Stress is Killing the Captive Calico Wild Horses

Story by Maureen HarmonayEquine Advocacy Examiner

Wild Horse Advocate Details the Reasons for the Triple Digit Deaths

Terrorized from the very beginning, the Horses of the Calico BLM Roundup - Photo by Kurt Golgart/Bureau of Land Management

Day after day since the beginning of the “gather” of the wild horses who once freely roamed Nevada’s Calico Mountains, the BLM has reported the deaths of the horses who were forced into its clutches.  Though the Gather Daily Updates report that the total of equine lives lost as a direct result of this roundup is 79, a truer mortality tally is more than 90, in addition to the dozens of in utero foals who perished through miscarriages or as a consequence of the demise of the dams.

And while the BLM has variously categorized the reasons for these deaths as “a failure to adjust to a change in feed,” “hyperlipemia,” “metabolic failure,” “poor body condition,” and “colic,” among others, the real cause can be summed up in one word:  “stress.”  We’ve known this intuitively, and now, thanks to a timely and important paper by Dr. Bruce Nock, it can be proved.

Writing under the auspices of Liberated Horsemanship, Dr. Nock has just published Wild Horses: The Stress of Captivity, which lucidly and persuasively explains why stress is the physiological raison d’etre for virtually all of the maladies and illnesses that the Calico mustangs have suffered and endured.  Dr. Nock doesn’t pull any punches, asserting:

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, as ‘gathers’ are routinely done in the USA, if a wild horse doesn’t die straight off from the immediate devastation and commotion, it compromises him/her physically and mentally, putting him on a path of accelerated deterioration.”

It all starts with the fight-or-flight reaction, triggered at the first sound of the menacing helicopter as it swoops and dives in an effort to scare peacefully grazing herds into a full stampede.  But the stress-stimulated hormones in the captive horses’ bodies continue to circulate long after they have stopped running, igniting a chain of chemical reactions and events that soon spiral out of control.

The high percentage of Calico mares who miscarried was a predictable consequence of conducting the roundup at a time when so many of them were in various stages of late-term gestation.  According to Dr. Nock:

“Long-term projects, like reproduction, are put on hold when the fight-or-flight reaction is active.  Expending resources to sustain and maintain a fetus, for example, just isn’t physio-logical if it seems like you are about to die.  It isn’t surprising that the BLM reported 20-30 ‘miscarried’ in association with the Calico Complex Gather.  In addition to the miscarriages, one wonders how many fetuses were resorbed by mares?”

Dr. Nock also addresses the BLM’s contention that many of the newly captive horses perished because they were not adapting to a change of diet.  Through February 1st, at least 18 of the Calico horses “have died or have been euthanized as acts of mercy because they were not adapting to being fed grass hay in a domestic setting,” according to a report issued by BLM veterinarian Dr. Richard Sanford.  Not so, says Dr. Nock:

“Let’s be honest.  It has nothing at all to do with the hay and probably little to do with the change of diet.  It’s about being scared out of their wits and the sympathetic tone shutting down processes related to appetite and digestion.”

Confinement itself is a major source of stress to these formerly free-ranging horses whose very survival depends on their ability to escape danger:

“Imagine how stressful confinement in an unfamiliar place must be to a species who depends on running for survival and who instinctively avoids places where they might get trapped.

On top of that, there’s the social unrest from confinement in close quarters with unfamiliar horses.  And don’t overlook the importance of such things as the loss of or separation from lifelong herd mates, companions and family.  It is egocentric to think such things are only important to our species. . .

The ability to control one’s own movement and activity is as important to horses as it is to us.  The loss of control, on the other hand, is a powerful psychological stressor.  In fact, it is a key factor in determining whether situations, events and circumstances are stressful and mentally or physically damaging.”

Dr. Nock’s analysis also explains how the stress of captivity can cripple a wild horse’s immune system, making him much more susceptible even to “natural stressors, like severe weather conditions, biting insects, and so on.”

The long-term prognosis for the Calico refugees currently being held at the Fallon, Nevada feedlot is not promising, as Dr. Nock sees it:

“I don’t think it is too far out of line to say nearly everything about captivity is probably stressful to one degree or another to wild horses, especially when it begins with the traumatic experience of a gather.

It is extremely detrimental to their long-term health and soundness.”

(This article is one of many in a long string of investigative stories  written by Maureen Harmonay.  Learn more about this talented writer by clicking HERE)

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18 comments on “Stress is Killing the Captive Calico Wild Horses

  1. This cruelty must stop. I just cannot see why they don’t leave the animals alone, to live the life they were meant to live. They have every right to be on this planet and to be free and we have no right to take them, use them, abuse them, kill them, treat them cruelty and kill them in a torturous way. They are the innocent, defenseless and voiceless, we should be protecting them and taking care of them.

