Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd

by Return to Freedom Inc. , (DBA) American Wild Horse Sanctuary
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Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
Help Care for the Rescued Gila Herd
All Gila Herd Photos-Kayla Grams
All Gila Herd Photos-Kayla Grams

                                                   Checking in on the Gila Herd

As we've related previously, the original property on which RTF had housed the rescued Gila Herd was sold, early in our lease agreement, which necessitated moving them again to Green Valley, onto a 1,000- acre pasture. The move was successful, and the herd is doing well there.

An added opportunity has arisen, as the owner of this property is open to selling us the property, and applying our current payments to the purchase. We have long needed a larger property with water, so this is an exciting goal for the longer term if we can find the funding.

We rescued the Gilas from public auction and almost certain slaughter, and our intention from the beginning was to find a conservation organization to take them on as a project. At this point the herd will largely remain together in bonded groups on a private ranch and some of the younger gelded horses are being adopted to individuals or organizations equipped to provide them a secure and happy life.

As part of the eventual movement of the herd out into the world, two untouched wild Gilas were sent to a clinic to teach people the first approach to horses. As a result of the four-day clinic/workshop, both Gilas have been adopted. To date, five younger Gila geldings have been adopted to a beautiful sanctuary, two have joined four of RTF horses at Midland School for their youth equine program where they live in beautiful pastures in Santa Ynez CA, two others have been adopted to another wonderful organization and two others have been successfully adopted. 

Caring for large numbers of horses means we are periodically faced with both births and deaths. Although the Gila’s came through a long, cold winter rather well, one very old stallion passed.

Spring 2019 also saw two viable births. Our statistics have not changed from last year, in terms of PZP efficacy:  7% of reproductive aged mares became pregnant, and our efficacy rate is 93%. Our years of experience with this non-hormonal and reversible birth control provide a basis for the on-the-range management practices we advocate for wild horses on public lands, as a way to replace or minimize traumatic roundups which shatter family bands.

Because of the long winter, which brought mud, snow, and ice complications to the ranch where the Gila’s are pastured, our pending fencing project has not yet been completed.  Weather is beginning to improve, however, so this is an upcoming task.  Meanwhile, the Gila’s still reside in their smaller pasture totaling 400 acres, but it is large enough to be interesting, with hills, two ponds, many trees, and several large, open areas.  

The two-year-olds and yearlings are inquisitive, and this makes birth control administration challenging. 
Celeste Carlisle (RTF) and Kayla Grams (the Science and Conservation Center) darted 50 mares with PZP boosters April 26-27.  Fifteen more will be boosted later in the month, and one young mare will receive her first inoculation.  An RTF volunteer who lives close to the ranch where the herd is located is assisting Celeste with photo updates.

The overall condition of the herd is excellent, with body condition scores solid. The herd is still very curious and friendly with visitors.  Though there are obvious family bands, the entire herd moves about as one group much of the time.

As much as we love them, the addition of this many additional horses has strained our finances, and this large rescue has challenged us from the beginning. However, RTF is committed to their welfare and future, and with the support of people like you, they will never lack anything, and will never again face the dangers from which they were saved.

We are, as always, grateful for your support, both moral and financial. You are an important part of everything we do for horses, both here and on the national stage. Thank you!

All of Us at RTF

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Our rescue of the Gila herd in 2017 had a large impact on RTF. Among other additional management requirements, our hay expenses rose by about a third. 

After transporting them to CA, with the help of supporters here and elsewhere, we situated them on a leased property in Lassen County, CA where we initially managed them. Due to the sale of that property, RTF moved the herd once more, to a 1000 acre leased pasture in Alturas, CA, where they now reside.

In early January 2019, RTF Biologist Celeste Carlisle, who manages our population control program, visited the Gila herd in Alturas, CA. to check on their health and well-being.  Since coming into our care, we have managed the herd’s size using birth control.

Here are excerpts of her observations about their reproductive history and their current status:

 Re: Birth Control Application and Fertility Control Outcomes

The Gila mares (located, at the time, in Bieber, CA) were all boosted or started on birth control May 22-24, 2018.  65 mares in total were treated.  The entire herd appeared fat and happy, Since PZP had been implemented in the previous year we were pleased with the results, only 4 mares had foals during the 2018 spring/summer foaling season.

Sarah Mullein, a UC Davis equine veterinary student, accompanied me (Celeste) to the field to assist with photography, paperwork and identification management.      

Gila Fertility Control Statistics
The Gila horses birthed a total of four foals in 2018.  Of note:  prior to the Gila's arriving into RTF's care, 35% of reproductive aged mares became pregnant and gave birth to foals.  After RTF's implementation of fertility control vaccine (PZP), 7% of reproductive aged mares became pregnant.  Our PZP efficacy rate for the Gila's is 93%.

