Wild Horse Education

Sheldon, Revisiting an American Tragedy (Part 1)

One of the last of the Sheldon

One of the last of the Sheldon “war horses” to be removed from the range. The Sheldon herd is now no more than a page in American history. But he is a living testament. Taken as last nights “super moon” began to rise.

“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

The movie War Horse, Directed by Steven Spielberg, brought movie audiences to tears. The bond between a boy and his horse, and the lengths they were both driven to, brought the life of a “war horse” during World War I to the big screen. Yet this movie never touched on the big picture. The vast majority of horses in the European conflict were not European, they were American.

The war quickly used up the supply of European horses. US contracts were made to supply American and Allied forces. The horses in the area now known as the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was one of the most well documented areas where “war horses” were taken from to serve in the conflict.

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. The horses would then be loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to the East Cost. 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 United States government procured horses to release at Sheldon to influence the predominantly Standardbred bloodlines. Thoroughbred racing studs, many with impressive pedigrees, and draft breeds were released onto the range to create a bigger, faster “war horse.”

The greatest tragedy of 2014 was the loss forever of the Sheldon Mustangs in the wild, America's

The greatest tragedy of 2014 was the loss forever of the Sheldon Mustangs in the wild, America’s “war horse.”

None of that mattered. None of our love of US military history, none of our love for horses, none of the fancy “pedigrees” came to the aid of the herd. Steven Spielberg never even touched on the fact that the vast majority of the horses depicted in his film once ran wild on US soil. Our government officials stood back under political pressure as the vast majority of the remnants of those “war horses” repeatedly shipped off to slaughter. Some “advocate” organizations made broken promises to “be there” and “to fight.” Vicious machinations came from the federal agency that managed the refuge that included intimidation. Paperwork to “protect” the horses from abuse and slaughter was a sham.

It’s over. It’s done. Sheldon was “zeroed out” last year. A few remnants cross a broken fence line through federal jurisdictions. But the historic three herds of Sheldon are no more.

Sheldon NWR 9/11/2013

Sheldon NWR 9/11/2013

“I used to hide in Sheldon when I needed a place of inspiration,” Laura Leigh, WHE President. “There were no cows in that refuge, it was a ‘wild place.’ The landscape was recovering from devastation and anywhere you looked native grasses were present. The land had a soul again. When you sat in the presence of the horses you were transported in time. You could see both the history of our nation, and the history of the land, in their eyes. But what we were doing to them was beyond horror, human history is an ugly thing.”

In 1971 the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed into law, unanimously, by both houses of Congress and signed later that year by President Nixon. USFWS, even though it is part of the Department of Interior, claimed the Act did not fit with their “mission.” In maneuvers missed by the vast majority of Americans that thought the Act required all wild horses on federal land to be protected, USFWS wiggled out.

Sheldon became ground zero for experimentation cooked in secrecy. Sheldon did everything possible to avoid any public scrutiny as they implemented gelding, vasectomies, hysterectomies and even when they removed horses from the range. In one instance hysterectomies through the rectum were given to mares with a 30% die off rate, with no follow up after release back to the range. When horses were removed there were contractors, paid with your tax dollars, that took horses in bulk and the horses were sold into the slaughter pipeline.

Included in Declaration presented to court

Included in Declaration presented to court “The foal with the two hind socks was very lethargic the day we were there and even fell from weakness. It was so weak in fact when it fell, Mr. Palmer reached down and picked it up by its tail. A wild horse would not let a human get that close to it unless it didn’t have the strength to flee. The foal with the white patch on it had to be euthanized. It had a swollen front right when we got it. We gave it several weeks of treatment hoping to save it but after having it x-rayed, it had already developed into ring bone.”

