Activist Simone Netherlands is Hellbent on Saving Arizona's Salt River Wild Horses

Simone Netherlands’ voice is shaking. 

She’s naturally a nervous public speaker so it’s almost imperceptible. But she’s angry as she takes the lectern in hearing room 5 of the Arizona House of Representatives, neat and elegant in a gray blazer, blonde hair swept back to showcase her high cheekbones.

Just moments before, Representative Kelly Townsend, during a public meeting of the Federalism and States’ Rights Committee, had accused Netherlands of spurring U.S. officials’ highly controversial July 31 attempt to round up and auction off a herd of horses that runs free along the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest — a herd Netherlands loves so much that she gouged her 401K, formed a nonprofit, and rallied thousands of people to protect it.

“Up to this point, I’ve been quiet about what was said behind closed doors,” Townsend had announced, with a deep, dramatic sigh. 

Then, with eyebrows raised, she had read aloud an e-mail from the U.S. Forest Service complaining about tense relations between Netherlands’ nonprofit, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, in the months leading up to the debacle. 

“It wasn’t necessarily the horses that were the problem,” she had said, waving a heavily highlighted printout of the exchange. The problem was “conflicts with the horse advocates.” 

Now, according to legislative decorum, Netherlands has two minutes to respond. 

Jaw tight, she turns to the audience. 

“If I may,” she says, “how many of you am I speaking for today?” 

Townsend shakes her head vigorously. “No. This is inappropriate,” she hisses. “The rules are that you address us. You don’t address the audience. That’s just protocol.”

But the rustling of about 100 bodies hefting out of chairs muffles her protests. Nearly everyone in the small room stands. Many are wearing matching T-shirts featuring a horse, mane blowing in the wind, pawing at a screen-printed SRWHMG logo with its hooves.

Townsend, realizing she’s lost control, backs down.

“I’ve allowed it,” she says, through clenched teeth. “Thank you. Let’s move on. Thank you.”  

She glances over the list of citizens who have signed up to comment at the meeting and reads the next name. 

“Please, give my time to Simone,” the woman calls from the audience.

Townsend moves down the lineup.   

“Please, give my time to Simone.” 

“Please, give my time to Simone.”

Inside a sun-filled ranch house just outside of Prescott, Netherlands, who is stunning at 46, sits at her kitchen table, posture perfect, laptop open. It’s February 16, the evening before the Federalism and States’ Rights Committee meeting, and she’s preparing her remarks. 

There are two massive mutts, rescued days before euthanization, panting at her feet, and a creamy-furred Chihuahua, called Cookie, curled up in her lap. Cookie, an unfriendly little biter, is trained to tend Netherlands during fainting spells and gets testy if Simone is out of sight too long. Netherlands totes her everywhere.

“Call me Paris Hilton,” she jokes.

The past seven months have been a blur of rallying the public, lobbying legislators, and negotiating with lawyers as Netherlands (with Cookie tucked under her arm) fought to convince the government that the Salt River horses are not feral livestock turned out by disinterested owners but wild horses descended from stock shipped over by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century.

It may seem like semantics, but, under the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, it is illegal to harass or kill wild horses. Feral horses, however,  frequently are scooped up and sent to slaughter.  

The Forest Service, in response to public protest, canceled the Salt River roundup. But still, the herd’s future remains uncertain because the government refused to classify the horses as “wild” without authorization from Congress.  

After fervent negotiations, Netherlands was convinced she’d found a way to force the Forest Service to protect the horses under a different federal law, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. 

But now, Townsend, in her own attempt to secure the herd’s safety, had introduced a bill to transfer the horses’ management to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the state agency charged with overseeing feral livestock, and Netherlands was certain it spelled disaster. Her vocal opposition to the measure, House Bill 2340, threatened to ignite a simmering rivalry with the legislator into a full-out public catfight. 

“I feel like we’ve got to save the horses all over again,” she sighs, scratching between Cookie’s bug eyes. 

