Dignity Returned

As I followed a semi-load of wild horses on Route 80 we made the familiar turn off into Wells, Nevada. As we passed the Loves gas station, where we met the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in the bitter cold of dawn during the Antelope roundup, I was flooded with memories of all that was seen. Each trap site with it’s intricacies of “access no access,”  each conversation, each band that was fractured, each face came back to me in detail.

The cargo

The semi turned down a dusty dirt road. This time the driver came to a slow stop. I could hear the animals settle. He then proceeded down the graded dirt path at a crawl, mindful of the precious load he carried. I began to cry.

My experience has been to drive roads in much worse shape at speeds that make you hold your breath for the safety of the lives inside the container.

Yet the horses onboard were headed to Mustang Monument, Madeleine Picken’s Mustang Sanctuary run through her organization Saving America’s Mustangs.

That sanctuary has raised no less controversy than the Wild Horse issue itself. But that was not what today was “all about.”

This face says so much...

For the last two weeks I rose in the middle of the night to meet the driver at a “feedlot turned way station” in Fallon. Each dawn I documented the loading of animals that had been saved from certain death. My lens captured the faces of the mares and their babies as they left the confines of that dusty old feedlot and boarded the truck.

The faces belonged to Pauite horses that had gone to a slaughter auction last Christmas. If wild horses are prejudicially referred to as “desert rats,” the Pauite horses are considered no more than fleas on those rats. These reservation horses are regularly sent to kill with little to no hope. They are not managed under the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, but are legally shipped off under the jurisdiction of tribal authority.

Wearing the auction tag

The truck slowly backed up to a chute at the makeshift roundpen of hay bales.

An excited woman met me and crawled with me to the top of the pen to document the off loading of these horses headed home.

The woman was Madeleine Pickens. In her hand she held a small camcorder. She observed the offloading of each horse that warily left that metal container. Her voice into her camera demonstrated concern as she made sure that each mare matched up with each foal. Foals that had been born in a dusty feedlot that would soon run in the open range for the first time.

Madeleine Pickens documents her horses

The last few horses were reluctant to leave the container. The others began to munch on the bales of hay that made up the pen. Laughter and pleasant conversation filled the air and joined the sounds of the horses calling to those already home in the field beyond the gate.

Where am I?

The moment had arrived. The moment of “Freedom.” The moment the “fleas on rats” are given the greatest kindness a human could show them. A chance to run in the open range. A chance to live as bands. A chance to live and die with freedom and dignity in the normal course of what they are.

Ranch manager, Clay Nannini, walked to the gate and removed the chain. The gates opened…

It took but a brief moment for the horses to recognize the opportunity.

I cannot describe in words the sensation of “wrong turned right” that flooded my senses. The emaciated, abused, disregarded souls ran to join the others. The babies that I had seen born in that feedlot ran free. The beautiful Spruce Mountain in the background bore witness with us of what I can only describe as “dignity returned.”

Ms. Pickens climbed the rail, opened her arms and declared “I own you now, no one will ever hurt you again.”

That familiar promise. How many horse owners have made that promise as they bring home a horse from auction or one they found in a bad situation? The scale was much bigger, yet the promise hung in the air with undeniable truth.


After checking in to the roadside Motel I laid down on the bed, still in my clothing. My life still an uncertain path, roundups beginning again in mere days. The Court case still dominating my life. The issues surrounding our horses still unresolved. But I slept.

I slept like I haven’t slept in months.

Beyond words....

To learn more about Mustang Monument go to: http://SavingAmericasMustangs.org


29 thoughts on “Dignity Returned

  1. arlene says:

    Dear Laura, As I read this story tears of joy streaming down my face and i lost my breath many times, my heart and all my senses took flight, for this moment I would have given anything to witness with you and Madeliene, and yes Laura your sleep was probably the best in many years, you deserve d to be able to witness that, this is what I want and i know you want for everyone to see the release of all our horses in the BLM concentration camps back to the land that is theirs and theirs alone, this thought is worth all you and the rest of us believe in, this gives to all of us a ray of hope that glitters like a diamond in the sunlight, for this moment will be so glorious i cant even imagine the joy We will feel for our mustangs, this is why we are all here for this moment in time, please i pray for it to come very soon for all of them and you !!!!!! There are many angels here on earth and i believe they are all right here with you !!!!!! Bless all !!!

  2. Beautiful piece, Laura.

  3. Forest Horse says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for being there and for sharing.

  4. Barbara Warner says:

    I can’t type well with tears of joy in my eyes. What a sight that must have been ! Maybe some of the foals will grow up to have foals of their own since the BLM won’t have any control over these.

  5. Darcy says:

    Laura, I cried after reading this just like I cried on Madeleine’s video of them being released. What an honor & blessing for you to be present to view it in person :). Thank you for sharing your heart with us 🙂

  6. patricia field says:

    Laura, you deserved this in every way! So happy you were able to experience freedom!

  7. Michelle Wolfe says:

    Most heart lifting and joyful tears. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Cindy Reuter says:

    Words just don’t express how amazing sweet the reward must have felt to be able to witness that release!! Thank you for fighting the still raging battle for our horses!!! My prayers go for you beautiful ladies (and men) that fought for this moment…….Thank you…. thank you, for everything you did and are still doing for horses. May God Bless you for caring for his awesome creation.

