Private Ecosanctuaries for Wild Horses: Benefits and Risks


Private Ecosanctuaries for Wild Horses: Benefits and Risks

By Janice M. Ladendorf

When public ecosanctuaries are compared to private ones, there are three major differences. The first one is funding. Instead of receiving payments from our government, private ecosanctuaries are almost completely dependent on donations. Varying with the sanctuary, additional funds may come from selling merchandise and lodging, charging for tours and clinics, and the adoption or sale of horses. Donation income depends on their marketing efforts and the state of the economy. As their income changes, private ecosanctuaries can expand or contract and appear or disappear. The three featured in this article are the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, the International Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs (ISPBM), and Return to Freedom (RTF). They are well known, but there have been or still are others.

While horses can live on grass, this feed requires far more acreage than most sanctuaries have. If there isn’t enough grass, then hay must be purchased and its price can vary with availability: it will be affected by time of year, amount of rainfall received, and shipping costs. If a sanctuary has too many horses and lacks the funds to purchase enough hay for them, the horses are the ones who will suffer. Unfortunately, the ISPMB fell into this trap.

The second major difference lies in the way the bloodlines of wild horses are viewed. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) divides wild horses into two types, adoptable and non-adoptable. For obvious reasons, they focus on capturing and holding the most adoptable ones who tend to be young, good-sized, and have unusual coat colors. Unlike the BLM, some ecosanctuaries and certain breed registries are concerned about preserving the rare and valuable Spanish bloodlines that were carried by some of the horses in the wild herds.

The third major difference lies in the view of equine social and emotional needs. Horses belong to herds because membership gives them both protection and companionship. Unlike most wild animals, horses establish complex social relationships among and within their herds. Research has shown they use a wide variety of social behaviors to adapt to survival in their individual habitats. Many horses form close emotional bonds with each other and will grieve if they are separated. The BLM ignores these needs and ruthlessly separates family and friends. Private sanctuaries respect them and usually let their horses form their own natural herds and stay with their friends.

Two mustang friends, and a mustang family. Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.




Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism.

This sanctuary ( was the brainchild of Dayton O. Hyde, an old cowboy who grieved about the disappearance of wild horses from the western ranges. In 1987, he spent six months in Washington, D.C. negotiating with congressmen and BLM officials to obtain permission to set up a large scale sanctuary for some of the horses the BLM had taken off the public ranges. On the recommendation of Governor George Mickelson of South Dakota, he examined a tract of 8,300 acres on the short grass prairies of South Dakota. It included rocky canyons and had the Cheyenne River running through it. In 1988, he founded the non-profit Institute of the Range and the American Mustang, purchased the land for it, and received 300 wild mares from the BLM.  In 1990, all of the mustangs were legally adopted by sanctuary supporters.

In 1992, the sanctuary purchased the Cox Ranch and increased their holdings to 11,000 acres. The Cox headquarters was used to establish a visitor’s center and gift shop for the beginning of their tourist business. In 1994, a stallion was introduced to the mare band and many of the resulting foals were sold. In 1995, the movie, Crazy Horse, was filmed at the sanctuary. Other mustangs gradually arrived as individuals or in groups, such as a herd of Sulphur Springs mustangs in 2003.

In 2004, the first 15 minutes of the movie, Hidalgo, was filmed at the sanctuary. A bequest from Virginia Bacher in 2006 was used to start an endowment fund to insure the long term financial security of the sanctuary. By 2014, this fund contained over two million dollars. In 2008, another 2,000 adjoining acres was leased from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and the sanctuary had to begin dealing with unwanted horses dumped secretly on the property by their owners. The sanctuary now can support 500 horses, but with the collapse of the horse market, they now breed only a few mares each year. Late in 2015, a devastating fire destroyed several buildings and their contents, including their supply of hay for winter feeding.

For income, the sanctuary continues to depend heavily on donations, but they also receive some funds from selling merchandise, horses, tours, and lodging. As the original mares received from the BLM died off, some of them were replaced by other range horses. Along with wild horses, the sanctuary breeds and sells foundation quarter horses and stock horses with unusual colors.