Throughout the ordeal, Netherlands has become something of a hero to the horse lovers of Arizona. She gets applause when she enters a room and standing ovations for her woodenly delivered speeches. Her followers, in the hundreds of thousands, jump to please her like one of the dressage horses she stables outside her ranch house, trained to rear, run, and dance at the flick of her finger.

Netherlands is one of nation’s foremost champions for horses in the wild.

Before she launched a campaign to save the Salt River herd, she halted a New York restaurant’s plans to add horse meat to its menu, and helped to block the roundup of 104 wild horses at Nevada’s Walker Lake. 

She’s a regular picketer at Bureau of Land Management meetings, and frequently flies to Washington, D.C., to lobby for and against bills that concern her beloved horses. When the government moves forward with a roundup, she shows up with a camera to document. When those horses are sent off to auction, she digs into her purse and takes home as many as she can.  

People follow Netherlands, because she’s “100 percent in this for the horses,” says Scott Beckstead, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Oregon chapter. But, perhaps more importantly, he says, she makes time in her frantic schedule to connect with people.

“Simone’s a genuinely nice person,” says Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, the United States’ largest wild horse-advocacy organization. “She doesn’t just care about the horses; she also cares about the people who love the horses.” 

Not everyone’s been charmed, though, as Netherlands has climbed her way to the top of the horse-advocacy community.

Critics, including Townsend and prominent environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society, argue that her dedication to the Salt River herd borders on fanaticism, and that her management methods, while well intentioned, sometimes dance the line between edgy and unethical. 

“She has great passion,” Townsend says. “But you can’t lie and blur the truth just to get what you want.” 

As Netherlands is ticking off the reasons she hates H.B. 2340 (“The Agriculture Department will manage them like livestock!” she exclaims, eyes wide with horror. “They will round them up and give them immunizations! They might geld them or move them and create some sort of ‘wild horse park!’”), a ranch hand quietly solicits her attention. Two of her horses are being stubborn and refusing to stable for the night. 

She slips a leather jacket over the yellowing Salt River Wild Horse Management shirt she’s wearing (It’s “practically the only thing” she’s put on since the Forest Service issued the roundup notice, she says.) and heads out the front door, past a patio sofa piled with horse-themed pillows, a wrought-iron welcome sign featuring running mustangs, and a pen full of formerly wild burros that she rescued from auction.

After a short jaunt, she’s in the pasture and the two misbehaving horses are greeting her with nuzzling snouts and prancing hooves. She pats their necks and wheedles and coos: “Come on. Come on. It’s time to go. I know. I know. You’re having so much fun out here. But it’s time to go.” 

Netherlands, daughter of a financial adviser and a secretary, was raised in a row house in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. A painfully shy little girl, she preferred the quiet company of animals to playing with raucous children. In her spare time, she’d sit chatting with the neighbor’s horses and teach the family dogs to do tricks. She frequently brought injured birds home, built them nests in her bedroom, and let them swim in the bathtub while they rehabilitated. 

One swan, which she rescued after it broke its wing flying into an electric pole, got so attached to her that it would follow her through the neighborhood, waddling behind as if she were its mother. One day, when a group of schoolboys started throwing rocks at it, Netherlands, a scrawny little thing, puffed up like the Incredible Hulk and threw them all into a pond. 

Netherlands took her first riding lesson at a Dutch military academy when she was 12. Her instructors taught her to brush the horse and put on the saddle, then, eventually, how to tell it to turn, jump, and dance with a tug of a bridle, a squeeze of legs, or a shift of weight.

They also taught her that if she didn’t beat the horse, it would “think it was the boss” and would kick and bite, she says. After her horse, scared by a freight train, reared one day, they screamed at her to “keep whipping” for 15 minutes while she sobbed and the horse cowered in the corner of its stall. 

She refused to go back for another lesson. 

“When you are taught something as a 12-year-old, you do what you are told,” she says, as she recounts the story. “But I knew it couldn’t be right. The horses were so scared.”

