World War I (National Archives)

Horses from the open range have been used throughout the building of the United States of America. Settlers used horses to plow fields, as transportation and to deliver mail. Mustangs were used in American conflicts from the Civil War through World War II. In order to utilize these animals they had to be removed from the range.

In recent times Mustangs have been predominantly seen as competitors for forage with cattle ranchers and wildlife.

In order to utilize or manage ranges for other interests our wild horses are removed from the range.

Clark Gable in his last film "The Misfits"

After World War II and the rise of mechanization wild horses on the range were simply seen as a resource to exploit. Mustangs were removed from the range at an alarming rate to be ground up for fertilizer, chicken feed, pet food and some export to Europe for human consumption.

The practice known as “mustanging” was brutal. In 1961 the tragedy that was transpiring on our western ranges was made into a film “The Misfits.” Arthur Miller penned a moving script that illustrated the contrasts and conflicts raging as culture clashes rapidly erode western romantic notions. In a review of the film the New York Times says of the scene at the end of the film depicting the practice of mustanging, “Mr. Huston lets his cameras show so much of the pitiful plight of the creatures—that the screen is full of shock and the audience is left in breathless horror…”.

In the film Gay, played by Clark Gable, is confronted by Roslyn, played by Marilyn Monroe, over the brutality of what he and his friends are doing to the horses. Gay states in the film, “Damn ’em all. They changed it, changed it all around. Smeared it all over with blood. I’m finished with it. It’s like roping a dream now. I just gotta find another way to be alive, that’s all. If there is one anymore.”

Real "mustangers" at work (Archive)

Although fiction, the film illustrated the practice of “mustanging” as accurate as anything the American public at large had ever seen. Horses were driven through canyons and onto a slat flat where a truck and wranglers waited. They were then pursued by a racing vehicle and roped. At the other end of the rope old tires were attached. The horses were then chased to exhaustion and tied up to be collected by the truck that would take them to be turned into dog food or fertilizer.

Within a decade of the release of the film the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law in December of 1971 by President Nixon. The Act was intended to stop the brutality on the range and protect a “fast disappearing” population of wild horses and burros.

However the Act failed in many respects. It failed to create protections that were a “must protect” and instead used a discretionary definition of protection that had led to wild horses and burros facing extinction once more on our public lands. It also failed to mandate protections on all public lands under federal jurisdiction instead focusing on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)  and supposedly the United States Forest Service (USFS).

One of the places Congress “forgot” was Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge managed by United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Sheldon claimed that the mission of the Refuge was to protect primarily antelope and other “wildlife,” mostly game species. Regardless of the historic contribution that the horses made before the Refuge was even an idea, the horses have been seen as “invasive” and treated as such.

America’s ‘war horse’ was now a pest in the Refuge and subjected to fertility experiments, hidden roundups and continued to be found in the slaughter pipeline. Our American Icon was given no protections under a law that was intended to protect our American symbol of “the spirit of the West,” even though most American believed that all our horses gained status.

Flora Steffan 2006

In 2006 images surfaced after the contractors that Sheldon pays to take horses was found to have shipped horses direct to slaughter, Gary Graham and Flora Steffan. Flora Steffan, of “Forever Free,” was an observer at the trap. Her photographs went public as the horses she was paid to take from Sheldon were pulled from the kill pen.

The images sent shock waves through the wild horse and burro advocate community. Stunning photos showed foals trampled, new born babies left hog tied in the desert to die and sever injuries to animals that survived capture. More images can be seen here (warning graphic):

In 2009 Legal action was brought against Sheldon for failure to afford protections to the horses at Sheldon in violation of the public statements made by the manager and Director of Sheldon to the contrary. Litigation was brought by Laura Leigh (now founder of Wild Horse Education). In 2010 Sheldon entered into an agreement with BLM through inclusion in the “Tri-State Calico Complex” and asserted that more options for management and adoptions would be available. They terminated the offending contracts and made reassurance that they would “carefully screen” contractors and do follow up on the horses they paid contractors to take. They also made statements that the three historic herds, Catnip. Fish Creek and Badger, would remain on the range for public enjoyment.

The "bone trail" leading to the pit. (photo Leslie Peeples)

However instead of creating a transparent mode of operation to protect horses that left the Refuge Sheldon began to hide roundup activity. In 2010 they made no announcement that they were removing horses. .Public road closures in 2010 alerted advocates that a removal was occurring. Leslie Peeples went to Sheldon and was not permitted to observe any roundup. However by accident, while walking her dog, she discovered the “bone pit” where the bones of horses that did not survive the removals were dumped. In 2011 Sheldon did not offer public observation and again attempted to hide removals. In 2012 they offered observation of “maybe one run.”

This secrecy spurred advocate Bonnie Kohleriter, assisted by Leigh and others, to look into where Sheldon horses were going. What Kohleriter complied was a litany of evidence that Sheldon was once again using a contractor that failed to provide good care and sent horses to those that shipped to slaughter. She gave her information to the now Director of Sheldon, John Kasbohm. Kasbohm said Sheldon would “investigate,” as they had done no follow up on this new contractor in three years!

Sheldon foal "Apatchy." On the right is the before picture, the left is a few weeks later in the care of J&S. Apatchy had to be euthanized due to apparent complications of poor care.

It took until May of 2013 for Sheldon NWR to finalize it’s report on J&S. The report confirmed that some of the horses shipped to auction, foals were deteriorated in the care of the contractor and the disposition of all of the horses could not be accounted for. Sheldon put a notice in the federal registry to look for a new contractor.

At this same time Sheldon decided that they were going to remove all of the horses from the Refuge. They had announced in their Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) that the approximate 830 horses would be removed over a 5 year period.

After about 60 days Sheldon appears to have solidified it’s plan; 120 horses would go to long time contractor in good standing Carr’s of Tennessee, 40 would go through an agreement to Phyllis Strecker in Texas including any mare and foal pairs and the rest would go again to J&S. However the “rest of the horses,” now over 250 as Sheldon accelerated removals of all horses to a two year option.

The price paid to contractors that take Sheldon horses has risen since 2006. In 2006 contractors were paid about $300 per animal plus shipping costs were covered by Sheldon. Today that cost has risen to more than $1000. per horse. J&S will receive $293,000. of US tax payer money this year as well as over 250 of our symbols of the American ‘war horse.”

Sheldon has other options. However at this juncture it appears that Sheldon will not explore those options.

Photo of second trap taken on 9/11/2013 with full zoom of 300mm lens and extensive digital enhancement

Photo of second trap taken on 9/11/2013 with full zoom of 300mm lens and extensive digital enhancement

Sadly, once again litigation has been filed.

To view litigation go to:

After intervention from attorneys Sheldon did offer limited (1-1.5 miles away from trap) and no observation of the horses in holding. Absolutely no accurate documentation of condition and handling of horses has been permitted at Sheldon in 2013.

As a nation is this the historic trail we really want to leave for the horses of Sheldon National Refuge? Is this the way the Legacy of America’s War Horse is to end?

Shame on us.

Images from 2013. Out of more than 1,000 images taken at Sheldon only a handful produced images that show any detail and are presented at full enlargement.

Horses escape trap on day one and run toward observation location. Note this was the first run of the day and horses are producing significant sweat
Horses escape trap on day one and run toward observation location. Note this was the first run of the day and horses are producing significant sweat
View of trap from "observation" location
View of trap from “observation” location
"Best" view afforded of horses at holding corral
“Best” view afforded of horses at holding corral
America's war horses stampeded on 9/11/2013 into traps to be sent to uncertain future
America’s war horses stampeded on 9/11/2013 into traps to be sent to uncertain future

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