“Decoration Day” began during the US Civil War to remember all soldiers that died on the battlefield. In modern times the day honors all soldiers that died in the service of our country and is now known as “Memorial Day.” As with many American’s those of us at Wild Horse Education have family stories connected to family members that have served. The day has connection to both our human history and the cause we devote ourselves to. In American conflicts “soldiers” are not always human. Canine corps and Cavalry have also filed the ranks alongside our human brothers and sisters.
In Loving Memory… from WHE founder and President, Laura Leigh
Memorial Day has special personal meaning for me. My grand dad (Pop) died three days before Memorial Day. It was fitting for a man that had served his country in two World Wars and later became an original Teamster. In the neighborhood I lived in a lone bagpipe player walked the plaza on Memorial Day. We had just buried “Pop”… and Amazing Grace played in the streets. Pop served in our wars with America’s wild horses. Many people are unaware of how many of our horses served (and were left) overseas. Grandpa was cavalry in WWI, “You put your mask on him first,” he would say in his deep grunts, “he can carry you out but you can’t carry him.” That story, and a reference to the size of the rats he saw in the trenches in Europe, were the only stories Pop shared. Like many men of his generation he was one of few words.
As I sit to begin to write a piece to mark this important day, a large red mare sees me and watches. Coffee in hand at 5 am I move to sit in my truck to work (I am so used to working in the truck that I work most efficiently there). I set up the laptop and place the coffee on the dash. I pull up some reference material yet each time I go to type a word she lets out a deep chested “hey, breakfast,” (or “Hay, breakfast”).
So I set aside the work and feed an hour early. The large red mare lets out another sound that is “good morning” and then another that says “YES, you are going into the barn!” The dark 8 month old filly at her side echos her mother in an even deeper tone. I fill the wheelbarrow with good grass hay and balance all of the feed tubs on top.
Dragging the “chow wagon” I walk through the gate and the big red mare vocalizes again as I pull hay to drop into the tubs. She approaches tentatively. The dark filly grabs a big mouthful and rubs against my arm. I hold the hay above the tub and look away from the big mare. I feel her warmth against my arm as she begins to take hay from my hands. As she takes her first mouthfuls she vocalizes again, soft and deep.
“I love you, y’know,” I say as I turn my head slowly in her direction and meet the incredible eyes that are now a foot from my face. In the space of three seconds I can watch her “process” as she goes from discomfort, through analysis and settles. She takes another bite. The entire time I have remained motionless except for the turn of my head. I now free one hand from holding the flake of grass. I slowly stroke the back of my hand on her muzzle as her gaze goes back to me with so much in her eyes it brings yet another tear to mine.
Every time I touch this mare I am flooded with emotion. This mare overwhelms me with a sense of all she is and I feel incredible gratitude that she allows me to even stand close, let alone feel the velvet of her muzzle. The big red mare, called “Rosie” in honor of “Rosie the Riviter,” is from Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.
“This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.” ― Michael Morpurgo, War Horse
During World War I, and into World War II, military cavalry contractor Harry Wilson (sometimes referenced as ‘Winton’) would roundup horses from the area now known as Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. At first he worked for Miller and Lux that ran horses from Oregon, through NW Nevada and NE California. He later owned his own ranch and kept the supply of horses running to the US military. After the horses were rounded up they would then be loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to the East Coast. From there the horses would make a trip across the Atlantic ocean by ship. Horses that survived the journey had a bit placed in their mouths and began to pull artillery or serve as a cavalry mount. It is estimated that a shipment of 500 American horses left to supply American and allied troops during World War I every 1.5 days (archive stat). It is estimated that nearly eight million horses died in World War I alone. The US not only supplied horses for American troops, but for allied troops as the supply of horses in Europe dwindled. Sheldon Wildlife Refuge is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The area was established in 1931. Yet even though America’s wild horses inhabited the area before the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act (WH&B Act) was passed, unanimously by both houses of Congress, the refuge escaped the restrictions imposed by the Act. USFWS exists under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior (DOI), as does the agency most recognized for managing wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), yet they are still not bound by the Act of Congress intended to protect wild horses. (an article written before the roundup of Sheldon Mustangs in 2013 can be read here: https://wildhorseeducation.org/2013/08/31/sheldon-national-wildlife-refuge-and-americas-war-horses-the-ultimate-betrayal/)
Roundups at the refuge have historically carried incredible controversy. Conducted primarily in secret to avoid public scrutiny, images of horrific conduct that included foals hog tied in the desert to die surfaced. Reports of Sheldon Mustangs going to slaughter continued year after year. (You can read a multitude of articles about Sheldon Mustangs including those about our active litigation here: https://wildhorseeducation.org/page/1/?s=sheldon) The Refuge created a plan to remove all Sheldon horses in 2 years. The first of the “Last of the Sheldon’s” came off the range in September of 2013. (Note the burros were removed prior to the horses with no public notification given). The remaining Sheldon Mustangs will be removed in 2014. We await the final announcement from Sheldon as to the plans for the horses and to see if FINALLY these amazing beings will be protected from slaughter. We owe it to them.
