Laura Leigh

Important Anniversary, the fight for humane handling of wild horses and burros

The Ghosts of Christmas Past (December 2017)

An article written by anonymous WHE volunteer, that wants his name kept silent at this time, undergoing the “pragmatic advocate” training that includes an education in history, legal, process and protocol.


Wild horse hit with helicopter at Triple B. “A blame the horse affront,” Judge McKibben to BLM at hearing when addressing BLM reply.

The Anniversary of the Triple B Review (BLM admits conduct issues after court ruling)

(RENO) The fight to gain a humane handling policy for wild horses ad burros has been a primary mission of Wild Horse Education (WHE) and our founder, Laura Leigh.

“Without a policy that protects our wild ones from abuse and horrific ‘accidents’ in the moment we as human beings come in direct contact with the animals,” said Laura Leigh, “nothing else can reflect or assert that what we are doing is ‘for their own good.’ If we do not have a policy that we are willing to enforce, everything else becomes an assertion made of laziness, adherence to ‘good old boy’ relationship, politics and frankly, bullshit.”

At the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) operation that just concluded at Owyhee in northern Nevada Leigh stated that she felt as if she was dragged back in time. I asked her what she meant by that and she replied, “The old game was like ‘catch me if you can.’ They would hide anything that they thought would lead to contention. On the ground games would included inane and irrelevant statements, strong arming through aggressive assertion of some ‘expertise’ that was intended to keep advocates in a position of ‘meaning well but not understanding.’ The litany of excuses always pointed to either an effort on the agencies part to move the operation forward as fast as possible or to pressure from the contractor or permittee. At Owyhee? I felt like it was 2011, not 2016.”


Owyhee 2012/2013, another court ruling

“People don’t understand how much work goes into these types of cases. These are not ‘BLM you messed up your paperwork.’ These cases require relentless and meticulous documentation that you write as you run in the sleep deprived world of the roundup where you rise before dawn and get back to the room after dark. The cases themselves are crafted at the same time as you document because they must be filed fast. It really hurts when you win a case like this after two months of essentially living on coffee and wearing the treads off your balding tires at the same time as you wear the keys off your laptop, to come out of the courtroom to hear the television news tell you another organization just won your case that they had nothing to do with. They get the donations and you get the hate mail from the opposition to wild horses because the opposition knows it was you… and the general public thinks it was someone else. This cycle repeats and repeats, but you keep going because you see the faces of those horses in person and in your sleep, when you actually get sleep.” (Laura asked that I add: WHE writes and publishes what WHE does. We are not the only org, but we don’t publish or write press releases about the work of others. If something is going on where we know people are on the ground we refer others to those people, we don’t act like we “do it all.” We do what we do).


Publishing these pictures after wild horses were processed at Owyhee and a trailer gooseneck broke, BLM’s contractor began to threaten us with legal action claiming we were hurting their business. BLM allowed it.

“I actually broke down and cried at this last roundup, I don’t do that. I can’t help but feel, like I used to feel, that part of the collective agenda is simply to test my stamina. I have spent the last 3 years trying very hard to find non adversarial engagement, after litigated relentlessly for 4 years, in both process with the government and trying to teach and share with advocacy. In on range management I have jumped every single hoop, in a gesture of respect and good faith, an attempt to engage a convoluted process that has more to do with creating people process than ground action. In advocacy I have continued to try to just accept the public relations game as what it is, but not engage, it turns my stomach. But when that moment arrives where we actually place our hands on those horses, my patience for a ‘people first’ approach disappears because the lack of respect given those horses. I take it personally because it is the entire reason I am there. I had to point out several times that I am the only person present that is not getting a paycheck. My ‘paycheck’ is in seeing progress with the way we handle the horse. At Owyhee? I saw no progress, I saw a familiar game, all sides. If there is no tangible progress to a respectful attempt it becomes a tragedy of errors. I literally felt crushed under the weight of sorrow.”

  • The legal fight to gain access to wild horse roundups actually began at Owyhee. In 2010 BLM was going to roundup wild horses in an “emergency” operation in an area of the Owyhee Complex they then referenced as “Tuscarora.” Leigh and her attorney won against the closure of 27,000 acres of public land during operations but the Judge allowed the operation to go forward when BLM asserted 75% of the wild horse would be dead in 3 days if the Judge granted a restraining order. Leigh showed up the following morning, with a concussion from being rear ended by a drunk driver, expecting BLM to do what the Judge requested, a best effort to facilitate observation. Instead she was literally chased around the desert, lied to about the boundary of public and private property (if she stepped a foot on private she was told she would be arrested, even though there were no signs of any boundary) and in general saw no “best effort” to do anything but hide operations.
  • The very next roundup at Sliver King, Leigh filed another First Amendment case that lasted 4.5 years, was joined by 15 news organizations nationwide including the Reporters Committee for a Free Press (RCFP) and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and won a landmark ruling in the Ninth Circuit on Valentines Day in 2012.

crouched on truck with a 6 inch lift kit window frame trying to document handling at holding

“At this juncture I actually experience incredible anxiety that has been created trying to work collaboratively with anyone, advocacy or BLM.

