from a heart broken advocate, promise kept


One of the last free Sheldon Mustangs

A personal letter, Laura Leigh

This public letter is a piece of personal frustration. I freely admit it. I am conflicted, torn, frustrated just like so many of you.But I have personal memories that I can still see, smell and touch. They haunt me.

Asking hard questions always has a backlash. Just as I asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) if they were doing anything at all to create safer conditions for wild horses. When I asked that question, didn’t buy the regurgitation of a memo as an answer, the response was defensive. Instead of engaging honest conversation to solve the problems we ended up with years of my being forced to turn to my only option, litigation.

I did it. I documented and relentlessly engaged in litigation. The result was the creation of the conversation that should have happened in the first place. What is called a Comprehensive Animal Welfare Plan (CAWP) is now in beta test with metrics to assess and improve the protocol.

However that didn’t simply “happen,” first we had to have committees and many entities hired and debate and name calling and resentment.

Oh, well… at least it is being done.

But is it? At operations I see what I always see, discrepancy from operation to operation depending on National involvement, State, District, Field Office and personnel present. I don’t just mean people from the federal government either, I also mean the level of knowledge and engagement by people in advocacy. Sometimes it is professional and sometimes a sideshow. If you engage the tool? Make sure you do it to increase the credibility of advocacy not to get a social media click. Remember there are multiple entities looking at how advocacy cites law and fact, if we look like uneducated rabble we have no credibility.


Last of the Sheldon, the day the final removals began

A humane handling policy and  public/media rights to observe process were my personal “first line” agenda items.I had gone to a roundup and then holding. I saw a colt that had his feet literally run off. That very personal experience changed my life and many of you shared it with me through my video and writing. I named him “Hope.” I set out to create credible effort and real world change so that what happened to him, wouldn’t happen again.

In an advocacy that has multiple symptomatic issues to deal with like legislation, sanctuary, rescue, training, on range management no single entity can be focused and successful on every single one. I am not, in any way, an expert on sanctuary or rescue. I have never focused on those as I witnessed time and again that those involved in those things had no time, energy or money to do anything else effectively other than run daily operations.

I was successful. That is not an “ego” statement, simply a fact. I focused on one area and that became my goal. I brought issues into court, won, gave them credibility, brought it into a larger public discussion and then repeated the cycle. It was the sole focus for 7 years.The work, photos and wins are featured on almost every single wild horse organizations websites… even if they had nothing to do with the work itself. So at some level they recognized the importance of the work, even if it was simply to give an impression that they were involved.

The tool exists. It can be engaged appropriately, or not, by all of the humans involved. If I can afford to get there I engage it. If you are the ones with the funds, engage it.

My simply stating that makes me a target. What? Yes, I get targeted. When I won the first case in history against conduct, went to write a press release, the news media was already telling me another organization had just won my case. Another faction was involved in character assassination online. I was exhausted after a 6 week roundup that targeted 2000 horses for removal, documenting the roundup, writing litigation that I was told had no chance of winning, going to court, winning. I cried myself to sleep that night. I had massive bills to pay and much more work to do, because I knew one win was not going to get the policy we needed. Instead of support, I was ripped apart.

I have kind of “gotten used to it.” That kind of behavior is the norm. Over and over this cycle repeated.

Why I am talking about it now? Because I made another promise standing in Sheldon, (more on that later in this article).


New life at Sheldon, before the herds were decimated forever

That type of behavior is now creating a larger threat to the safety of the horses that are my current focus, the ones on the range. The danger is greater than any helicopter, hot shot or barbed wire fence.

What do I mean? Every time the threats to our wild ones increase so does tension. That tension seems to create two things; a desire to help and it draws the potential for donations. Depending on the agenda those can be mutually beneficial, every action requires resource. But what if your real purpose is sanctuary and paying a staff? Are you drawing attention using your expertise of the threat and have a clearly outlined plan of appropriate action? Or are you competing for dollars or attention? What if your real purpose is creating a management plan for herds in other jurisdictions? Are you engaging the attention to an issue with your field of expertise or are you engaging to draw a spotlight to another agenda item and doing damage to those addressing a real threat?

Much of what I write here is for those leading other organizations that all read my website. Yes, I am like the investigative journalist that everyone reads to find a subject or tag line to to then use to forward another agenda. But if we look at larger media (Wild Horse Advocacy is also media) we see that corner newspaper going out of business as readers have learned to grab that info, for free, and spin it to get internet clicks. Advocacy is no different and I am that 25 cent newspaper.

I am not, and never said, I do everything. I do what I do. If an EA or action is happening in an area I don’t visit? I defer to those that are engaged and forward inquires from public and media to them. Nobody could do all that needs to be done for our wild ones. This mess is covered in layers of politics that only those directly involved can actually effectively navigate without creating more mess.

IF YOUR FOCUS IS THE “WILD” WILD HORSE, not sanctuary, rescue, training, or “other” the threats have not been this great to the “wild” wild horse since before the passage of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971. The Act itself gave jurisdiction to the federal government and took it out of the free for all of mustanging. The Act failed to address specifics in the way horses were to be managed, integrated and maintained. Instead that was for advocacy to engage in land use planning and ongoing legislative efforts to tighten, not weaken, protections. The federal government failed to create a sustainable frame and advocacy, for decades, failed to kick it in the right places to get it to move.

Did I just make you mad again? Well I am angry, off the charts angry, too. Remember I see it all. I see the back stabbing, lies, political manipulations on all sides from behind the scenes. I know that most of the drama you all witness has very little to do with any “fact” chosen to perpetuate agenda and online vitriol, it is primarily personal vendetta, ignorance or merely a profit driven cronyism. That statement applies to all sides in this conflict. My disgust is off the rails!

