These are lessons from the Onaqui. Be silent and you might be able to learn something. Gandalf shows us to balance grace and strength. Stargazer convinces us never to give up on our dreams. Charger proves anyone can be a hero. The world could learn a lot from Utah’s iconic herd of wild mustangs. Their lessons emphasize family, resilience, and freedom.
But wild horses can’t talk, and lately there have been a lot of people who don’t seem to want us to learn what they have to teach. Lessons like walking gently on the Earth, the value of conservation, and the importance of compassion. So, the Onaqui need someone to help them. A translator. A messenger. An advocate. That’s where Red Bird’s Trust comes in. Part ambassador and part adventure, Red Bird’s Trust seeks to tell the Onaqui’s story, raise awareness, and work with other local groups to ensure the preservation of this magnificent herd.
This month’s Sanctuary Spotlight is unique: Red Bird’s Trust is not a Sanctuary at all. Instead, it is an organization dedicated to preserving a natural piece of public land and the glorious wild horses who live there. Red Bird’s Trust works to ensure that if humans ever do choose to listen to the wisdom of wild horses, then wild horses will still exist to tell their stories.
The Truth About Wild Horses
Wild horses are as spectacular as you can imagine and nothing like their critics would make you believe. Just like us, wild horses are social creatures. A herd like the Onaqui doesn’t live in one huge group. Instead, they live in tight bands with well defined roles. These horses take care of themselves, each other, and the land they call home. And when these horses face a trauma, like the Onaqui herd did in July of 2021, they find ways to show compassion, to fight for what is theirs, and to inspire so many of us who follow their stories.
One common myth about wild horses is that they destroy the land. In truth, wild horses prevent wild fires, help with pollination, and graze in a way that is gentle to the earth. They also thrive in difficult climate conditions, such as the current drought in the American West.
Another myth is that wild horses represent a feral species brought to the continent by Europeans. In reality, there is evidence that native populations interacted with horses long before Europeans came to the continent. You can read more about the deep history of wild horses in the Americas in two articles from Indian Country Today and the Animal Welfare Institute. Even if wild horses were feral, they have lived on this land for generations without doing a fraction of the harm humans have done to it.
Across the Ocean to the Desert
Red Bird’s Trust Founder and President Jen Rogers never expected to end up in Utah. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, she was living in Hawaii. A perennial photographer, Jen planned a 2020 trip to photograph bears in Alaska. When the world started to shut down, Salt Lake City was one of the only airports she could fly into. So she ended up adjusting her trip to Utah and visiting the Onaqui range.
Every group of wild horses is different. The land is different, and so are the personalities of the horses and their cultures. Rogers was immediately struck by the spirit of the Onaqui. It was peaceful, with an energy she never felt before. Rogers stayed for ten days and experienced a knowing. A pull. A call.
Not sure whether to follow that call, or if what she felt was real, Rogers took a second trip to Toole, Utah six weeks later. Again, she felt it. The Onaqui needed her, and they were calling. But neither Rogers nor the Onaqui knew just how big of a role she would play.
Running Out of Time
When Jen Rogers met the Onaqui, she had a vision with two components. On the business side, she would take people on wild horse photo safaris through her LLC A Place in Time Photography. This would allow others to experience the magnificence of the Onaqui and encourage them to work to preserve this treasure of the American West.
On the non profit side, Red Bird’s Trust would work for advocacy and education related to the Onaqui. For horses living free in the Herd Management Area, there would be range clean ups and other service projects. For those gathered by the BLM, there would be support for quality adoptions through transportation, vet care, and food. One of the most amazing things about this nonprofit’s vision is the pragmatism of it all: Rogers is determined to working within difficult parameters and with multiple stakeholders to get the best result for the horses.
A year prior to Rogers’ first trip to see the Onaqui, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed a round up. (In fact, many of those gathered horses are still in holding facilities.) So, when Rogers moved to Utah, she thought she had more time. She estimated it would be at least few years until the BLM deemed another roundup necessary. During that time, she would create more advocates for the horses through her business and nonprofit.
A colt born in August 2020 inspired the name of Red Bird’s Trust. With an adorable personality blending curiosity and caution, Red Bird would often investigate the world only to fly back to his mom like a frightened bird. Red Bird charmed Rogers. Then, she began to notice in her photos that he had an injury to his mouth. The nature of the injury was unclear, and she watched it develop as he grew.
On March 2, 2021 the BLM stunned Rogers and the community of wild horse advocates by announcing their plans to perform another round up. Rogers immediately made the commitment of adopt Red Bird since Red Bird’s mouth injury put him at risk for euthanasia. She also pledged to adopt other members of Red Bird’s band. Once she committed to personally adopt some of the Onaqui, Red Bird’s Trust quickly formed to unite individuals in advocating for the Onaqui herd.
Ultimately, the idea of “Red Bird’s Trust” represents something Rogers and so many others seek to earn. By fighting for the freedom and safety of the Onaqui, they hope to earn the trust of these horses and show them that some humans will treat them with compassion.