    As custodians of this planet, it is our responsibility to take care of the planet and the animals and it is to our detriment if we do not.


  2. I also am very concerned about the the level of stress the helicopter chase has on the new foals. This cannot be good for their young brains that are still in the process of developing their brains and its connections. And then to be immediately separated from their families after this. I do believe this is beyond cruel and inhumane. Forget the moratorium. They need to stop round ups altogether.

    The young colt who perished unattended in the line to the squeeze chute thinking he was in line to be eaten by that big, noisy box surrounded is another story.


    • A Moratorium would end roundups. It would go beyond the end of the roundups and begin recovery through studies and new management based upon the results. These horses need the time a moratorium would give them to have new protections and a new law that would see that none of this would happen again and real science based management was introduced.

      What do you mean, “Forget the moratorium”? WHat else would you declare to stop the roundups? How else can we, the public, become involved? If the BLM continues to hold all the cards, we will not be able to change the chaos they have created. This all needs change. Getting behind a moratorium would help create a series of events that will promote recovery through science and preservation of all the wild ones including captives as well as those on their lands.


  3. I knew this was going on. I have always maintained that whatever the round-up agency, THEY DON’T HAVE THE SCIENCE, WILL OR COMPETENCE TO HANDLE THESE ANIMALS.

    The death count (which I suspect is actually higher AND WILL GO HIGHER) scientifically shows that they are not qualified to manage these animals.

    I guess that means an advocate Crusader will soon have enough data, science and WHB program knowledge to sue the living life out of these “managers”.

    R.T., Ms. Harmonay, Dr. Nock…thank you. In addition to the Dr.’s observations, I would say that the change in diet does have another huge impact (no pun intended). I think it also verifies the scientific theory that, indeed the wild equines have a significantly altered, albeit native digestive tract versus the domestic equine and are a highly developed, indigenous species to North America. They are NOT a multitude of recently released domestic equines as the anti-horse, whackem’ all trolls insist.

    Science, data…keep on rollin’ in!


  4. Thanks for bringing this information from Dr. Bruce Nock forward. It is added to my arsenal and will be quoted often.

    Yes, we knew this intuitively. Having a medical perspective is more than icing on the cake.

    And this must be intuitive to at least some BLM and DOI employees too, from the top down. How can it not be? So either they are sociopathic evil people who just don’t give a hoot? Or, and I feel for these, are in torment themselves.


  5. Just watched the processing video by Elyese Gardner linked from this report. Poor babies!!!!!!! How will they ever come to adapt to humans? And, yet, they do. However, no matter how trustfull and loving and tolerant they may be to people, how will they ever not react to hearing sounds like that chute, the smell of alchohol will be forever ingrained, the sound of a helicopter, the little baggies in thier faces, even the horses waitng were already frightened out of thier wits? Very time consuming and I assume costly desinsitation efforts will be needed. How many adopters really understand what they are getting into?

    The comments indacted that these younger horses shown in this video are more compliant. It was heart breaking enough seeing thier terror and need to flight, now to wonder how the older horses react one can see how they break their necks during this process.

    We recently had a link to another processing event where the horses were at least more relaxed. What was different about that one?


  6. Yah-hooo! Big, breaking report out of Europe (no, not that volcano). Go to Animals Angels for press release or maybe EWA has it up. It’s on youTube too (English and native language). It’s making the news and grocery selves across Europe.

    Hopefully R.T. will have it up soon.

    The demand side is critical;for our wild equines, the same hell potential exists but is more the trolls that round them up without science or competence as a first priority. The light is beginning to illuminate the darkness folks. Thank God (or whatever you choose [or not] to believe in).


  7. I believe stress did have an impact on these horses…the vet is right in some aspects…not all of them though…let’s not forget we walked off over 200 “wild” horses off a disaster site…(3-Strikes)…those horses weren’t domesticated, they were starved…we put them on a good diet of good hay and grain, wormed and vaccinated them, every horse we took care of is alive and well today…these horses were abandoned to eat yucca and their own excrement…how come we saved so many with hay if they are so hard to adapt to change in their diet?
    There’s a study and opinion poll it seems to every travesty…I don’t care that some vet thinks the wild horse dies due to stress and change in diet when we work them…he’s probably the same kind of vet that thinks these animals will survive without any management goals…

    Your horses off the Calico range sound like they were severely malnourished and needed saved as much as the ones we got in…the real crime here is that no one wanted to do anything about it…till the BLM stepped up…now that you see the dead and dying… you are to quick to point fingers… get off your duff, go for a long walk on the public domain and see what other horses your neglecting!


