By Michelle Broussard Honick
[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]ive years ago, when Elaine Nash formed equine protection organization Fleet of Angels, the only organization with a national network formed to quickly evacuate equines from natural disasters, she had no idea that it would be used for the largest horse rescue in American (and perhaps world) history.
“A year ago, a state attorney for South Dakota got in touch and asked me to help place 270 of 907 privately owned wild horses that had been impounded from a neglect situation and were likely to be sold for slaughter unless someone helped them get safe homes,” Nash explains. “We worked day and night, and under the absolute worst possible circumstances, managed to find homes by mid-December for the 270 that were free to adopt out.
“We learned that the rest of the horses were being held with a lien against the cost of hay that the counties had been feeding the impounded horses. Those remaining 600+ horses were at terrible risk of being bought by kill buyers when sold at an auction that had been set for just a few days later. We needed to raise a significant amount of money to save the rest from going to that sale, and we needed to raise it fast.
“I started making calls to see if we could pull off one more miracle. One of my first calls was to Neda DeMayo. As Director of Return to Freedom, an organization that advocates for wild horses and educates the public regarding the crisis facing wild horses in America, Neda had a strong relationship with the largest animal welfare organizations in the country. She set up a conference call for us with the Humane Society of America and the Association for the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to see what we could all do together, and she also brought a private donor, Patricia Griffin-Soffel, on board.
“Incredibly, those three entities helped us quickly secure all the funds required to pay off the county’s liens on the horses, so the auction could be canceled. The counties also required that we agree to take on the ongoing cost of the horses’ care even though we didn’t know what the court’s final decision about the horses’ ultimate fate would be. We agreed and cared for the 600-plus horses while we waited a month and a half for a decision, which came at the end of January.
“The day before the hearing, the judge agreed to a settlement with the owner of the horses, with the result being that all but 20 of the horses were turned over to Fleet of Angels. The owner from whom they’d been seized was allowed to keep 20 of the 907.” A collective social media cheer went up with lots of “Hallelujah!’s” from the horses’ supporters nationwide, and from that day on, they have been known as ‘The Hallelujah Horses.’ They even have their own Facebook page.”
It was a major group effort for finding homes for all 907 of the Hallelujah Horses, starting with the adoption process. Barbara Rasmussen volunteered to travel from Arizona to South Dakota to help and was made the adoption manager as soon as she arrived on site.
“She reviewed every adoption application and vetted the candidates to see if they had what it took to be good owners, as well as helped with fundraising and looking for placement of groups of special needs horses,” Nash said. “She went with us when we moved the operation to Colorado, and has been a great, loyal contributor to this effort.”
Fleet of Angels partnered with Nancy Turner of This Old Horse Rescue in Minnesota, who oversaw some aspects of donations management for the project, and Nash credits Lauri Armstrong of Nevada and her team of workers for doing the arduous job of rounding up the mustangs in “one of the worst winters in decades, with a chill factor of 40 degrees below zero, 20-foot high snow drifts, and the visibility of less than fifteen feet.
“The highways were frozen solid, the roads were sometimes closed, and there were no shelters or windbreaks at all for any of the hundreds of horses. The crew had to separate the stallions from the mares and keep them in holding corrals until the adopters could get there with trailers. The horses all stood with heads down, bracing against the wind and snow, just trying to survive. The tips of the ears of dozens of horses were frozen off, and some foals even froze to death while they were being born or soon thereafter.”
Nash was on her computer much of the time she was in South Dakota, recruiting adopters, fundraising and handling other administrative duties. She was out with the horses enough, however, to witness the trauma the horses experienced when the crew separated the mustang families.
“These horses have very tight family bonds, and sometimes a stallion will fight to the death to get his family back. When the mares were separated from the stallions, the stallions all turned on each other, almost out of their minds in panic over their bands being torn apart. The mares were screaming, and the horses all were in grief over their families being torn apart. It was absolutely awful to have to do, but it was the only way they could be rescued. There was simply no other way to transport the horses off the property — and they had to go.
“Palomino and her team handled four different herds in open pastures. The fencing was so bad and the snow so high that sometimes the horses that had been captured could walk right over the top of the fences and out of the pens back to their herds. Some horses had to be captured more than once.”
DeMayo adopted one entire herd of over 100 horses on behalf of Return to Freedom, which made it possible for one of the four main herds to stay together. They were sent to a beautiful wild horse haven in northern California, where their numbers are being managed properly. Madeline Pickens, former wife of Texas oil man, T. Boone Pickens, agreed to take 51 stallions after they were gelded, and now they’re all running free on her massive ranch in Nevada.
“We adopted out almost all of the other horses to dozens of approved individuals who stepped up to help. Almost every horse was adopted out with at least one other horse they knew and were bonded with because we recognized their need to be together. Horses have a strong, dynamic social structure and being separated from their bonded friends or family members is very hard on them. Because we could only accept adopters who would agree to adopt more than one, you might say that we did the adopting of the horses the hard way for us humans, but the right way for the horses. We love our adopters and donors, but we always have been focused most on what is best for the horses.”
When it came time to move the horses out of South Dakota, Nash and her volunteers set up a new adoption hub at an ideal facility in Fort Collins, Colorado that had originally been built to house rodeo broncs and bucking bulls.
