Wild Horse Education

#MyGivingStory #GivingTuesday (from a long time friend of WHE)

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My Giving Story, Why I support Wild Horse Education

Written, and photos submitted, by Elyse Gardner Walsh


Laura Leigh (with bruised face after being rear ended by a drunk driver) and Elyse Gardner outside the Federal Courthouse in Reno NV in 2010. (photo Cathy Kindsfather)

I know Laura Leigh, founder of Wild Horse Education, personally.  Laura and I were two of the small handful of people who brought the reality of wild horse roundups into the American public’s living room. We met in 2009 and developed a close friendship and mutual respect.

To learn about our government’s program for maintaining, managing and protecting self-sustaining wild herds, Laura and I each began attending and documenting wild horse and burro roundups. We also visited “holding facilities,” large pens where captured wild horses are kept by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). We each began also visiting wild horses in their legal home ranges in the wild on public land. Laura was a regular reporter for Steven Long’s Horseback Magazine. I wrote special reports for Horseback Magazine and Stable Woman Gazette. We each posted our photos and findings in our own respective blogs online.

In January of 2010, I stood five feet from Laura as we filmed a young horse about six months old struggling to keep up with his mother and the rest of the family band. He was last, lagging 20 feet behind and running awkwardly as the helicopter roared right up on his tail and overhead.  Just days later Laura saw a foal laying on his side in the “hospital” pens at the BLM holding facility, his soft baby hooves literally falling off (called hoof slough), as two other wild horse foals limped painfully and slowly nearby, suffering the same types of injuries. A dozen other injured youngsters inhabited the surrounding pens. Laura named the foal “Hope.” She took her footage to the media and it appeared on CNN and multiple other news networks.

BLM would not release the youngster to Laura to get him more intensive medical care. After what must have been an excruciatingly painful 10 days for young Hope (Laura’s review of the veterinarian’s report revealed that the foal had been given only three injections of pain-relieving medication in ten days), he was euthanized due to the severity of his injuries.  Laura had tried hard to help this horse and was deeply impacted by BLM’s less-than-forthcoming reports and cavalier attitude. Hope Springs Eternal soon proved to be a key turning point in Laura’s life.


A major issue was the behavior of the helicopter pilots. We both, at different times, filmed a helicopter on top of horses, sometimes pushing the horse with the skids of the helicopter. Above is my photo of one such instance of this harassment by the pilot, which I filmed on September 16, 2010. I was the only member of the public present at this day of this roundup (Twin Peaks HMA, 2010). Laura had been there, except the last two days, having left to go prepare a legal filing at Silver King, a case later simply known as the “First Amendment case.” I went to the media, believing it important to make known what was happening to our wild horses. 

When Laura Leigh filmed the same types of behaviors, she took the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to court alleging inhumane treatment of the horses. At the Triple B Herd Management Area (HMA) roundup, Laura filmed a helicopter harassing a wild horse, touching him with its skids. Legal counsel told her a person could not prevail against the BLM on these issues.  Undaunted, she took her MENSA IQ, did much of her own legal research, and with the assistance of another attorney prepared her case alleging inhumane treatment of wild horses.


Laura and Elyse at Broken Arrow in 2010

LAURA WON A TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER (TRO) BASED ON INHUMANE HANDLING OF THE WILD HORSES, the only person or organization ever to do so.  After 40 years of BLM management, in 2011 the first case specifically against abusive practices was fought and won. The federal Judge was highly critical of the Bureau of Land Management and issued to them a stern warning.  He invited Laura to return with any new evidence of continued abuses.

Laura complied and brought other cases alleging abuses into a courtroom. Her solid documentation won other orders, including stopping BLM from unnecessarily expanding a so-called “emergency gather”  after order. In the fall of 2015 the BLM implemented a Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program. Standards now exist that preclude hitting a horse with helicopter skids, as well as other protections and protocols for violations of the policy. It is a beginning, and continues to be improved upon. The public observers now have written standards and a vehicle through which to address BLM or its contractors abusing, harassing, or unnecessarily endangering the wild horses or burros during a roundup onsite with no need to litigate unless they are ignored.

It was out of Laura Leigh’s pain, outrage, and fierce determination to win protections for these animals that Wild Horse Education was born, a 501(C)(3)



Broken Arrow tour 2017

A bureaucratic wall was built as public outrage was expressed toward BLM’s callous disregard for the welfare of these animals captured in videos and photographs. A lack of access became a common experience, effectively hampering our ability to report to the public about conditions or to advocate for the animals. The BLM positioned “observation areas” to a roundup further and further away from the trap site, sometimes literally putting us behind a mountain with no view at all, stating it was for the public’s safety.  BLM limited “Observation” of roundups to once a week. Laura went every day and documented each denial or obstruction to observation.  One of the main holding facilities we had been regularly visiting and reporting on the captured horses was suddenly closed to the public.