Photos courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism.

International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB)

ISPMB was founded in 1960 to support Velma Bronn Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) in her long fight to prevent inhumane treatment and extermination of the wild horses and burros on the western range lands. The society also had considerable impact on the formulation of the adoption program run by the BLM since 1974. In 1989, Karen Sussman became president. In 1990, the society began an experimental program in Arizona of purchasing titled BLM mustangs and finding homes for them.

In 1999, they did not give up advocacy and lobbying, but began to rescue wild horses from areas outside of BLM jurisdiction and maintaining a sanctuary for them. In 2000, Sussman moved 70 horses from Arizona to leased property in South Dakota. In 2003, she purchased a 665-acre ranch near Landry, S.D. and moved the society herds there. In order to carry out planned research, the horses lived as wild horses do, without shelter, and had little or no care from farriers or veterinarians.

Sussman established and studied herds who came from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, near Gila Bend in Arizona, near Virginia in Nevada, and from the Sheldon Wild Life Range in the Catnip Mountains of Nevada. A long-term study has been done on the White Sands and Gila herds to determine the true rate of increase of free-roaming horses. It turned out to range from seven to eight percent.

When the Virginia and Catnip herds were rescued in 2004 and 2007, their fertility rate turned out to be considerably higher than the White Sands and Gila herds. The society tried using anti-fertility drugs on mares, but was unhappy with the results. One form of the drug is known to cause ovarian damage and this may be what they used. They stopped using drugs, but unfortunately failed to geld any of their stallions. This is the other common measure to control equine population growth.

The society does run an adoption program and conduct tours, but they depend heavily on donations. As their horse population increased, they needed to purchase more and more hay to keep their horses alive and healthy. By 2016, they thought they had approximately 650 horses. According to the standards of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, they would have needed 16,000 acres of grass to feed all of them. By the time their land had been grazed bare, the drought had radically increased the price of hay and their income from donations had fallen off.

The actual count of horses on the ranch late in 2016 turned out to be 810. Some of the extra horses might have been unwanted horses abandoned on the ranch. Budgeting feed for 650 horses and feeding 810 was only one of their many management problems. Sussman’s acquisition and breeding policies eventually trapped her in a situation where she did not have enough money to adequately feed all of the ISPMB horses. By 2009, their expenses had exceeded their revenues, and Sussman borrowed money to buy feed. When she could not pay it back, she sold her ranch in 2013 for $300,000 to ISPMB supporter, John Christopher Fine.

Early Contributions: Evaluation

In the early years of the long fight to save our wild horses, the ISPMB made many contributions. They also began rescuing wild horses and have maintained four herds in natural conditions so research could be done on the social behavior of these horses and the population levels of their herds. Some of this research was done in cooperation with various universities. Unfortunately, a combination of the recession, the drought, and management decisions led to the situation described above. As the table below shows, the crucial decision point was in 2004. If Sussman had stopped adding horses at that time, she probably would have been able to safely continue her experimental breeding program.

The BLM claims the wild herds will double every four years. As the table below shows, Sussman did prove this belief is incorrect. If it was, she would have had over 3,000 horses crammed together on her small ranch. In my opinion, she has not proved her theory about disruption of the natural herds causing population explosions reported by BLM.


Herd Name                 Rescue Date    Initial Herd Size          Herd Size in 2016

White Sands                1999                            70                                273

Gila                             2000                            31                                137

Catnip                         2004                            82                                159

Virginia                       2007                            300 (200 adopted)      150

Miscellaneous                                                                                       91

Total                                                                                                    810

Since all four herds lived in a similar environment, the variations in the percent increases suggest there may be another factor involved. When any species goes feral, the range of time when females are fertile gradually decreases, but this evolutionary change takes many generations to complete. Most domestic mares come into heat all year round, but for wild horses, the ideal limit is probably three months in the spring. Foals who are born at this time of year have a much better chance of surviving. The history of the four herds suggests this factor may be the explanation for the variations shown below. The White Sands herd came from New Mexico and the Gila herd from Arizona where wild horses have existed ever since the arrival of the Spanish settlers. The Catnip and Virginia herds both came from Nevada where the first wild horses were turned loose much later by the white settlers.