Visit to the Gila’s, January 5-6, 2019
I traveled to Alturas, CA to check in with the ranch manager at Alturas, and to record health and vitality of the Gila herd overall.  The herd is in the large introduction pasture on the ranch and will soon be allowed free access to the remaining acres.  The ranch manager has spent the past few months feeding increasing amounts of hay so that lactating dams have enough nutrition available to foals, and older horses can more easily maintain body condition through the colder months.   The horses are in excellent physical condition!  Out of the entire herd, only one older stallion is a bit thin, and he has always been a tad on the thin side.  He typically hangs back, keeping to the edge of any groups.  His demeanor seems completely normal.  He is alert, moves well, and eats heartily.  The four foals, ranging in age from 6-8 months at this visit, were all curious and active. — Celeste Carlisle

                                                                                 #. #. #

From their rescue from a life-threatening situation, to their transport to CA and their move to their current location and their ongoing good care, only the generosity of our—and their—supporters has allowed this project to flourish. We are grateful to you each time we look at the happy Gila herd, and think of what might have otherwise been without you.    — All of Us at RTF.

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Thank you for your generous support to Return to Freedom for the continued care for the Gila herd. We would like to share this update, Video Field Report: RTF Relocates the Gila Herd, with you chronicling their relocation to a new leased property--we hope you enjoy it!

With gratitude, 

All of us at RTF


About the Gila Herd

The horses were originally captured from Federal land in Arizona in 2003. At this time, the only horses still free ranging in Arizona from this herd are on Maricopa tribal lands and are intermingled with other breeds. These horses carry a history believed to stretch from wooden ships and Jesuit missionary Padre Eusebio Kino’s 17th century arrival in Arizona through a wild herd that lived in relative isolation in Arizona, was captured by the government after conflicts with ranchers, and was taken to a sanctuary in South Dakota that later fell on troubled times. In shades of earth and charcoal, striped legs and dorsal stripes, they look as though they’ve walked out of a cave painting, draped in the mystery of the ancient past. In February 2017, in an effort to maintain this herd intact and to reorganize the herd now made of 13 generations, RTF was asked to take 112 Gila horses (including pregnant mares). Thank you for joining us in the next chapter of their story.


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Gila herd in Lassen County, CA
Gila herd in Lassen County, CA

Recently on a beautiful warm day, Neda along with a volunteer and RTF tour coordinator, visited the Gila herd in Northern California. Neda and team found a herd full of vitality and playfulness, among diverse age groups.

From Neda’s notebook—

“The horses are now utilizing more of the available acreage. Of the 1,800 acres, some of it is good meadow, with juniper and sage, and other areas are more wooded featuring pine trees and a beautiful lake. It was gratifying to see them using more of the grazing land. Their hoofs look great, rocks are nature’s farriers!

The horses are fat and shiny. The males are still working things out amongst each other, with politics and standoffs from time to time. For the most part, they work things out successfully. There is still occasional “conversation” between the males going on as they move throughout the area.

Two baby foals – a colt named Forest and a chestnut filly whose name eluded us at the time were observed in good health. Their yearling brothers and sisters play really well together. We watched an intense game of tag. The young horses are very athletic, running up mounds of dirt and winding between trees. We watched them playing and roughhousing while the rest of the herd was resting in the late morning.

When you have a variety of age groups, it is particularly fun to watch. They are engaged and social, adding a lot of dimension and vitality to the herd. Teenagers playing, adults calling them back to them, stallions being roused to play by younger colts—the whole scenario feels the way it is supposed to feel—families.

Watching the group, we could see how the extended herd family participates in shaping the youngsters’ character as they learn different things from members in varied ages and seniority. There is a lot of activity, communication, and evident relationships in the herd. The situation feels very healthy and there is a strong sense of well-being in the herd members.

One stallion has some challenge to his mobility, but he does try to keep up with the herd. A couple of his band run back to make sure he is still ok, but he’s having a hard time and is dropping a lot of weight. We are concerned about his immediate future in terms of his ability to overcome his difficulties. We’ll support him as well as possible.

One stallion, blind in his right eye, let me stand near him for quite a while. He is with a band of horses and seems to have somewhat of a leadership role. This mature horse still has respect and seniority in his band.

At this time, the horses are grazing the forage there along with some supplemental meadow grass we provide every other day. Early every morning the horses come down from the forest for their hay. Some have muddy legs, so you can tell they’ve been enjoying the water. On the lake is a small row boat. Ever playful, the horses have been playing with it and have taken the oars out!

