 300-gallon plastic water containers, making it easier for volunteers to haul water from the community well at the trading post in nearby Cameron.
In the early days, the horses were so thirsty that they'd fill the troughs, head the eight miles to get water and when they returned, the troughs would be nearly empty, Seweingyawma says.
"For the first three or four days, it was nonstop from the morning to the evening. That's all they did was drink water. The bales of hay that were donated, they didn't even touch the day until they had enough of the water."
It took about two weeks before the horses stopped walking around like zombies and were more alert. In the meantime, the volunteer effort became more mobilized. They created a homebase for the horses around the Gray Mountain windmill. Anywhere from 200 to 250 horses stop by for food and water.
About 20 people now come out on a regular basis to spread donated hay and make sure the water troughs stay filled. People from all over the United States have been donating to make sure the horses are cared for. Murphy said donations have come from as far away as Louisiana and Hawaii.
The horses go through 12 bales of Bermuda hay per day. The water costs $220 per 4,000 gallons and that lasts for just three days. Water is now trucked with two 2,500-tanks of water so volunteers no longer need to fill their pickups with sloshing water containers.
Wildhorse Ranch Rescue is focusing on water and is making sure it gets delivered every few days. Tax-deductible donations to "Water for Horses" all go to make sure the troughs stay filled.
Olsen's Grain in Flagstaff (928-522-0568) is accepting credit-card donations to pay for hay. Volunteers pick it up at the feed store and distribute it to the horses. The Animal Guardian Network is also fundraising to buy water and hay via their website. (Just note in the donation that the money is intended for the Gray Mountain horses.)
Temperatures are over 100 degrees F (37.7 C) daily in the area, and rain is fleeting. Because the land is so parched, volunteers expect the horses will need help for a long time.
"With the severe drought that we are having this year, which has dried up the natural water sources across the entire state of Arizona, we anticipate that even with the monsoon rains that have just begun, we may still be looking at long-term assistance being needed for the wild horses and all wildlife in the affected areas. Because if there is no water, there is no life," says Murphy.
Lincoln worries about what the future holds.
"If it's going to continue to be like this, we're going to be in it for a long haul," he says. "Once winter comes, I don't know how they're going to survive."