Herd Name     Average Annual Increase*      Herd Size 2016    What Numbers Would Be

Be If BLM is Right

White Sands                2.0%                                        273                  1400

Gila                             1.8%                                        137                  496

Catnip                         5.0%                                        159                  656

Virginia                       5.6%                                        150                  500

Total                                                                            719                  3952

*Calculations do not include the impact of adoptions or antifertility drugs.

Crisis in 2016

Beginning in 2015, complaints had been received by the Animal Industry Board, who finally sent out a veterinarian to inspect the ISPMB ranch on Sept. 14, 2016. He found some healthy horses, many thin ones, and some suffering from neglected conditions. He commented:

Ownership does not appear to have the means, money, labor, and facilities to support and manage a population of animals this size and does not appear to have adequate plans to assure the future of this herd. Based on my findings as outlined in this report, it is my determination that animal neglect is present at this facility.

Later in September, an employee publicly alleged horses were dying of starvation on the ISPMB ranch. Since it lies in both Dewey and Zieback counties, a judge ordered their county governments to impound and take over the responsibility for feeding these horses. The impounding agreement stated that what the counties had to spend on feeding the horses would have to be repaid by ISPMB, direct donations, or auctioning off the horses. Requests for donations of hay or money went out immediately from ISPMB, other equine rescue organizations, and the county governments. On Oct. 19, the Dewey County Sheriff’s office inspected the horses again and found them in better condition. Twenty-nine needed special care and one was marked for euthanization. Sussman wanted to keep 400 horses and has submitted several management plans to the court, but her last plan was still not acceptable.

That fall, the counties released 270 horses for adoption and asked Fleet of Angels (, an equine rescue group, to find homes for them. Sixteen of them were taken in by This Old Horse (, a rescue operation located in Hastings, Minnesota. They plan to give seven blind Gila stallions a permanent home:  they are in good shape except for the one in poor condition who died. The other horses were mares and they are still working on finding homes for some of them. Please contact This Old Horse if you are interested in giving any of them a temporary or permanent home.


One of the mares, left, and one of the stallions, below, at This Old Horse rescue operation. Photos by T Thomas Photography.

On Dec. 10, South Dakota state attorneys filed a motion requesting a judge transfer control of the 540 wild horses remaining at the ISPMB’s ranch to two equine welfare associations, Fleet of Angels and Habitat for Horses ( On Dec. 14, the Dewey County’s Sheriff Office announced the auction has been postponed indefinitely. The court hearing was on January 27, 2017. The judge decided ISPMB was to be temporarily allowed to keep 20 of the horses. Fortunately, various humane organizations have already donated enough money to pay the costs incurred in feeding the impounded horses.

The other 520 horses have been placed in the care of Fleet of Angels, who will need donations to help cover the cost of feeding them until they are can be adopted.  They will be adopted out of the ISPMB site in South Dakota, but they may move some to an adoption site in Colorado. Anyone interested in adopting one or more of these horses should contact them at [email protected] or the Face Book page, ISPMB Horses/Emergency Adoption Mission.


They will be partnered in this mission by the new Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary Alliance ( Members of this Alliance are the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Return to Freedom, Habitat for Horses, and Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue ( Nelda DeMayo, the President of Return to Freedom, played a key role in setting up this Alliance. In the future, these groups plan to provide a supportive and more cohesive community for wild horse and burro rescues. If it had existed two years ago, the sad situation at ISPMB ranch might have been avoided or corrected before the horses began to suffer.