The mare and foal with me are nothing less than a miracle.
Removed from the range on 9/11 she gave birth the following day. The birth rate on the range is only about 5% as Sheldon has been the experiment ground for permanent sterilization techniques including hysterectomies (one such experiment has a 30% die off rate within 48 hours after being given hysterectomies through the rectum, with no follow up on death rates after release).
Needless to say we saw very few pregnant horses and fewer foals captured. Our observation during the first phase of capture was nearly non-existant. As the court case was ongoing the second trap had some observation available. However in order to make out any detail on the horses it literally takes hours of time enhancing photos on the computer.
Observation at holding was simply not allowed during capture. As the court case moved forward one day of observation in holding was allowed after more than half the horses had already shipped off, including those going back into the hands of a contractor that failed to protect these horses in the past. That is where I first saw Rosie’s daughter.
Giving birth in the facility changed Rosie’s status. She was no longer just an “older mare,” but a “mare and foal pair.” Instead of going to the “questionable” contractor (J &S Associates, Stan Palmer) Rosie was now to go to another contractor. That contractor was concerned about the age of Rosie’s foal (and another that was also born in holding). She began to make calls and we assisted her in finding placement. However instead of two pair, there was now only one. It was reported the other mare broke her neck and Sheldon placed the foal themselves.
Rosie was transported to a friend. There I met Rosie and her beautiful baby that was fast changing color. I was given Rosie and foal’s paperwork… and told she was now “ours.” The Sheldon horses drew me to the range years ago. Their military history spoke to me. The first litigation I ever filed to try to protect our wild ones was for the Sheldon in 2009. I have learned a lot since then. Rosie’s foal was named “Kidron” after General Pershings horse. Kidron is a huge young filly that has a personality as long as her legs. Confident and spirited you can see the Sheldon legacy alive in that baby whose birth likely saved her mom’s life.
Rosie has settled down. About ten years old you can only imagine all she has seen in her life in Sheldon, the last intact Great Basin eco-system in Nevada. How many babies has she had? The amazing sunrises and sunsets her eyes have witnessed… and then her capture.
Rosie you are appreciated more than you will ever know. Your ancestors carried my ancestors into battle. They bled and died together, they trudged and marched together. Without the help of your ancestors mine would never have been able to accomplish their goals. Taken from their homes without a choice, put into the most harrowing situations known to man, we owe your ancestors a great debt. You were also taken from your home and family without a choice dear Rosie. But in loving memory of all those that came before you…. the war for you is over. I wish I could return you to those that you call to the mountain for… but I promise you will know only peace for the rest of your days. ~~~ Wild Horse Education is devoted to gaining protections for our wild horses and burros from abuse, slaughter and extinction. We need your help to stay in the fight and to protect our wild horses like Rosie. Donate to our effort HERE
Edited May 2016
The Sheldon herds have been forever eradicated from the wild. We stood alone on the range at the end. There is much more to tell in the story. The most important lesson is that an advocacy intent on headlines, those using issues to draw attention to their past efforts (not current involvement) and attacking the work of others can lead to the destruction of all we claim to hold dear.
WHE is the only org to have documented this herd for years on the range. It is a personal agony for us.
We will never forget. Broken promises and broken lives liter the tale. Some of the most amazing horses ever to run free on the range are no more. We will never forget.
Categories: Wild Horse Education