HAVASUPAI, Ariz. - WARNING: Due to content that some may find disturbing and/or graphic, discretion is advised
It involves the horses that are being used to carry the gear down the trails, with some upset about the way the animals are being treated. Now, one woman and a local organization are working to change all of this, and for the first time, the tribe is also speaking out.
In a video shot in early June, a packhorse being used to carry gear to Havasupai Falls collapsed. The woman who took the footage says the man tending to the animal was extremely aggressive, forcing it to get up against its will.
"Yeah, the place is beautiful, but what these animals endure is not. It's not okay," said Shayln Cline.
Cline hiked Havasupai Falls back in May.
"When we turned around, we heard the sound of a horse falling off the cliff," said Cline.
Cline doesn't have any photos or video of what she saw, only the tears that kept falling. The grief, she says, she feels over what she describes as abuse.
"The guy walked down to her, and at that point when she fell off the cliff, she definitely hit her head, and she was gone right in that instant," said Cline.
Cline reported what she witnessed to SAVE Havasupai Horses, and the organization's Facebook page flooded with similar stories. Images of neglected, overworked and over packed horses used to make the eight-plus mile trek to the falls.
"I still can hardly speak about it," said Susan Ash with SAVE Havasupai Horses. "It was -- you know, the word abuse obviously is a bad word. It upsets a lot of people but when you actually see a horse about 500 pounds, underweight and the whole length of his spine raw to the bone and abscessing, oozing pus and blood, and then you also see the sweat marks on the side of his body indicating he had either been ridden or packed that day, there are no words to describe how you feel."
In 2016, Ash founded SAVE in an effort to stop the alleged abuse and save as many horses as possible. One of the horses, Teardrop, collapsed on the trail and was kicked in the face. Teardrop was severely underweight.
As was Clyde.
"He has been stunted in his growth because he was probably packed at a very, very young age," said Ash. "As I said before, horses shouldn't be ridden before the age of three."
One horse, Sedona, is what they call a "cribber".
"That can come from anxiety. It can come from stress or boredom and clearly, she had never gotten dental care in her entire life. So now she's on all soft feeds and still basically has no teeth," said Jennifer Brumbaugh with Healing Hearts Animal Rescue.
Brumbaugh has taken in five horses that Ash pulled off the Havasupai tribal lands. He says Sedona broke her hip when she fell, and the horses she was tethered to didn't survive. Sedona's spine is still exposed, and Brumbaugh says the packs she carried likely rubbed her skin raw.
"We got these horses that came in that are some of the worst that we have ever seen. Some of the most horrific stories that we have ever heard, and there are no repercussions for the individuals that own these horses," said Brumbaugh.
"The people of Havasupai, this is their homeland. They live there. They work there," said Abbie Fink, a spokesperson for the Havasupai Indian tribe. "We are not denying that there have been incidences where this has happened."
Fink says there are regulations to help stop the abuse, such as more emphasis on how much a pack animal can carry, and only allowing individual tourists with a reservation to use a pack animal. According to Fink, horses leave the village in the morning, make the trek up to the hilltop to pick up tourists' gear and make only one run back down. As for vet care, Fink said says in the past few years, the Humane Society of the United States has made five trips to Havasupai and treated nearly 500 animals, including companion animals, providing everything from dental care to vaccinations.
"If and when an incident occurs, there's a way for it to be reported and investigated, and again, in the event we are found to have done something, it will be moved through the process the way we expect it to," said fink.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the law in Supai, and according to Fink, it is the only agency that takes and investigates reports of abuse. From January through July 2019, the BIA investigated seven incidents involving suspected animal abuse of horses. Of those cases, four were deemed unfounded, and two of those cases were submitted by SAVE, and the BIA says it included photographs used in previous claims. The United States Attorney's Office and the Coconino County Attorney's Office are investigating the case reported by Cline.
"They shouldn't be treated like machines anymore," said Cline, who says she will never forget.
"They've just worked day and night. They haven't had family time. They haven't had downtime, time to be a horse," said Cline.
Brumbaugh, meanwhile, is ready to take in more rescues after adopting out three, including Teardrop.
"SAVE's position has never been 'don't go'," said Ash, who encourages tourists not to use pack animals until a better system is in place and enforced to ensure the well-being of the animals. Ash also says she will continue to fight.
Save Havasupai Horses
Humane Society of the United States
Help the Havasupai Horses