Return to Freedom (American Wild Horse Sanctuary)

 Nelda DeMayo founded Return to Freedom (RTF) in 1997. From the beginning, her organization has been actively involved in advocacy, educational, and media programs and soon founded a sanctuary. Their programs are briefly described below. More information is available on their website (

1) RTF maintains a Wild Horse Defense Fund and selectively litigates against actions threatening the preservation of our wild horses and burros. One of their goals is to get the infamous Burns amendment to the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act rescinded. It gives the BLM sales authority over the wild horses and burros. In the latest scandal, 1,700 horses were acquired by one man who sent them to slaughter.

2) Another one of RTF’s goals is to educate the public and legislators about the current wasteful and ineffective program of roundups and warehousing, and explain why it should be replaced by the use of multi-pronged management methods to keep the wild ones on their home ranges. An example of their educational programs is their production of the excellent video, El Caballo: The Wild Horses of North America.  It is still available on

3) When observers are permitted, volunteers attend round-ups and report on what they saw and photographed. Along with mustang news, their reports are shown on the RTF website.

Horses from the Calico herd at Return to Freedom. Photo by Laura Bold, courtesy of Return to Freedom.

In 1998, RTF established the American Wild Horse Sanctuary on a 300-acre ranch in Lompoc, California. It includes an educational center and over 1,000 guests visit it annually. RTF’s initial goal was to experiment with minimally intrusive management solutions for equines maintained in normal herds on natural rangelands. RTF also now owns 2,000 acres in Central Coastal California at San Luis Obispo. They currently provide homes to 351 wild horses and 45 burros. They use antifertility drugs to control population levels. RTF is planning to expand their operation as soon as they are financially able to purchase another 20,000 acres.

Their management program is based on a willingness to cherish whatever has been created by nature and by using compassionate understanding in our relationship with horses, each other, and our planet. In our urbanized country, many people still feel a deep need to be in contact with the unadulterated natural world and associating with horses is one of the best ways to find this link. Studying free-roaming horses can also teach us much about what their domestic cousins most need to develop their full potential as self-aware and emotional beings.

Herd management is only one of the RTF goals. They have limited space, and one of their objectives is the preservation of rare and diverse bloodlines. Currently they have six herds captured from various geographic areas.


1) The Calico Herd

In late 2009 and early 2010, the BLM rounded up almost 2,000 horses from the Calico Mountain Complex in Northwestern Nevada. It contains 157,000 acres of steep, volcanic mountainous slopes. Wild horses had lived there since 1860 and the first ones were Spanish Barbs. Ranchers soon began losing saddle, carriage, and draft stock to the wild herds. The Jackson family added Tennessee walkers and saddlebreds to the mix. Along with other ranchers, they harvested the herds until 1970. Many of these horses had unusual coat colors. RTF gave sanctuary to 20 stallions and 74 mares who survived both this notorious gather and life in the crowded BLM holding pens.

2) The Challis Herd

The Challis Wild Horse Herd Management Area lay just outside of Sun Valley, Idaho and contained nearly 400 horses whose ancestors had lived there for generations. In 2009, they were all gathered by the BLM, but some observers rescued a few of the mares, some of whom were pregnant. They were kept together and 28 horses were given sanctuary by RTF. The mares and their foals have now been adopted as a herd, left RTF, and will live out their lives in a private sanctuary.

3) Choctaw Herd

When the white settlers came, the Choctaw nation lived in the Deep South and in what is now the state of Mississippi. They acquired their ponies from coastal missions established by the Spanish in the 16th century and carefully bred them for hunting parties who had to travel long distances. The ponies are small, agile, sturdy, inquisitive, and highly intelligent. Many are pintos, but other unusual colors are common.

In 1831, the Choctaw tribe was forcefully removed from their homeland and sent to Oklahoma on the long Trail of Tears. Many of their ponies had to be left behind while others accompanied them. Some of those who didn’t die on the journey were allowed to graze on Blackjack Mountain. In 2005, one stallion and seven mares were brought from there to Vermont by screenwriter John Fusco. These pure line tribal ponies carried unique color genetics. In 2007, the land on Blackjack Mountain was sold to timber companies, who decided to remove the horses and destroy the grass with herbicides and pesticides. At that time, many of the horses were rescued by the Richman family. In 2008, the Vermont herd was moved to RTF.

