Sanctuary provides a home to unwanted wild horses

Damon Arthur
Redding Record Searchlight

Last year at this time "One Ear" faced a dismal future.

The 21-year-old wild horse had lived a "rough life." He was beat up from living out on the range. He had been rounded up last year from the Devil's Garden Plateau along with about 930 other horses and was penned up in a government facility in Modoc County.

Living in a pen was not at all the life he lived as a free horse out in the wild.

Horses captured from the wild are often separated from their families and become sick just from being corralled, said Dianne Nelson, founder of the Wild Horse Sanctuary near Shingletown.

But because of his age and the condition he was in — including one ear that had been torn off in a fight with another stallion — it wasn't likely anyone was going to adopt him.

"He was a stallion captured very late in life. What are you going to do with a horse that's beat up? People don't want those kinds of horses," Nelson said.

So in May, Nelson and the rest of the staff and volunteers at the Wild Horse Sanctuary adopted One Ear and three others from the Modoc National Forest.

It's a far better life than he was living in the corrals outside Alturas, she said.

"Where he came from, in those pens he was in jail," Nelson said.

While the country he lives in now is brush and timber in the hills just south of Shingletown, Nelson said One Ear gets to live out the rest of his life as a wild horse, rather than as a captive animal.

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"Now he's released on 5,000 acres. He's in country that's comparable to where he grew up," she said. "He's free again."

But One Ear is not alone. He has joined about 300 other horses and burros the sanctuary has adopted from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Most of them were animals that were not likely to get another home, Nelson said.

The Wild Horse Sanctuary is home to about 300 horses that live on 5,000 acres near Shingletown.

"We always take the ones who have nowhere else to go," she said.

The sanctuary has taken in hundreds of horses similar to One Ear over the years. While Nelson has been working with wild horses since the early 1970s, December marks the 40th anniversary since the organization incorporated as a nonprofit.

Nelson said little has changed for the wild horses since she started working with them. The federal government says there are too many horses on public land in the West and thousands of mustangs need to be rounded up every year to keep the land from being overgrazed.

And rounding up and penning animals that have lived their lives in the wild is hard on them physically, she said.

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The dozens of sanctuaries for wild horses around the West don't have the capacity to accept the wild horses that need to be rescued, said Grace Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Campaign.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has estimated there are 88,000 wild horses on public land in the West, more than three times what the agency says the land can support.

Another 50,000 wild horses have been rounded up off the range and are in holding pens, the Associated Press, quoting figures from the BLM.

A bill in the U.S. Senate would set aside $35 million for removal of up to 130,000 horses from public lands over a 10-year period. But opponents of the measure say it "opens the door" to surgical sterilization of horses.

A competing measure would appropriate $6 million for a proposal to use a vaccine that prevents female horses from getting pregnant, but also calls for rounding up horses.

Bob Graesch, ranch hand at the Wild Horse Sanctuary near Shingletown, takes feed out for the herd with Breana Simoncic, center, and Phil Juenke.

Kuhn likened the issue of rescuing wild horses to a leaky faucet. Rather than collecting leaky water in a bucket, which is what federal officials are doing when they round up mustangs and corral them, they need to fix the leaky faucet.

In this case, "fixing the leak," means sterilizing the horses so they don't continue to breed, she said. The contraceptive vaccine would eventually reduce the number of wild horses on public land so they wouldn't need to be rounded up and penned, she said.

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The forest service is trying to reduce the number of wild horses roaming the 250,000-acre Devil's Garden Plateau from the current estimate of 1,800 horses down to between 200 to 400 animals, said Ken Sandusky, a spokesman for the Modoc National Forest.

In addition to the 932 rounded up off the plateau in 2018, the forest service gathered another 499 this fall, Sandusky said.

As a result of all that rounding up, the Double Devil Corrals outside Alturas are bustling with 240 horses the forest service is eager to find good homes for, he said. 

The forest service is offering horses for sale at $25 each, and after Jan. 9, the price drops to $1 each, Sandusky said. He said the forest service won't sell the horses to just anyone though.

To protect the horses from being sold to slaughter, Sandusky said buyers are vetted to ensure the animals are going to owners that can properly care for them.

Similar to what federal officials are seeing on public lands, the Wild Horse Sanctuary also is at over-capacity, with 300 horses on 5,000 acres, Nelson said.

In 2019, the sanctuary took in four horses, and in 2018 it took in 10 horses. Nelson said fundraising to pay for feed, fencing and other expenses is an ongoing chore.

"It's just been a lot of miracles, and a lot of times when there isn't quite enough someone remembers us in their will," she said

It costs about $250,000 a year to operate the rescue, and they rely on plenty of volunteer help, Nelson said while driving a 1994 Chevrolet pickup down a bumpy dirt road.

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The truck, donated to the ranch years ago, has peeling paint that needs new windshield wipers and makes a mysterious knocking sound under the dashboard for the first 30 seconds or so after it starts.

Brenda Stowe of Chico said she first went for one of the sanctuary's trail rides back in the 1998 and kept coming back, eventually becoming a volunteer on the ranch. These days she is a member of the board of directors.

Dianne Nelson, founder of the Wild Horse Sanctuary near Shingletown, heads out with her dog, Newt, to check on the herd.

"I love the cause of saving the wild horses and seeing the wild horses in their natural environment," Stowe said. "They get to live out a natural life without being harassed or chased by people."

This past fall Breana Simoncic, 20, and Phil Juenke, 18, were volunteering at the ranch, helping to feed the herd, spreading grass hay out on the ground for the horses.

Juenke said he has been a volunteer at the sanctuary since he was 8 years old.

"It's pretty cool. Every day it's a whole new adventure. It's never the same," he said, noting he has a horse of his own on the ranch. "You're around nature, outside and working with horses. It's every cowboy's dream."

If you go

  • The Wild Horse Sanctuary is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays for wild horse viewing.
  • There are also Saturday trail rides in the spring and summer.
  •  The sanctuary is at 5796 Wilson Hill Road, south of Shingletown.
  • For more information, go to www.wildhorsesanctuary.org or call 530-474-5770. The sanctuary can also be reached by email at info@wildhorsesanctuary.org

Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-225-8226 and damon.arthur@redding.com. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!