SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - In the classic Hollywood western, a cowboy portrayed by John Wayne gallops across the sagebrush steppe and rocky ridges of the American West with only his horse for a companion.
What the films don't show is the cowboy buying and hauling hay for his horse, or what happens to the horse when it is too aged, infirm or irascible to ride.
Those more mundane details are at the heart of a debate about growing cases of mistreatment of horses in the United States, at a time when hay and grain prices are skyrocketing and when options for disposing of unwanted horses are dwindling.
Just a year ago, the sale of an average horse suitable for recreation -- one with neither prized bloodlines nor a performance record to heighten its status -- would have fetched several thousand dollars.
Today, prices in some cases have dropped to just hundreds of dollars, largely because of higher costs for their maintenance and transport.
The situation for marginal horses -- horses whose poor physical condition or disposition makes them targets for slaughter -- is even worse, after a court ruling sought by animal-rights groups effectively shut down the U.S. horse slaughter industry last year.
The result is that a growing number of unwanted horses are being starved or turned loose to fend for themselves in the U.S. West, according to animal welfare advocates.
"What concerns me is a fate worse than slaughter," said Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and an authority on the handling of livestock such as horses. "We've got people turning horses loose in fields, dropping horses off in the night -- my worst nightmares are coming true."
Such images have strong resonance in the West, the land of the rider on the range immortalized in art by Frederic Remington and in popular culture by actors such as the late President Ronald Reagan.
Far from Kentucky, where thoroughbreds race the Churchill Downs, owning a horse in the West is a middle-class occupation. The average horse owner rides for recreation and keeps their horse on their own land or land rented for the purpose, rather than at a commercially run barn.
Horses eat hay made from either grass or alfalfa, or a mix of both, and a modest amount of grain. Prices fluctuate, but in east central Idaho, hay prices have risen to $145 from $120 per ton a year ago, a jump of 21 percent. In northern Idaho it costs $220 per ton and as much as $300 per ton in parts of California. Feeding a horse can cost $2,000 a year or more.
The West is also the region where the historic practice of releasing domesticated horses into the wild -- first by Spanish explorers and last by ranchers -- gave rise to the herds of Mustangs, or feral horses, that still inhabit the vast public lands of Western states.
But the romantic concept of freeing a tamed horse to roam the West's wide open spaces bears no resemblance to the reality, said Kirk Miller, livestock investigator in Idaho and Montana for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"They have no survival instinct in the wild, no clue as to what's dangerous to eat, no knowledge of how to grub for food under the snow," he said.
Miller and Colorado State's Grandin are among animal experts who say the campaign led by the Humane Society of the United States to end domestic horse slaughter was well-intentioned but misguided.
Now the tens of thousands of American horses marked for slaughter are shipped to Canada and Mexico, where long, stressful journeys end in what some horse advocates say can be unduly painful deaths.
Most horses are slaughtered for human consumption, with Europe and Asia providing markets for their meat.
Some horse associations are siding with the Humane Society in its fight to end export of horses for slaughter altogether. But others are seeking to re-establish processing in the United States to broaden the outlet for unwanted horses and to ensure the animals are killed by a mechanical method approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society, said for Americans to have their horses killed for their meat would be akin to sending their pet dogs to slaughter for human consumption.
But unlike its canine counterpart, a horse weighs an average of 1,000 pounds and disposal of its carcass after Humane Society-recommended euthanasia has become burdensome. Where permitted by law and where able, owners can bury carcasses on their own land or pay several hundred dollars in assorted fees to deposit the remains at a local landfill.
Those complications may be behind what state livestock officials and federal land managers in the West say is a spike in the number of horses shot dead and dumped on public lands.
Scot Dutcher, animal protection chief with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said the abandoned horse cases officials are addressing now is a ripple compared to the wave that may come.
"If it becomes illegal to export horses for slaughter, we'll be dealing with an equine tsunami," he said.
Meanwhile, officials at some sale barns in Montana are asking owners of especially old or underweight horses to pay the auction house if the animals do not bring a sufficient price.
And horse rescues, nonprofit groups that rehabilitate and place unwanted and often abused horses, are reporting a rise in the number of calls they are fielding and the number of horses they turn away for lack of resources.
"I could have 500 horses here tomorrow," said Brent Glover, head of Orphan Acres, an Idaho rescue operation that can maintain a maximum of 130 horses.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Eddie Evans