The Reality of Wild Horse Round-ups
It would take an entire book – or a series of them – to detail the lives of the Onaqui and the other herds of wild horses throughout the Americas. There are so many myths and misconceptions. But the biggest lie of all is the reason for the round ups. The BLM gives a lot of reasons. This year, it was the drought. But these arguments are easily debunked. The real reason for the roundups is the insatiable demand for animal agriculture: The horses occupy land that big agriculture wants to use for grazing sheep and cattle.
The BLM uses the terms “Round Up” and “Gather” to describe their approach to wild horses. These are euphemisms. Round ups violently forced wild horses off their land, separate them from their families, injured them, and force them into holding pens. Often, the BLM uses helicopters to chase the horses, sometimes for hours. This is not only traumatic, but causes injuries. A round up often involves one or more horses euthanized due to injury.
Once rounded up, the horses face two equally horrible fates. One option places a horse in a sparsely funded, government-operated holding facility. This is not sustainable and there is no exit strategy for the tens of thousands of horses currently in these facilities.
The second path is adoption. Now, a workable adoption system is something Red Bird’s Trust is actually fighting for. Unfortunately, journalists at the New York times recently exposed the current adoption pipeline as a dysfunctional program resulting in wild horse slaughter (full article here), something horse advocates feared for years. Technically, wild horse slaughter is illegal, but the lack of proper oversight allows unsavory individuals to engage in adoptions with the intent to sell horses into horrible fates.
When it comes to the Onaqui, there are too many stories to tell. Some of them will break your heart, but all of them will touch your soul. In the devastation of the July 2021 round up, with so many horses taken, separated, and traumatized, there emerged a hero: Charger.
After gathering an excessive number of horses on the final day of the round up, the BLM agreed to release 123 Onaqui back into the wild. They set the date of August 9, 2021. There was a lot of press and interest in this release. So, the BLM surprised everyone when on August 8th they secretly released a group of mares and foals in an unusual location. This release took place away from the typical range area with familiar watering holes and known terrain.
While the BLM explained they were worried for the safety of these mares and foals, the decision was wildly irresponsible. Female horses and their foals are always protected by male horses in the wild. Instead, the BLM left them dumped, lost, and without protection. Advocates monitoring the situation watched in fear to see what would become of the group.
A few days later, to the absolute joy of so many who were monitoring the range, a stallion named Charger found the group. In fact, he almost seemed to know they were there and that they need him. Upon arrival, he introduced himself to each of them and took on the role of protector. He led the group back to the main range and dedicated himself to their safety. The six mares and four foals have been inseparable from Charger ever since, and several seem quite taken with him.
While the roundup disrupted bands and created trauma, it could not change who these horses are. They are brave, dedicated, communal, and simply amazing. It’s hard to find any good in the round ups, but the round ups certainly brought out the good in the Onaqui.
Get Involved with Red Bird’s Trust
Since hearing the call of the Onaqui, Jen Rogers and Red Bird’s Trust have been working hard to advocate for wild horses. The work has been tireless, and it has never been more important. With hundreds of horses gathered in the July 2021 round up, the work of Red Bird’s Trust is now focused on securing excellent homes for all of the Onaqui still being held by the BLM. Here’s how you can help:
Donate: Fundraising right now is critical as Red Bird’s Trust works with other wild horse advocates to secure quality adopters with adequate land to rescue the gathered Onaqui. The priority is to keep bands together and adopt groups of horses to loving individuals who will honor their nature and needs. The adoption event is planned for October.
Support on Social Media: Follow and engage with Red Bird’s Trust on Facebook. This page includes beautifully written posts telling the stories of individual horses and their relationships to each other. Rogers is a fantastic writer and you will be moved by her posts.
Volunteer: This fall, Red Bird’s Trust will start hosting range clean up days. These clean ups involve removing old fence lines and other man made materials that have the potential to injure the free Onaqui. This opportunity will also let you experience the Onaqui Herd Management Area, which is where the remaining horses call home. Sign up and get more information HERE.
Take a Wild Horse Safari: Get up close and personal with the Onauqui by supporting Jen’s business, Wild Horse Safaris. This is a once in a lifetime experience to see and photograph wild horses in their true home.
Take Action for the Onaqui
Adopt Wild Horses: Compassionate people with land and the ability to adopt wild horses can complete applications on the BLM website. It is critical that there is a large group of quality adopters to ensure abuses and tragedies don’t take place in the adoption pipeline.
Take Action for Wild Horses: The Onaqui is not the only herd targeted by the BLM for round ups. In fact, other round ups are happening as this post is being finalized. The American Wild Horse Campaign includes up to date information and actions you can take to get involved.
Go Vegan: Without animal agriculture, wild horses would not be under attack. Check out our Veg 101 section for cookbooks, documentaries, and other resources for going vegan or reducing your consumption of meat and dairy.
Final Thoughts and Further Reading
Now that you know how to get involved, what is one thing you will do to support Red Bird’s Trust and wild horses? Let us know in the comments! If you liked this post, check out these others:
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