“It had everything the South Dakota facility did not – nice big pens with strong, safe fencing, tall windbreaks and shelters to provide protection for each group of horses — as well as special stalls and runs for those needing special care. We were able to keep the herds separated so adopters could choose which herd their horses were from. We had a great staff made up of both volunteers and paid employees. They all worked their hearts out, and had just the best, most positive attitudes, no matter how tired they were, with no concern ever about who got credit for what,” Nash said.
“I stayed in the nearby Days Inn at Wellington, Colorado for eight months to work with the ground crew, help adopters choose their horses, work with the vets, load trailers for adopters, and anything else that needed to be done. It’s been quite a journey. My hand was broken when a one-eyed horse escaped during loading and clocked me, and I got a concussion and a chipped tooth when a horse backed hard into a steel pipe gate that then hit me in the face.
“I got ‘double-barrel’ kicked by a big, unhappy gelding who made it his mission to back up several feet just to nail me as hard as he could one night. I had the micro-chip scanner in my parka pocket, and he kicked that, so I had a brick-shaped black and purple bruise on my leg for a while. The frog (bottom) of his other hoof just dusted my nose. I was very lucky. An inch closer to him, and he would have smashed in my face. All during this mission, I thought that as long as I was the only one who got hurt, we were good, and that’s pretty much how it worked out. No human casualties.”
Nash is quick to praise everyone else’s efforts. “I’m just the bus driver on this mission, and I was lucky to have a lot of very special people on the bus. There’s no way to recognize all those who played a critical role in this mission. Hundreds were involved. I’m proud of the fact that we adopted out all the horses just one year and one day after they were turned over to us. Fleet of Angel’s mantra is ‘Teamwork Works’, and our rescuing and finding homes for this group of 907 Hallelujah Horses is certainly proof of that.”
When Fleet of Angels hasn’t been working miracles with the South Dakota mustangs, they’ve been working with management of such equine emergency situations as hurricanes, wildfires, floods and tornadoes. Elaine and her team evacuate equines that are in the path of danger and help them find stabling and care until they can be returned safely to their homes. Recently, they evacuated hundreds of horses that were misplaced by Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and the wildfires out west. They call any horse in trouble an at-risk equine (a term Nash herself coined several years ago to replace the inaccurate term “unwanted horses”).
Fleet of Angels’ dedication and hard work against almost insurmountable odds inspired the ASPCA to create its first-ever Equine Welfare Award, which was presented to Nash at the ASPCA Awards luncheon in New York City. After her acceptance speech, several of the attendees told Nash that it was the first time they’d realized there were so many equines—horses, donkeys and mules–in need of help. Nash is excited that the ASPCA has just established a new Equine Welfare Department, which will be directed by Dr. Emily Weiss.
“It’s staggering to realize how powerful teamwork is. Success in this cause is about setting a high standard to do good work,” Nash muses. “I started Fleet of Angels because I discovered a need for a national network to save horses. I started it with no staff and no money. Then it evolved into a very large grass roots movement. I could never have done this without Facebook. Sometimes it’s the best platform there is for reaching a lot of people at once, sharing information, and recruiting help for some of our work.
“Facebook can’t do everything we need, though. I have found that we can serve at-risk horses better in many cases like natural disasters and emergency transportation by creating programs and systems like directories and interactive maps with searchable databases to help connect people quickly in emergency situations. We are currently developing The Horse Helpers Directory. We have early versions operational now for several areas in the country that are prone to natural disasters, and those make a very big difference. We’re rolling others out region by region as time and resources allow.”
Fleet of Angels helps all types of horses. If they can help, they will. Nash explains that their purpose is to help people help horses, like getting horses from one area of the country to another.
“Many FOA members have trailers on full time standby for emergency use. All members agree to assist for as low a rate as they can. Most short local trips are free or donation-based, as are evacuation services during natural disasters. Even on long trips across country, Fleet of Angels’ rule is that all of their transporters offer discounts that are well below those charged by professional transporters. We have thousands of members, and we don’t dictate prices. We just ask members to always quote the lowest price possible. Except in emergencies, we don’t take horses into our care. The horses we help almost always have homes to go to, or back to after an emergency.”
Nash advises anyone who feels that a horse is being neglected, abused or is otherwise in danger to immediately call the local authorities, saying that Fleet of Angels can’t just go take away someone’s horse because it’s in trouble. They only work through authorities or with the owners or adopters of the horses they transport or help.
To learn more about Fleet of Angels, to join ‘The Fleet,’ or to donate, go to www.FleetOfAngels.org. On Facebook, The Hallelujah Horses page tells stories and shows photos of the horses and their journeys from being starving and neglected, to fit and fat and tame. The Fleet of Angels page keeps everyone up to date on lots of other news and events surrounding the work of the organization.
Why is this work so close to Nash’s heart? “I’m doing it to pay it forward to my first horse, Smokey, and all the other horses who’ve meant so much to me in my life. They saved my life, really. Now, I work on this almost every waking moment. It’s a little like being a trauma doctor on the edge of a battlefield in a war that never stops. Horses are in real crisis in this country, and they need our help.”
Michelle Broussard Honick is a freelance journalist who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She has written for numerous magazines including “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene” and “Nashvillian.” She has also written several mystery dinner theatre plays and books, including “Ghosts, Gangsters and Gamblers of Las Vegas.” Honick had a short story, “Trouble at the Hip Joint,” in the Valentine’s anthology, “The Trouble With Cupid.” She is currently working on “Trouble With Tigers,” a part of a series featuring Trouble, the black cat detective.
All photos are by Wendy J Francisco