4) Hart Mountain Herd

When wild horses from Hart Mountain, Oregon were captured by the BLM, 13 were rescued by RTF. Four stallions and nine mares were introduced to each other. The mares all chose to attach themselves to Mystic, one of the stallions. One of the other stallions chose to socialize with humans, while the other two still roam the hills together.

5) Sheldon Refuge Herd

The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is 575,000 acres in the northeast corner of Nye County, Nevada. The wild horses there are descended from draft and cavalry horses raised in that region in the 1920s and 1930s. In 2000, RTF collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service to humanely remove more than 50 horses in their natural herds from this refugee. Some arrived in harem bands and others in bachelor bands.

6) Sulphur Springs Herd

The Sulphur horses were found in the Needle Mountains of Southwestern Utah. The Mountain Home Range in the northern part of this herd management area. Based on their phenotype and blood typing, the horses from this range are thought to be of pure Spanish descent. Many are dun or grulla and have distinctive dorsal and leg stripping. Most of the horses who show Spanish characteristics have already been removed from the range by the BLM and adopted. Many of these horses have been registered with the American Sulphur Horse Registry or the California Vaquero Horse Association. RTF has two herds, one led by Chief, a dun stallion, and the other led by Bear, a grulla stallion.

Chief, a dun stallion of the Sulphur Springs herd at Return to Freedom, with two of his mares. Photo by Bev Pettit, courtesy of Return to Freedom.

7) Wilbur-Cruce Colonial Spanish Mission Herd

This strain of Spanish horses is the only one without a feral ancestry. In 1885, Dr. Ruben Wilbur purchased 26 horses from Father Francisco Eusibio Kino to stock his ranch near Arivaca, Arizona. Through three successive family generations, these horses were kept in genetic isolation. They were hardy, swift, agile, and had great endurance. In 1890, the riparian portion of the ranch was sold to the Nature Conservancy and the horses donated to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Most of them are now preserved at Rancho del Sueno in California. This ranch is the equine division of the Heritage Discovery Center. Some of these horses have now been registered with the Spanish Barb Horse Association.

The history of some of the horses in these herds illustrates one of RTF’s multiple objectives. They understand how closely some horses can bond together in their complex and ancient social culture. At the roundups, the BLM ruthlessly separates their captures by age and sex. RTF observers note those who show special attachments to each other. They not only try to save these individuals, but at times are successful at locating and reuniting them with their lost loved ones.

RTF also has special ambassador horses, two of which are world famous. The first one is Spirit, the horse who was the inspiration and model for the movie, Spirit: Wild Stallion of the Cimarron.  He is registered in the Steens Mountain Kiger Registry as Donner. The other horse is Sutter, who was named ASPCA Horse of the Year on Oct. 19, 2016. He is a palomino stallion, who was born in northwestern Nevada and captured as a two year old. He was adopted and badly abused. His adopter tied him up and whipped him, and also deprived him of both food and water. Sutter was returned to the BLM as dangerous and marked for destruction, but rescued by the Heritage Discovery Center in central California. For months, if a human came near him, he slammed himself into walls, attempting to free himself. Given patient, loving care, he learned to trust humans and has appeared in educational documentaries and numerous clinics. In 2002, the Center was forced to downsize and Nelda DeMayo became his permanent guardian. His story is not an unusual one, but he was fortunate to be rescued by someone who understood wild horses.

Sutter, 2016 ASPCA Horse of the Year, at Return to Freedom. Photo by Bristol McDonald, courtesy of Return to Freedom.

The RTF horses can be adopted, but their program reflects their deep concern for equine welfare. The adopter must agree to keep them for life and are sometimes encouraged to accept two horses who are close friends. Some of their horses are trained. Adoption prices currently range from $1,000 – $3,000.