I have reached a point where I am drowning is a sea of frustration as appropriate efforts are actually punished! Not just mine but the honest efforts of many on the ground, hands on, hard working and engaged advocates.

What I experienced as I engaged for the horses that once lived in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (not BLM) is a microcosm of what I am witnessing today, in the larger picture.

Sheldon in a nutshell: Federal managers with one agenda heavily influenced by peers in the private sector including private interests that had heavily invested in a long term plan and even financial contributions to effect their desired outcome, (both in political campaigns and directly into operations). Federal managers that were not above participating in tactics, forwarded by vitriolic crazy people, that bordered on blackmail as threats were made that if I didn’t keep my mouth shut the mares and foals I wanted to take into my care would be withheld from me. Venomous social media attacks, by those far removed from the present day actions, destroying efforts to engage the very real fact that those horses were going to land in the hands of kill buyers. Multi million dollar organizations raising money off the situation as they failed to engage in anything but “writing a letter” to support their other agenda items like sanctuary and far removed efforts in other jurisdictions.

My personal problems? I had cancer. I was broke. I had litigation I got no support for. I sat out there alone… at the end… and watched the horses I loved so very much removed forever. Sure, I was able to get one notorious contractor off the final list and the attention did get some of those horses into sanctuary. But years and years of trying to get advocacy to engage process appropriately, failed. I sat out there alone, was being threatened and intimidated. I watched the last of the Sheldon herds decimated (there are still stragglers and a broken fence between BLM and USFWS and a few can still be found but the three herds are gone). I went to holding and said goodbye knowing that the vast majority of them would end up at a slaughter plant in a month or at a backyard rodeo somewhere and then off to the slaughter plant.

I wept, hard. I wept harder than when I was told I had cancer. I wept because there was no “advocacy” for the horses, not really. I wept because advocacy could not, would not, deal with it’s own corruption to battle the corruption that threatened the horses and our beloved Sheldon mustangs were swept away in a foul sea of deceit.

I made a promise to never, ever, forget. I knew deep in my soul that the day would come when I saw it on a bigger scale and that we would face the threat of the decimation of wild ones on a broad scale. I vowed that if I saw advocacy fail to unite under appropriate action and repeat the cycle of a fractured and destructive force, I would speak out, regardless of the cost to me. I would not be silent. I would not be held hostage by the threat of another assault from my own side. I would not be held hostage by managers that said if I spoke, I would not be allowed to help the horses I loved.

That day has arrived. I will not be silent.

I have few resources to do much else. My personal position, at this very moment, echoes my experience at Sheldon in ways in which I feel a sense of deja vu that simply has no relief.

I wanted to share the following I took from a book on “risk assessment” and copied a long time ago into a document and lost the citation:

Incident: An unplanned, undesired event that hinders completion of a task and may cause injury, illness, or property damage or some combination of all three in varying degrees from minor to catastrophic. Unplanned and undesired do not mean unable to prevent. Unplanned and undesired also do not mean unable to prepare for Crisis planning is how we prepare for serious incidents that occur that require response for mitigation.

Potential Incident: A subset of incidents that could have resulted in injury, illness or property damage, if given a different set of circumstances, but didn’t.

Accident: Definition is often similar to incident, but supports the mindset that it could not have been prevented. An accident is the opposite of the fundamental intentions of a safety program, which is to find hazards, fix hazard, and prevent incidents.

If the behaviors are merely accidents without assessing the risk? That’s pretty irresponsible when we demand that federal agencies do full risk assessment and evaluation. Particularly when the behaviors contribute to a climate that increases incidents.

Are we assessing the risks to the horses and not adding to them? Are we acting appropriately? Other interests are. They are advocating, united, to create the best outcome for their agendas. Is advocacy?

Did that make sense? If a lack of full engagement, with ground data and facts, creates population numbers and a lack of resource for wild horses we must evaluate our method and engage, not scream. If the screaming creates a distraction to appropriate engagement then we need to minimize it, not increase it. (simplistic example) If your main objective is paying for a staff and sanctuary horses promote sanctuary and that area of expertise, don’t scream about a roundup where you don’t engage actively in the process to protect those horses, or in the creation of a tool for humane handling, or you are draining the attention and resource from those people actively working for that herd.

If you see threats to horses on the range increase, do not forward an attack or drama campaign that draws attention away from the threats to the horses. You might find, at the end of the day, that you were actually helping to forward the very agenda you claimed to oppose, the removal and slaughter of wild horses.

“We don’t have to anything to oppose advocates. You guys will take each other out of the fight and I wont have to lift a finger.” I was told that by a former mustanger in 2011.

The opposition is going to use every tool at their disposal. This time? We need to do everything we can to support each area of expertise and not degrade it. We need to become more responsible.

I have been receiving multiple messages that inform me that individuals were unaware that roundups reached the lowest rate since the 70’s over the last few years. Every time I get one of those my heart drops. Starting in 2013 advocacy had a chance to direct the public against the massive blocks being built for states to take over wild horse management, kill horses in holding and resume mustanging. Instead? So many organizations relied on the tried and true, hit my donate button, “accelerated cruel and barbaric roundups.” This was at a time when roundups were not accelerated and a handling policy was actually being built. Was process engaged like it should have been, broad scale and united? no.

So… promise kept. Will it do any good? I don’t know. But I didn’t know that either when I filed that first case in history against inhumane treatment.

I have been so conflicted about taking this road. But I had to fulfill that promise. We are on the verge of seeing what happened at Sheldon, repeat.

Thanks for sharing this… I had to get it out… it hurts.

Onward. ~ Laura


further reading and a webinar to join. https://wildhorseeducation.org/2017/02/26/the-threats-have-new-meaning/


The end… and I will never forget you.

Categories: Lead, Wild Horse Education