After high school, Netherlands moved to Amersfoot, where, dreaming of entrepreneurship, she studied marketing. Before graduation, though, she was recruited by Elite Model Management, the talent agency responsible for bringing big names like Cindy Crawford and Gisele Bundchen into the international limelight, and, instead, launched a moderately successful 11-year career walking the runway, posing for advertisements, and shooting editorial spreads. 

“It’s not as glamorous as you’d think,” she says, recalling how a photographer once forced her to stand on a precarious incline in high heels for four hours while he and the lighting staff went to lunch because it would be “too big a bother” to repose her. “People treat you just like a doll.” 

Any hope of real fame was squelched at 19, when she got pregnant during a backpacking trip across the United States and was forced to trade sexy runway shows in Paris and London for dirty diapers, mashed carrots, and local jobs smiling for department store catalogs. “I thought my life was over,” she says, quickly adding, "but my son is the best thing that ever happened to me."

The baby’s father moved to Amsterdam; they married, and, after several years living in a 15-by-15 foot attic while he struggled to find work, they relocated to the United States. They settled in Arizona in 1996. 

Netherlands worked in management at a resort until she’d saved enough money to divorce and start her own business importing Friesian horses from the Netherlands, training them without bridals, bits, or whips, and selling them off for $30,000 to $40,000 each. She often took the horses — big, black, glossy beauties with long manes and tails — on tour to perform tricks for crowds thousands strong. 

She talks about all of this as if she were “a different person with a whole different life.” Her new life began, she says, the day she learned about horse slaughter. 

Historians estimate that at one point in the 1800s, more than 2 million horses ran free across the United States. But, viewed as pests, they were hunted for dog food, killed for their hides, and driven off cliffs for sport until, when they received federal protection in 1971, their numbers had dwindled to only about 17,000. 

It’s illegal to sell a wild horse to slaughter. However, activists argue, it still happens. Between 2009 and 2012, according to a Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation published in October, for instance, the Bureau of Land Management sold 1,794 mustangs to a rancher who shipped them to Mexico to be made into steaks. 

After Netherlands met a similar rancher, called a kill buyer, at a livestock auction in Prescott, she was so horrified she started stalking him. 

Whenever he bid on a horse, she bid higher until the stables at her ranch were full. She followed him to his house, where she documented him beating horses. When she spotted him getting into his car after having a drink, she called the cops and he was cited. This happened so many times that he was looking at jail time. 

He moved to Texas to dodge prosecution. 

She followed him hundreds of miles until she lost sight of him in traffic. 

At that point, she founded her first nonprofit group, Respect4Horses. 

Now, she makes a good living flipping condos in Scottsdale and spends most of her time lobbying for horses’ rights. 

“If you want to approach a wild horse, you can’t do it head on,” Netherlands whispers, on a recent evening, stealthily stepping through the brush at the Coon Bluff Recreation Area in the Tonto National Forest. “You’ve got to walk sort of sideways — like this — so the horse can see you and he doesn’t feel threatened.” 

Just a few yards away, three free-roaming horses are chomping on some grass. It’s a new band: one stallion, his main mare, and a 2-week-old foal the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group has named Theodore, who, with his fluffy hide and love for napping, already has built a reputation for himself as “the cute one.” 

She crouches in the grass to seem less threatening. From the crook of her arm, Cookie cranes her neck to watch the horses. Netherlands predicts their movements like she’s narrating a choreographed show: The stallion is in charge so he decides where to go, herding the mare from behind. Theodore keeps playing, but once his parents get too far, “He’ll run to catch up.”

The first time Netherlands saw the Salt River horses, she was taking a trip through the rapids on a blow-up kayak in 2010. Through her advocacy work across the country, she had seen dozens of wild-horse herds, but it always was from a distance. If you got too close, they spooked and galloped off. These horses were different. “Special,” she says. They were so used to people tubing the river and hiking through their territory, which includes several popular picnic areas, that, when Netherlands’ kayak floated right up next to them, they just carried on munching their eel grass.  

She returned periodically with her Canon Rebel, hoping to capture the horses in action, and made friends with a small group of other photography enthusiasts, some of whom had been documenting the herd for more than a decade, naming each horse, and cataloging births, deaths, and migration patterns. 