If I see something I disagree with, or have any issue; BLM holds the key to any on range work done for the horses. They have huge deficits in the number of personnel needed  to gather data and do fertility control the way it needs to. But pressure on BLM from certain livestock interests that really hate the attention I have brought to things like roundups and permittees that break the law like when they run cows in trespass, BLM actually seems to walk on eggshells. I have never broken a rule or law, but I am the one that will be pushed out of the room because I simply speak. I am literally becoming ill over this double standard. The willingness I and WHE offer to do any job that helps create a science based and factual conversation, not drama based, should be embraced. Instead it rocks the boat of a long standing tradition of ‘blame the horse.’

With advocacy I feel that any cooperative effort leads to continual minimization or attack of the work I do. Either my work will appear on another website, which is great to get the word out but lousy when I have bills to pay, because people think others did it, and your phone literally gets turned off the second week of a roundup as your truck breaks down because you can’t even afford the phone bill. Or the crazy train that has no clue to process or the reality of the range will put me, literally, on a wanted poster and claim I am some traitor because I say we need management.

I truly feel locked in some sick episode of the ‘Twighlight Zone.'”

In 2013 Leigh attended a long winter roundup in the Owyhee Complex. There she filed litigation against conduct issues once more and she won, again.


Wild horses that live on what Leigh calls “an absurd boundary line” in the Snowstorm herd management area, part of the Owyhee Complex

The case also included issues with data in the Environmental Assessment (EA). As an example Leigh emailed the WHB specialist and district manager asking for the data and was told that she had to file a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) from the national office because the data was not available at the field level. She replied “Well if you don’t have the data, how did you write the EA?” (Emails are included as court exhibits in the case).

In 2013 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review was published and confirmed every assertion made in Leigh’s argument. Leigh met with the district manager and then Nevada State Director, Amy Lueders. Leigh dropped the litigation with the understanding that the deficits would be addressed and all involved in that conversation expected a list of recommendations from BLM national to address those deficits broad scale. The recommendations never came from national, and the deficits have not been fully addressed.


Wild horses taken onto the Indian Lakes facility (Broken Arrow) are often never seen again or only seen during one or two visits a year. Some of them Leigh has documented at that facility since 2009 Calico roundup. Some have gone in like an injured colt during the Eagle roundup never to be seen again as weekly death reports from the facility list as many as a dozen a week after the roundup, including youngsters, while no visitation is allowed. She calls the place “a personal heartbreak.”

During the same time in 2012/2013 Leigh and the BLM were ordered into mediation on access issues by the Ninth Circuit. BLM national agreed to reopen the Broken Arrow (Indian Lakes) facility to tours and work to make access a priority, not a footnote .

Right after these agreements the helm of the state office changed directors, Lueders left and John Ruhs came in.

“Ruhs and I had a very rocky start. It was as if all of the work I had done to create mutual respect vanished in an instant. I know wild horses, even though highly contentious, are often a footnote in management. It seemed as if my role in process simply got wrapped up in ego games and boundary lines that had very little to do with any factual conversation on wild horses. Ruhs and I seemed to begin to repair some of that damage and I began to do some volunteer work this year. After 4 years of begging and pleading and giving my best, we at least began in an official capacity to try to stem the fall out of drama.”

But the drama of the sage grouse literally overshadowed anything. Big interests like mining and livestock took over the table.

It appears under John Ruhs, everything has vanished except the need to placate livestock interests. It seems as if Ruhs dragged us back in time, not forward. An environment of hostility toward anyone wanting environmental protections was solidified.

“I tried to get conversation into the room that addressed the flawed pre-NAS paradigm being inserted. But every single person in that state office was busy doing one meeting or another on sage grouse. I had arranged a meeting to address the language prior to the decision being signed, but the gal doing the lead on the plan was either on the road with livestock or in meetings with livestock, and our conversation never happened before the signing of the final decision. I was then reassured that we would be addressing underlying planning documents and I am still waiting for things to actualize into more than talk.”

Actions not words, is something I have seen Leigh write, or heard her say, since I began following her work in 2009. I told her I wanted to write this article, the conversations she shared with me privately, and at first she said “no.” She said she wants to figure out how to move conversations forward without drama  because the stakes are too high right now.

“Everything I do or say is under one microscope or another. Someone will take it out of context and use it to  hurt our efforts to create a sane and honest conversation to make a better world for the horses. I feel like I’m being driven into a trap, one step in one direction and someone will close a gate. I need to find a way out of this that makes sense before I speak.”

The way out is always just the truth, wherever it leads. She told me that there were some things that happened at Owyhee that point out the obstacles in very simplistic ways, she said roundups are always an analogy for the entire program. She said that what she experienced, does not bode well.

Laura is prepping her observation and assessment report on the Owyhee Complex operation of 2016 and reflecting on the ghosts of Christmas past.

Main web site


The view BLM and contractor agreed upon of a release of wild horses during the Owyhee Complex roundup (Elko side) To read about that day click the photo or this link



Dedicated to the foal born of a heavily pregnant mare from the Antelope Complex after being run in the biter cold, shipped across the state and to die hours after his birth in the filth of a holding pen… after being sprayed with water for “dust control” in frigid temperatures.