  9. MargoWolf says:

    This was an Odyssey. You better rest now. While you can. Plan some and get prepared.

    The 40th Birthday of the signing of the 1971 WFRH&B Act is this Father’s Day, June 19th,
    this coming Sunday. Remember Wild Horse Annie/Thelma Johnston and her long fight to get that law in place. This is also the Spring Equinox and the beginning of summer. Gather your strength and pray to whom ever claims your faith; for the survival of our wild horses through the months ahead.

    Support the Field work observing the roundups at WildHorseEducation.org.

  10. It is a moment that will live forever somewhere celestial — not only for you, but for Madeleine and for the horses — by that I mean, it is said: it is more blessed to give than to receive. There is so much giving here — from you, from Madeleine, and finally from the Piautes who give us so much as we view them reunited with their rightful mother earth the giver of life itself. Knowing how the equids return the favor to their ranges by their perfect relationship with their environment — given the freedom to roam and drift as we see them here — eons have created this wonder!

    At the risk of introducting the word (shhhh……Facebook) into this sublime moment, here’s a link to Madeleine’s Facebook photo essay of the returning Piautes.


    Nobody involved or viewing this from afar will ever forget it!

  11. savewildhorses says:

    Beautiful story. Love that top photo of those beautiful eyes peering out and not having my heart sink because it is going to holding or a worse fate, but rather knowing that gentle soul is safe forever. There are special people on earth. You and Madeleine are 2 of them.

  12. Jules Bekker says:

    Thank you Laura, I have been reading your material and following Madeleine Pickens for some time. It heartens me that wild horses have some supporters that can only be described a “solid gold.”

  13. Deb Coffey says:

    It is so beautiful to see these horses run free.
    Thank you.

  14. She is looking to her freedom , is it really happening ? am i going to get free from the hands of EVIL ? what a moment for her , her heart beating so fast …

    • Laura Leigh says:

      An amazing moment… It is almost “shocking” to my system to have seen horses taken to the range and released… instead of ripped out… still haven’t “processed” the experience fully.

  15. This is beautiful and tear-jerking – it is what we all need to see. We need too to know soon that blm’s plans have been thwarted forever,

  16. […] by Laura Leigh as it appears at Art and Horses […]

  17. Jan says:

    Laura…tears streamed as I watched Madeleine’s video of this blessed event, but it can only be described as sobbing with joy reading your account of this wonderful day. Seeing it through your eyes…feeling the relief you must have felt for these captive souls finally breathing freedom after so long – there really are few words to express what must have overtaken you, and Madeleine, but as always, you found those words. ”Grateful” only scratches the surface of what I feel for the work you do…for the work that Madeleine and Jill took on to save and to free these magnificent creatures. Your hearts know no bounds…

    Thank You ~ Jan

  18. Diana Potter says:

    Laura, thank you so much for your beautiful and moving account of the arrival of Mustang Monuments’ first citizens. It brought tears to my eyes to read their story, but they are tears of joy knowing that these innocent souls will be able to live out their lives in peace and freedom. And thanks to Madeleine for making this happen. 🙂

  19. Angela Logan says:

    God Bless Madeleine Pickens!!!!! I love you.
    You are forever in my heart,,,,, Angela Logan

  20. Deb Schroer says:

    Hi Laura, I have been keeping up with HOP’s info and didn’t realize you had your own blog as well, so looking forward to reading about your journeys. I am so happy to see something positive (for a change). I can only pray that in my lifetime this practice is completely outlawed, banned and considered a crime. Folks like you and Madeleine step up and walk the walk, talk the talk. Others like to criticize, snipe and get revenge against other people, and that is not what it is all about…it is about the horses (and the burros). It is going to take more than a village to get people aware of what is going on. I can help spread your message far and wide, but only wish I could help you and your colleagues with the bone breaking, hard, heartbreaking work. But there are so many people like me willing to get your words, deeds and actions out to the masses. Thank you for your taking time out of your life to save as many as you can. You are the hero in this epic battle. Fight on!

  21. savewildhorses says:

    I think it is kind of fitting that the Pauite mustangs -or the lowest on the rung according to some as you said, fleas on rats-are the first to run free on Madeleine’s ecosanctuary. And the last shall be first…

    Bless Madeleine for her big, generous and hardy spirit.

  22. Lisa Norman says:

    My mustang although not born in captivity, was rounded up as a yearling and shuffled around the country by the BLM never leaving a truck or a dirt pen for open space to run. It’s disturbing that even though he is coming into three years of age, he does not know how to run. He can bolt for sure but running for the pleasure of it has eluded him so far. He is safe with me as long as I breath and I hope one day I will see him running in his pasture for fun!

  23. arlene says:

    Dear Lisa , I have never had the Pleasure of owning a Wild Mustang , but i do know a lot about them, I am sure you wil lsee him run free it cannot be removed from their traits, maybe just forgotten for a while, with all that freedom it will no doubt return to him, and WOW you are going to be as happy as he is when he remembers, Please have camera ready you will get some of the most beautiful freedom photos, and then please show them to all of us………………………CANT WAIT!!!!!

  24. Carol Allie says:

    Beautiful. Madeleine, you are beautiful. God doesn’t miss a thing….I know you made Him smile.

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