Among them was Becky Standridge, who fell in love with the horses after a close encounter during a hike. Standridge, a former software engineer from Mesa with wild gray hair and a pebbly alto voice, dubbed the herd the “Salt River wild horses” and propelled them into the national spotlight with a YouTube video featuring a white stallion rescuing a filly from drowning that garnered more than 2.1 million views. 

When rumors started flying in 2011 that the Forest Service, arguing that the herd was causing problems in recreation areas, had formed a working group to discuss getting rid of the horses, Standridge weaseled her way into government meetings as a community representative and quickly established herself as the horses’ spokeswoman in the media. 

Hoping to win public support for her cause, she set up a Facebook page filled with pretty pictures of stallions sparring, mares nursing their foals, and bands of horses stampeding through the water at sunset. The fan count ticked up to 230,000. 

Channel 12 News declared her photography “the horses’ best hope.” Netherlands, however, found Standridge’s strategy too passive — so she started posting calls for protests, petitions, and letter-writing campaigns on the Facebook page. 

Standridge — who now testily describes Netherlands as a “radical activist,” not an “advocate” — deleted each one.

“The goal isn’t to alienate the Forest Service,” she tells New Times. “The goal is to work with them.” 

Still, one by one, Standridge’s supporters flocked to Netherlands, who in 2012 officially founded the SRWHMG. Soon, she’d replaced Standridge in front of the TV cameras.

Employing the same plan that she used to save the Walker Lake Herd in Nevada in 2010, Netherlands and her volunteers sifted through thousands of archived news articles, looking for proof the horses had been running free along the Salt River before 1971, when the federal government, after passing the protection act, dispatched officials across the country to tally each herd, document their ranges, and assign their management to the Forest Service or to the Bureau of Land Management. Then, she hired a wildlife biologist to evaluate the horses’ effect on the environment, mapped out a complete plan for the horses’ care, including grazing management and birth control, typed it all up into an illustrated, bound, 46-page proposal, and delivered it to the Forest Service. 

The group dug up a 1957 issue of Arizona Highways magazine that featured a photo of horses standing in the Salt River. In 1928, a local newspaper reporter detailed Phoenix officials’ attempts to rid the area of wild horses by shipping them to a meat market. Another piece written in 1890, before Arizona achieved statehood, referred to a herd of horses in the area as “native stock.” 

Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Templin acknowledges the photos, but she contests their relevance. When U.S. officials surveyed the area in the 1970s, according to Forest Service records, the only horses they discovered on the river were “branded horses” belonging to “stockmen” from the Salt River and Fort McDowell Indian reservations. 

“Yes, there were horses standing in the river in 1957,” Templin says. “But we don’t know where they came from.”

As far as she’s concerned, it doesn’t matter, because at this point, it would take an act of Congress to amend the 1971 act to include the Salt River herd on the nation’s official wild horse registry. 

The Forest Service, officials told Netherlands after reading her proposal, would not manage the horses without specific legal authorization.

Netherlands sent her volunteers searching for a loophole. 

Meanwhile, she decided, the SRWHMG would take on the job. 

Netherlands has only watched Theodore and his family a few minutes when her phone buzzes. It’s one of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group volunteers calling to report they’ve spotted two other bands deeper in the desert. A pregnant mare had given birth. 

She squeals, races to her truck, and zips to meet them. She can see the horses from the road — tiny dots dancing along the horizon — but she has to park and hike in about a quarter mile.

She brainstorms names for the new baby as she picks her way through a field of cholla cactus. The father’s name is Texas so volunteers named all its offspring accordingly: Dallas, Houston, Abilene. She settles on Marcos — short for San Marcos.  

Every day, about 10 SRWHMG volunteers head to the Tonto National Forest to check in on the horses. The group has developed an app to catalog each horse — its birth date, special markings, and significant injuries or illnesses. Each time a horse is spotted, volunteers update the data. 