Of the horses who were born here last summer, the foals are very leggy and are growing larger than their predecessors and larger compared to the yearlings that came from South Dakota last winter. The nutrition they have been receiving, between the hay we give them and the natural forage is having an extremely positive effect.

It took a while to identify some of the foals born last summer! As they grow, some of their colors have a changed a bit. Easter, a foal born last year, looks beautiful. Sage is a steady and beautiful young colt who has already developed a strong thick neck. The younger horses are growing up fast!

One foal from the previous year sustained an injury to his shoulder, and Jeff, the caretaker, had to doctor him. His scar healed really well. He is quite friendly now because of the care and kind human contact we provided. He and a couple of others will be very adoptable as they enjoy human contact.

Things change quickly, including the horses themselves. Soffel is bigger than her mother now. She is also not as red as she was when we first saw her. The youngsters are all still staying close and stealing drinks from their mom.

Last year we had a mild winter, but even so, some days Jeff (their on-site care taker) had to cut the ice in the pond twice a day to make water accessible. Jeff is concerned that a harsher winter might be too much for him to properly care for the horses. Since this property has been sold, the new owner does not want to continue the lease and we are looking for another location for the Gilas, before the winter sets in.”

Thank you for your support which makes all this possible. It’s only being united with other caring people that RTF can do the things we do. Thank you!


Photo credit: Kaitlynn Toay

Gila mare resting in Northern California
Gila mare resting in Northern California
Foal stealing drinks from mom
Foal stealing drinks from mom
Gila mares and foal in Lassen County, CA
Gila mares and foal in Lassen County, CA
Seven's Coloring Changes
Seven's Coloring Changes
Soffel Growing Up Fast!
Soffel Growing Up Fast!
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Shota (head down) & Soffel, now in CA
Shota (head down) & Soffel, now in CA

Return to Freedom’s ongoing two-year Gila Herd Project relies upon the support of generous donors, partnerships with other organizations, the hard work of RTF staff and affiliated experts. Here, Celeste Carlisle, RTF Conservation Science Consultant, looks back on her first days working with the herd:

"In the spring of 2017, field work to gather data about Return to Freedom’s newly rescued Gila Herd, as well as basic veterinary care and primer doses of the fertility control vaccine PZP, were begun at our leased holding facility in Fallon, Nevada. We often gloss through the story: “We ran ‘em through chutes and vaccinated them.” But, to put it lightly, field work tends to be fraught with the exciting and the unexpected — and also a heck of a lot of logistics. 

Preparing to treat and collect samples and data on 120 wild horses takes some time. Hair samples for genetic analysis will go to two different labs and a form must be filled out for each horse in advance so that the sample can be affixed to the proper form. The truck must be packed with supplies: vaccines, wormer, first aid kit, water, notebooks, syringes, tarps, ice chests, dry ice, gloves, random assorted emergency gear (for human, horse, or truck emergencies along the snowy pass). This takes me all day. 

I call my brother, Ethan, who is a geologist and works in the field and is just ending a job, and I tell him he should join me: “I need the help, and it’ll be fun!” I load up snacks (the always field-appreciated peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making supplies) and my two other field assistants (a chihuahua and a pug-pit-beagle-something-or-‘nother) and we lumber out of the driveway. 

The immunocontraceptive vaccine has been special-ordered from our friends at the Science and Conservation Center – it is shipped on dry ice and must be received immediately. It doesn’t arrive at my house before I need to leave, so I arrange to pick it up at the UPS distribution center partway to Fallon, a side trip I hadn’t anticipated, but a good one since it turns out to be a convenient spot to meet and pick up my road-traveling brother as well. 

We drive over hill and dale (Donner Pass) in the dark and snow to my favorite hotel in Fallon (the pickings are slim.) When we arrive, it takes some finesse to offload ice chests, Rubbermaid containers of supplies, luggage, humans, and dogs into the hotel room. My brother turns on the TV and promptly falls asleep. I prep our clipboards and charts and mix many, many doses of the PZP vaccine late into the night. We need to be at the holding facility early in the morning to meet the wranglers and the veterinarian.

Up at dawn, and the truck is reloaded. The dogs are going nuts (they are big fans of field work). My brother and I grab a not-very-good hotel breakfast, stop at the grocery store for cheap donuts for everybody, and head to the Gila’s very temporary home, just outside of town and next to the Fallon Naval Air Station (this will come into play later). Mike Holmes, a tough and true Nevadan and a long-time wild horse professional, is waiting for us. 

MIKE: “You’re LATE.” 

ME: “Good morning, Mike! This is my brother, Ethan.” 

MIKE: “Uh-huh.”