While RTF does provide a safe haven to these diverse herds and individuals, they have not only saved some unique bloodlines, but provided an unusual educational opportunity. Their herds are a live tapestry of American history. The educational opportunities at their sanctuaries include Herd Observation, Living History Tours, Wild Horse Photo Safaris, Sanctuary Tours, Family Days at the Ranch, and special clinics. They also have special programs for young people.


Ecosanctuaries have been established by dedicated people who have done much to protect, preserve, and save some of our wild equids. Sometimes preservation has required litigation. Sadly, they have managed to rescue and maintain only a limited number of wild horses as compared to the thousands removed from our rangelands by government agencies.

To survive, ecosanctuaries depend heavily on donations. They commonly offer tours, but may engage in other income-producing activities, such as selling merchandise. In my opinion, their educational programs are particularly valuable. As compared to the BLM, their adoption programs appear to be better managed, but may explain some of the decline in the number of BLM adoptions.

The sad story of the current situation at the ISPMB ranch illustrates why before giving money to any charitable organization, wise donors check current reputation, activities, and financial situation. This should also be done for any private ecosanctuary, but for all those who wish to preserve mustangs as a symbol of our great country or just love horses, making a donation to one of these sanctuaries is well worthwhile and would always be appreciated.

Information Resources:

 “Auction looms for wild horses as S.D. sanctuary leader struggles with deadlines,” Rapid City Journal, Nov. 19, 2016.

Burns, Colleen M., “Dozens of Wild Horses Die of Starvation on the ISPMB Ranch,” statement updated Sept. 20, 2016,

Editorial Staff, “Return to Freedom: American Wild Horse Sanctuary,” Ranch and Country Magazine, Nov. 5, 2004.

Fusco, John, “The Choctaw Indian Pony: An Endangered Treasure,” Women and Horses Magazine, March/April 2006.

Hunhoff, Bernie, “Wild and Civilized,” South Dakota Magazine, May-June, 2009.

Hyde, Dayton O., “An Old Cowboy’s Dream,” Fall, 2009,

Nelson, Katie, “Straight from the Horse’s Heart: A Spiritual Ride through Love, Loss, and Hope,” Argus Leader, Oct. 10, 2016.

Palomino Armstrong, “Unfolding Tragedy at ISPMB,” Dec. 14, 2016,

Raia, Pat, “Wild Horse Sanctuary Must Rehome Horses Before Dec. 1,” The Horse, Nov. 15, 2016.

“Reuniting Wild Horse Families,” RTF News, Dec. 23, 2016.

“RTF resident Sutter named ASPCA Horse of the Year,” RTF News, Oct. 19, 2015.

“South Dakota state’s attorneys file motion seeking to transfer control of 450 at-risk horses,” Fleet of Angels news release, Jan. 6, 2017.

“South Dakota reaches settlement transferring control of 520 at-risk horses to Fleet of Angels; Public’s help needed in massive rescue operation,” news releases, Fleet of Angels and Return to Freedom, Jan. 28, 2017.

Sussman, Karen, “Statement of Karen Sussman Regarding ISPMB Protection of Wild Horses,” press release, Oct. 11, 2016,

Tupper, Seth, “30 wild horses died of starvation on South Dakota ranch,” Rapid City Journal, Oct. 1, 2016.

Tupper, Seth, “Hundreds of S.D. sanctuary horses impounded future uncertain,” Rapid City Journal, Oct. 12, 2016.

Tupper, Seth, “From Salvation to Starvation,” Rapid City Journal, Nov. 7-9, 2016,

“Pt. 1 – How a wild horse crusader’s dream went bad,”

“Pt. 2 – Horse breeding and spending gallop out of control at West River sanctuary,”

“Pt. 3 – Whistle blowers finally expose conditions at wild-horse sanctuary.”

“Update on ISPMB’s Population Growth Studies on Our Two Herds,” ISPMB Newsletter, Feb. 2016.