Netherlands describes the nonprofit’s management approach as generally hands-off, pointing out, for example, that she’s watched, anguished, from a distance while horses limped about on broken legs. 

“We think wild horses ought to be wild,” she says, adding, “They have remarkable healing abilities.” 

Sometimes, though, they intervene. 

When a stallion got tangled in a barbed fence and carried on for days, dragging the wire around the range, for example, Netherlands hired a veterinarian to chase it down with a tranquilizer gun. When a foal sustained grievous injuries running in the river, volunteers shot it in the head to put it out of its misery. When a mare abandoned its baby, the group swooped in and rescued her.  

Netherlands often notifies the Forest Service of her plans. But when a seep dried up last spring, leaving about 30 horses in danger of dehydrating, and Forest Service officials refused to help, she went rogue. 

“We’re not going to water the horses,” Mesa District Ranger Gary Hanna told Netherlands at the time, according to a recording of their phone call. 

“So we’re going to have to let the horses die?” Netherlands cried.

“Yes,” Hanna replied. 

The SRWHMG hauled in a 1,000-gallon tank of water and poured it into plastic kiddie pools for the horses. 

The Forest Service dumped out the kiddie pools and packed out the water tank. 

The SRWHMG flooded public officials with e-mails and voicemails accusing the Forest Service of animal cruelty.

A month later, the Forest Service published a public notice announcing that the horses would be rounded up and sold at auction within the week.

In a Forest Service internal memo listing the agency’s concerns, officials noted reports of horses straying into a road and causing traffic accidents, and of “well-meaning individuals” using watering troughs, salt licks, and hay to draw horses into high-traffic recreation areas “in spite of easy access to natural water sources.” Indignantly, a forest ranger told New Times at the time, that, because of the horse advocates’ interference, the horses were trampling into endangered animal habitats. 

Netherlands spotted the notice, scrolling through her Google Alerts on her smartphone while out to lunch with a friend. She dropped her fork, got on the phone, and started mobilizing her volunteers. 

By morning, she’d sent more than 6,000 press releases across the the world. Then, she got started planning a rally and recruiting a lawyer to sue the Forest Service pro bono. After three days without eating, sleeping, or drinking, she had to check into the hospital for an IV.

A slew of others joined the fight then, including the full lineup of Arizona’s federal lawmakers, and Townsend, who — despite confessing, “I’m not actually much of a horse person” — rushed to Netherlands’ first rally. An avid advocate for states’ rights, she says, she was miffed that the federal government was interfering in what she saw as Arizona’s affair.

“They don’t own our horses,” she insists. 

At the Forest Service’s Arizona headquarters, Templin’s phone didn’t stop ringing for days. For every phone call she took, five to 15 people left messages. 

The agency’s Washington D.C. office was so overrun with calls that it started routing all of the director’s voicemails through Arizona to be sorted into two categories: complaints about the horses and everything else. Templin had three people working on the issue full time. 

The e-mails rolled in by the tens of thousands.

“We knew it was an unpopular decision, and we expected the public to be vocal,” Templin says. “But we never expected that.” 

Within a week, the Forest Service announced it had agreed to postpone a roundup a few months. By December, the agency had rescinded the order and agreed to work with the SRWHMG and other stakeholders to find a solution. 

Netherlands started by mending fences with the Forest Service — literally and metaphorically. 

Her group now meets regularly with the Forest Service to discuss ideas for the horses’ management. First on the agenda: 18 miles of roadside fence that’s fallen into disrepair, opening the way for horses to dart in front of cars. The Forest Service wasn’t up to pay for it but gave its blessing if the Netherlands’ volunteers wanted to take on the task. 

So Netherlands found herself at a Mesa hardware store on a recent Saturday, begging the manager to donate a few bags of cement mix, some fencing posts, and a roll of barb-less fencing wire.

While Cookie explores the mulch display next to the customer service counter, the manager explains that he can’t give the nonprofit free supplies without clearing it with the corporate office. Netherlands cajoles him into giving her the employee discount. 