Thomas Smittle is there, too, a tall and gifted horseman who can gently reach his long body from side to side and get a horse to move wherever it is necessary to move that horse. Mike’s son Randy is there as well – he likes it when my brother and I give his dad a hard time, so we make sure we do so at every opportunity. Photographer Steve Paige is here, too. We happily greet each other.   Mike introduces us to one hell of a wild horse vet, Dr. Gerry Peck.   (Have I mentioned how fun this crew is to work with?)

The Gilas are located in two corrals near the livestock chute on the far side of a large cattle facility. They’re in Nevada because the State will let us pull blood for Coggins tests here (necessary for transport across state lines), where there are alleys and chutes set up for just such testing. We’ll spend today processing the mares and foals, so we feed them along a narrow alleyway leading to the livestock chute. They don’t seem thrilled by the idea of leaving their large, open pen for a much smaller space, but alfalfa can convince even the stoniest among them.

While the horses settle, we organize the chute area and ourselves. A small card table holds horse ID charts, vaccines, clipboards, and donuts. (Everyone claims that they do not eat donuts, but I notice they are all gone within a short period of time.) (And no, I did not eat them all…)

Flags with plastic bags attached to the ends lean on fence rails. The worming medicine is loaded into a triggered syringe, which can be quickly administered into a horse’s mouth.   Our trucks are backed into the work area and their tailgates hold forms for the hair samples, as well as vacutainer tubes for blood and papers for the health and brand inspectors. We outline our marching orders, gather our wits, start up the generator for the hydraulic chute, and begin a routine of contained chaos. 

About this time, the fighter jets at the Fallon Naval Base commence their daily exercises. Low. Loud. And directly overhead.

Thomas and Randy take up their positions in the alleyway, making sure they have one hand on the metal fence panels in case they need to haul themselves up and out of harm’s way. They cut a few horses from the group and wave the plastic bag flags behind them so they advance through the alley, which gradually narrows so that the mares sort themselves into a single file line. When three or four horses are in position, Thomas and Randy back off and I take over, pushing the mares forward, one at a time, into the livestock chute. When a horse enters the chute, the door is closed behind them so that they are contained within a padded box. Mike operates the hydraulics to gently squeeze the horse so that she will be safe and still. There are many doors which can be opened to access a different part of the animal: head, neck, legs, hind end. We work quickly so that the mare can be released quickly – no need to stress her unduly.

The vet is first, and he steps up, swings open the door near the mare’s neck, expertly draws blood and strategically pistons the wormer into her mouth so quickly that she hardly notices. He gives two quick vaccinations, and then my brother steps in, wraps about twenty strands of mane hair around his gloved fingers, and gives a quick tug to extract the hair follicles, which are necessary for the genetic analysis.

Dr. Peck and my brother back away to fill out their respective data forms, and I step in to close the head door, open the hind quarters door and administer the PZP vaccine. As I step away to record my own data and quickly draw identification markings onto the mare’s chart, Mike releases the mare from the chute and into a large catch pen and Steve fires off a quick round of identification photos: front view, left side, right side. We communicate to each other by yelling over the din of the generator and the scream of the fighter jets: markings, age, and the horse’s assigned number. We cross check our data sheets, and then we get ready to process the next horse: same positions, same procedure.

Mike thoughtfully allows us a lunch break after many, many hours. We eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the backs of the trucks and drink copious amounts of water. The dogs get a walk through the feedlot, and they find lots of gross detritus to sniff at and roll in. The sun is high overhead, and bright, but there is a fine crispness to the air. We’re feeling pretty good. My brother has forgotten to bring a hat, so he straps a gaudy, colorful bathing suit to his head, much to everyone’s delight. We return to work and finish out the day.

When we’re done, the generator is shut down and the horses are herded back to their original paddock. We throw them more hay, and they seem no worse for the wear. The crew compares notes and charts to make sure we jotted everything down that we needed. We pack up the trucks, stash supplies inside the chute for tomorrow, and head off down the road to dinner, showers, PJs, bad hotel TV, and an evening of checking over charts, updating files, and preparing for another day of field work. Sun weary and exhausted, we fall into a heavy sleep.

And so on…"


As we continue our work, we are only able to shoulder this monumental task because of our dedicated supporters who respect the wild ones and their right to run free on their range. We are truly in this together.

With Gratitude,

From all of us at RTF

Easter sipping water at the pond in CA in Jan 2018
Easter sipping water at the pond in CA in Jan 2018
Celeste Carlisle administering vaccines last year
Celeste Carlisle administering vaccines last year
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Organization Information

Return to Freedom Inc. , (DBA) American Wild Horse Sanctuary

Location: Lompoc, CA - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @ReturnToFreedom
Project Leader:
Jack Carone
Lompoc, CA United States
$23,148 raised of $100,000 goal
460 donations
$76,852 to go
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