“I have never sat on a more aggressive range,” Leigh said “The birth rate at Sheldon was less than 5%. The number of reproductive females had been reduced through surgeries in an unsterile environment. Vasectomies made males think they were reproductive. The competition for reproductive females was fierce, very few experienced ‘estrus’ or the time a female attracts a male. Any foal that hit the ground was on the move within an hour of birth from the multiple males that were trying to get at it’s mother. The boys were battered and scarred and the females were beaten up. The few foals I would see would all be limping.”

On the occasions where the public did have opportunity for action the action was misdirected. Certain “so-called leaders” of organizations were so uninformed they would have the public upset over cattle grazing (that had stopped in the refuge more than a decade ago) and writing letters to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that did not even manage the refuge. In contrast those that knew of the Sheldon specifics would create massive campaigns for other areas where they were involved in litigation or preservation and barely engaged, because Sheldon had “no hope” and the public did not “understand” anyway.

We stand at a time when the lesson of the Sheldon MUST be learned. When we say that the vast majority of people still think we are talking about the BLM. The vast majority still think we are talking about the government. We are talking about us.

Vitriolic attacks, personal agendas, a failure to understand and engage are what created the environment of hopelessness.

The vast majority of wild horses in the US are managed by the BLM. The BLM has differing mandates under law than USFWS. They are much more complex. A failure to address changing issues in real time have our wild horses behind the curve. The biggest changes to public land management in our western states has come through the sage grouse. There was very little support to address any of these issues that must be addressed through site specific engagement, a time consuming and in-depth process. Instead we have seen multiple organizations simply sing the same songs of accelerated removals (we are in the third year of decelerated), not use tools that were hard won against inhumane treatment, fight over a temporary fertility control method that has a huge data collection component.

If we do not take the time to understand and engage the bigger picture our wild horses will cease to be a part of it.


Sheldon “left overs” on the date of arrival to sanctuary. They had lost weight and were in horrible shape. Several of them have already died.

Do you want to see the same horror of Sheldon repeat? We stand at a time when we may just see it. A huge election is coming where the “state right” agenda includes a resumption of slaughtering wild horses (plain and simple, if states take over control of federal land you will see permitted mustanging, the capture and sale of wild horses to slaughter as “population control”). The BLM gave $11 million in grants to prepare to surgically sterilize and chemically sterilize wild horses instead of moving forward with a temporary vaccine that gathers data because it is “too controversial.” Getting it done faster (through a fast permanent measure) will limit the time of controversy while the BLM must deal with Congressional mandates for other uses.

“Wild horses do not exist in some utopia of open range,” said Leigh “they live in a series of fenced areas for livestock use. They live in areas where we have vast mining interests. Those uses are not going to simply go away. We must use the tools at hand to create better ones. We were told a humane handling policy, as well as winning litigation to create one, were impossible. It wasn’t. We won and the policy exists. The cases and the policy are tools that must be wielded to be effective, just like any tool. We now have tools to gather the data needed, operate within all laws and preserve and protect our wild horses and the habitat they rely on to survive. In order for them to be effective, they must be used.”

What happened, all that happened, at Sheldon is a lesson we must learn from. More to come


As with all of our work at the heart of it stands the heart of the wild horse. The last of the Sheldon horses have a story of pure horror. More than 85% of those horses made their way to the “sale barn” and are gone forever on that long drive over our borders to their deaths. We will bring you more on that soon.

A few of them (WHE has two in our care) were saved. Last night we sat with some of the boys that have been fortunate enough to find a safe rest stop at DreamCatcher sanctuary. It is very unfortunate that the saga for the LAST of our war horses has not ended. This group is part of a group from the last roundup, the “zero out,” the ones that were too old to go to a “rodeo contractor,” easy adoption, easy shipment to “sale,” or were otherwise the “left overs.” Mares were not there.

Each one of these horses has a story. We know many of them from our years at Sheldon, on the ground. In our ongoing discussion about Sheldon, we will bring some of those stories to you.

As this article is likely enough for you to digest today, some of the faces of the “left overs” from Sheldon that are safe today.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Keep Us In The Fight, click image below


Categories: Wild Horse Education