It was impossible to document any individual horse’s journey into capture OR to follow their progress through the system.  They were whooshed off the public lands and out of public view, sometimes permanently. Some holding facilities are public but not all. Gone were the days where BLM allowed people near enough to the trap to view and identify individual horses.


Laura took me on a tour of the West from Colorado to California. We stopped and visited with the herds of Sheldon.

Believing it is an American’s right – especially a member of the press – to report on government programs and use of taxpayer moneys, and that these horses should always be accessible by the public, once again Laura hit the ball out of the park when she filed her FIRST AMENDMENT CASE which asserts and relies on the freedom of the press.  Her case attracted prestigious journalistic associations which filed Amicus Curiae briefs.  Her Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal win on this case has set precedent and opened doors, and literally helped us focus our cameras once again on our nation’s wild horses, who BLM tried to take completely out of sight. This case went up and down the court system and took nearly five years.

The Court stated: 

If a government agency restricts public access, the media’s only recourse is the court system. The free press is the guardian of the public interest, and the independent judiciary is the guardian of the free press.  Thus, courts have a duty to conduct a thorough and searching review of any attempt to restrict public access.

This win in court moved the “inhumane handling” cases forward, as well. Laura had overcome the “mootness” issue, which basically means in legal terms that “there’s no point in a ruling in your favor because the horses are already rounded up and there is no remedy that can come from a ‘win’.”  But Laura was able to prove to the Court that the scope of the wrong conduct went beyond the one roundup being litigated, that the wrong conduct was a practice that was likely to continue; and therefore, the end of a roundup operation no longer spelled the end of a legal case. This was a stunning legal victory.  Petitioning the lower court, Leigh was awarded the first Preliminary Injunction against inappropriate conduct at the Triple B Complex (hotshot use on babies, kicking horses in the head, coming too close with a helicopter) by citing her win on the First Amendment grounds. She continued to litigate against inhumane treatment with win after win.

We collaborated on a number of projects, traveled together a significant number of times. When we were rear-ended by a drunk driver in 2010, health issues precluded my continued on-the-range involvement, so I was and am pleased to have Laura as my “proxy” in the field, only better.  She is brilliant.  She can chat with BLM personnel or other observers in an amiable fashion and not miss a beat.  She knows what she is seeing; i.e., when we glimpse a band being chased by the helicopter and they disappear from view, when they reappear, Laura often can tell who is missing, if any.  She recognizes individual horses very quickly.


Even breast cancer did not deter the fight in this woman. She said the fight is her life, to give up the fight would have been to lose her life.

Laura also recognizes when BLM does something right. She doesn’t have to make people wrong all the time.  For example, if the helicopter and/or wranglers chase a horse that escaped the trap, while we hate to see that, if that horse is a mare whose nursing foal is already in the pen, we are relieved to see the pair reunited. Unlike other organizations I’ve observed of late, Laura tells the whole story; she doesn’t leave parts out to make someone look wrong. She says; “Wrong is just wrong. A sincere effort, even if there is a mistake, is not a wrongdoing, it’s a mistake. I just want an honest conversation; the fastest disappearing thing in the West.”


I continue to support Laura’s/Wild Horse Education’s work, confident in its integrity and quality. Laura did proactive volunteer work with the BLM for years attempting to implement on-range management using the fertility control drug PZP and a strong data collection plan.  One of her aims is to eliminate violent helicopter roundups by reducing the reproductive rate of wild horses on the range so if they are born wild, they will get to stay wild. If they are removed it is in much smaller numbers after strong data first preserves and protects the land wild horses need to survive from overreach of profit driven exploitation.

Documentation from this organization has even stopped multiple unjustified roundups, sometimes without ever going into a courtroom.

Laura has a skeleton organization consisting of all volunteers, and I make supporting the work of Wild Horse Education my primary giving of time and resources. I have adopted a mustang mare I’ve trained, one of the great loves in my life, and know these animals to be sensitive, family-oriented herd animals who are consistently short-changed by governmental dealings on public land.  Congress is creating language to possibly kill up to 67,000 horses, and we need intelligent, proactive people like Laura, and all the volunteers at Wild Horse Education, to be advocating on their behalf.

This little organization, built on fierce determination, has already accomplished so much for all of us that love wild horses and burros. In the coming years there is so much yet to do in order to gain fair management on the range. I am proud to be a supporter and proud to call Laura among my dear friends.


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Categories: Wild Horse Education