Largest horse rescue operation in US

Suzie C. Romig
For The Fence Post
The neglect of the mustangs before they were seized from a failed rescue in South Dakota can be seen by the length of hooves that were later trimmed. Some of the hooves were 16 inches long before trimming.
Photo by Wendy Francisco |

Orchestrating the nation’s largest rescue of undomesticated horses came hand-in-hand with months of blood, sweat and tears.

When 907 hungry, neglected and sometimes sick horses were rescued from a failed mustang sanctuary in South Dakota in October, not-for-profit Fleet of Angels based in Greeley in northern Colorado was asked by the legal system to take over the massive rescue operations.

“These horses are alive only because of the force created by so many people coming together for the good of these horses,” said Elaine Nash, the hard-working, pro-bono executive director at Fleet of Angels. “Without the assistance of literally hundreds of people — donors, adopters, our ground crew members, transporters, adoption managers and coordinators, a multitude of service providers, and others — this massive mission would not have been possible.”

Nash and an army of volunteers and horse rescue groups have worked long hours to save hundreds of horses so far starting with 270 adoptions from South Dakota last winter. For the past 10 months, the vibrant mustangs have been adopted to new homes from Washington to Texas, from Nevada to Florida in clusters up to 25 horses, said Cory Golden, advocacy and communications coordinator at Return to Freedom, a 19-year-old national nonprofit based in California that also helped with the rescue. Other key partners were the National Equine Resource Network, ASPCA, Humane Society of the United States, and equestrian and philanthropist Victoria McCullough.

“The organizations ended up in the middle of this massive rescue that we think is the largest horse rescue of its kind in recent history in the U.S. We know of none bigger,” Golden said. “Had these organizations not collectively stepped in to help, most of the horses likely would have gone to slaughter.”


The two South Dakota counties incurring the early expenses for trying to care for the impounded horses struggled with the costs, so a horse auction was scheduled for late December. Just in time, organizations and donors stepped up. The auction was cancelled.

The horses had not been well managed in South Dakota, so the rescue mission ranged from feeding starving horses, to gelding, to sometimes trimming 12 inches of overgrown hooves. Volunteers took care of horses through bitter cold months. Unfortunately, 25 horses that were in severe condition and would suffer long term, such as those with untreated broken bones that had never healed properly, had to be euthanized based on veterinarians’ recommendations, Nash said.

By the end of January, 610 horses originating from four western mustang herds remained. Eventually the rescue mission needed to vacate the horses off the South Dakota property, so Nash arranged transport of 312 horses in 10 semi-trailer trucks to northern Colorado.

As of this week, almost 100 adoptable horses are still housed at a livestock facility northeast of Fort Collins, Colo., including beautiful stallions, geldings, mares, pregnant mares and some older, blind or visually impaired horses needing sanctuary homes. Last week, two in-foal mares were approved for adoption to a home in Ontario, Canada. A remaining group of 23 stallions that are considered too old to geld or are blind, or both, are in need of a pasture.

“They function very well together, and are happy, fat, good-looking horses,” said Nash, who hopes the rest of the horses can be adopted this summer.

Livestock facility owner Jerome Robinson said Fleet of Angels volunteers are “very dedicated and passionate” and “have done a remarkable job, a lot better than I ever thought possible.” He said the entire rescue operation was a “tall order,” and adopting out hundreds of mustangs in a short time span “was almost an insurmountable task.”

Northern Colorado photographer Wendy Francisco, who volunteered her skills to capture images of the adoptable horses, agreed that the size of the rescue was overwhelming, since it was “obvious the horses hadn’t had care in years.”

“I’ve been really impressed with the care for the individual horses” post rescue, Francisco said. “The most impressive thing is watching Elaine spend time in pens to notice which of the horses have become best friends. She is very careful to notice this and insist that horses go together. The most inspiring thing that I’ve observed is three magnificent stallions known as the guardians, a bay, white and paint,” who protect the mares.


Learning from mustang experts, Nash works to pair the herd horses naturally. Like the mission of Fleet of Angels “teamwork works,” the mustangs take to domesticated life better in pairs or more.

“We have learned from mustang trainers that when a horse leaves with a buddy, they are much more responsive to the human trainers,” Nash explained. “They have been part of a herd their entire lives, so when you take two of these horses, they feel more secure and less threatened about change in life and travel. They settle in better into a new home and are easier to train because they don’t feel as insecure.”

Nash grew up on a ranch in eastern New Mexico not far from the Texas border and had horses in her life for 50 years. Post retirement, after 24 years as a country music manager in Nashville, she started the Colorado nonprofit five years ago after talking with many horse lovers who wanted to rescue horses but couldn’t afford the transportation. Now her organization encompasses some 12,000 volunteers across the U.S., who can be contacted for assistance to help with large equine emergency events, ranging from floods to fires. Fleet of Angels handles the transport of at-risk horses from danger to safety, but sometimes it can be simply one volunteer helping to transport one sick horse to the vet.

Since the South Dakota operation is the largest known rescue of horses from one location, that also makes it more expensive, Nash said. Current costs for the mission are about $7,500 per week, which covers only the cost of hay, facility fees, necessary expenses, and up to three part-time people who feed, water and clean at the facility. The horses eat a semi-load of round grass bales per week, so donations of hay and funds are needed.

Fort Collins veterinarian Stacey Tarr also was key to the mission.

“He gelded some 100 stallions in three months, treated injured horses, and has written scores of health certificates, coming to our facility usually on very short notice to accommodate adopters so they could take horses home with them,” Nash said.


Although the rescued horses are not yet broken for riding or leading, they are not scared of humans and have a nice temperament, Nash said. She describes the mustangs as very athletic, very smart, sure-footed, well-built and savvy about their environment.

“Most of these horses amaze their adopters when they get them home because they are so willing to become partners with a human unless taught otherwise,” she said.

The best adopters for the mustangs are people who want to give the horses a lifetime home and have the ability to train them and care for them properly, she said. Each adopted horse comes with a microchip and Coggins certificate. Adopters pay a $72 charge that covers the health certificate and brand inspections for two horses.

Bonnie Templeton, a board member with Larimer County Horseman’s Association, assisted with regional outreach and adopted a 3-year-old bay mare, who “picked me,” she said.

“She came over and met each one of us. She stood beside me and wanted me to pet her face. When we were ready to leave, she wanted to leave with me,” Templeton said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

The horse, now named Miranda, is staying with a trainer for now with two of her herd mates.

“I’m amazed at how fast she is learning,” Templeton said of Miranda, who learned to take a halter and lead within two weeks. Templeton hopes to ride Miranda in the future, along with her other horse, a 17-year-old chestnut Morgan.

For more information about the mustang adoptions, visit the website or on Facebook at For an adoption application: ❖