As she’s checking out, the clerk sheepishly asks if she’s the Simone Netherlands.

“I love the Salt River wild horses,” the clerk gushes. “I went to your rally.”

To Netherlands, the way forward is clear.

The Forest Service needs to take responsibility for the horses and, if necessary, establish a memorandum of understanding with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group to keep the herd’s numbers controlled using a non-hormonal contraceptive that can be administered with a dart gun. 

Townsend, however, disagrees vehemently. That’s why, citing the federal government’s history of illegally selling wild horses to slaughter, she introduced H.B. 2340 in January, proposing to give the Arizona Department of Agriculture authority over the horses. 

Tension over the matter started months earlier, when Townsend organized a town-hall meeting about the horses and then, along with other Tea Party legislators, unsuccessfully tried to turn it into a states’ rights rally. 

The political spin rubbed Netherlands the wrong way. When she took the microphone (welcomed with a standing ovation) she declared: “Our group is not a political group. All we care about is the safety and well-being and the permanent preservation of our Salt River wild horses.”

Things got personal between her and Townsend after that.

After a horse called Dotty was shot, killed, and left —bloated and smelling — on a high-traffic trail in the Coon Bluff Recreation Area for months, Netherlands went on Channel 15 to blame Townsend.

Townsend, frustrated by the government’s failure to clean up the remains, had taken her two teenage children to the campground, and, swatting away flies, wrapped orange fencing around the dead horse. She aimed to shield the public and “give Dotty some dignity,” she said at the time. 

 But Netherlands argued that the fence discouraged the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, the Forest Service, and the SRWHMG from taking away Dotty’s remains. 

“We would hate to interfere with a state representative,” she said, throwing her hands up. 

Townsend, who had just introduced H.B. 2340, was furious when she saw the news report. 

During the bill’s next hearing, she publicly lambasted Netherlands and the SRWHMG for “pushing the Forest Service to issue the roundup order with their drama.”    

Netherlands was oddly cool after the throwdown. 

“I’m fine,” she told New Times, patting Cookie’s head and putting on a glassy-eyed smile. “Everything’s fine.” 

Two days later, in a 471-word Facebook message to Townsend, she extended an olive branch.

“Kelly, would you be willing to … work with us to put pressure on the federal government? We will be your greatest supporters. You have the political clout, and we have the grassroots muscle needed to get a lasting solution in place.” 

After a short exchange, Townsend called Netherlands on the phone, and they talked — really talked — for the first time in months. 

Townsend gutted H.B. 2340. 

There was no more mention of states’ rights. 

When it passed the House of Representatives in February, it simply established that the Salt River horses are not stray animals and, therefore, cannot be rounded up and auctioned off under laws designed to manage stray animals. The bill makes it illegal to harass, kill, or — in a measure seemingly pointed straight at Netherlands — attempt to manage the horses without Forest Service and MCSO approval. 

Netherlands gifted Townsend a framed photo of two horses playing in the Salt River as a thank you and immediately called on her followers to do a 180. In an exuberant press release lauding the changes, Netherlands optimistically announced that, if the bill passed, the SRWHMG would cooperate with the Forest Service and the MCSO on the horses’ management. 

“We love the bill,” she says. “It’s just a temporary solution. We still have to work things out with the federal government. But we love the bill.” 

Townsend and Netherlands now chat daily. But the alliance is tenuous. 

Sitting in her office a few days after the vote, Netherlands’ photo posted on her wall, Townsend says, she would rather see a different nonprofit, the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, working with the government to care for the herd. 

She denies that pressure from the activist had anything to do with her decision to back off. She had changed direction, she says, after learning it would cost the Department of Agriculture $800,000 to take on the herd’s management. 

“Simone raised awareness about the horses — she got my attention — and that might have saved them,” Townsend says. “If it weren’t for all the drama and accusations and craziness, I’d be applauding her work, saying thank you. But the Salt River group isn’t the best for the job.” 

She pauses for a second, then carefully backtracks, verbally reminding herself that she and Netherlands are on the same team now: “I mean, I am applauding her work.”