    • Mr. Weber, I do think you answered your own question: You “walked” off horses that were already in a semi confined “domestic” atmosphere, where I suspect they had already along the way become accustomed to hay, they were in a very compliant state of starvation as you say, and they had very committed and caring people such as yourself and probably some vet care for some as well. You did not run them for 10 to 20 miles from pure and pristine absolute wild freedom in which they enjoyed family roots and structure to confinement, torn from everything familiar and from their own mates and offspring. Anyway, I think I further answered this question in another reply to one of your posts on another topic.

      Please take a moment or two and watch the videos of the horses coming into the chutes from the Calico range. You will not see any malnourished horses. There did appear to be one small group in malnourished state in the holding pens, and the BLM web site (check it out – read the daily updates) indicates that these were from one particular area within an otherwise absolutely huge area of otherwise healthy horses, healthy according to the BLM daily updates. Further, advocates indicate that these were not below 2 on the scale (forget what the scale is called right now) and could have been nourished under the right care. The problem, I am learning, dealing with these newly captured horses is it is almost impossible to give care without causing yet more stress. These horses are not compliant to human handling in any way shape or form – they are – wild animals. I don’t think it is at all a fair comparison to the 3-Strikes horses that had been away from the wild for some time and were accustomed to some human handling and domestic feed.

      In any event, as I indicate in my other reply, it does not matter what you or I think is the truth – the truth is the truth.

      And thank you for your efforts in the 3-Strikes disaster. But please keep your insults to us to yourself like “duff”. We are all working to the best of our abilities within our own individual circumstances, thank you very much.

      What are you doing every day to save all those “other horses” that YOU are also neglecting? By your own account if you are not personally and individually saving each and every one of them you must be one of the neglectful? Or could it be that what you have done is enough? I would say so – it is wonderful. I only dream of being in a position to do what you have done. Perhaps others of us are doing some things in whatever ways we are able to. Additionally I am not quick to point fingers. If you find my original posts on PBS you will see a very naive person who stated that BLM people are just doing their jobs. Well, being the analytical person I am, I ventured on and researched, now you see an enlightened and educated person who holds everyone one at BLM and DOI personally responsible as they are the ones in charge that I am paying my tax dollars to who are committing cruelties either directly or by doing nothing about it. I continue my knowledge on the subject of wild horses and the political battles before us and am far from an expert on either, but there are many advocates that are that I respect. Check out IDA and EWA and The Cloud Foundation. Being that you were involved at 3 Strikes then you know very well R.T. Fitch the creator of this web site. You will find reports from respected ecologiests and biologists who don’t just “say” what is wrong like BLM, they prove what is wrong and work towards what is right. But check it all out for yourslef and come to your own conclusions. I am confident what those conclusions will be for anyone that really puts in a little research time.

      I used to still try to, though I admit I am failing at this, feel really bad for those in BLM and their contractors that must surely be tormented, but I have come to believe that those are few and far between. The rest need to check themselves out and ask the really tough questions, own up to mistakes if they have any humanity, and make the changes that need to be made. There will always be others that will never know or understand the compassion that others know – those are the really very sad cases and so be it. But you and I are not like that – we do care. We will continue on in this fight each in our individual abilities.

      Apologies again to readers – I don’t know where this sermon like attitude is coming from, I certainly have no right to preach, but can’t seem to help myself – hopefully this will pass.


    • The horses off the Calico range were severely malnourished? Do you have a link to back up this assumption? Also, did you read the article by Dr. Nock? It doesn’t seem like you did.


    • James, I don’t see any “management” of the horses, only round ups. Unless you consider holding pens “management” of wild horses. 3 Strikes horses were saved by hay and grain because they were actually starving. Calico horses were not starving, and had their bodies accustomed to a completely different diet. They had to undergo an abrupt change not only in diet but also in loss of mobility and herd structure. 3 strikes horses were at one point, wild also, until they were FORCED to starve at 3 strikes. Big difference.
      When you take your long walk on public domain, don’t neglect the herds of cattle. I’m sure they have quite an appetite.


  8. First, I appreciate that Mr. Weber took the time and commitment to use his name and secondly, I appreciate that he commented here.

    Here (among other Weber comments) is where credibility, ergo lack of science becomes Mr. Weber’s handicap:

    “…Your horses off the Calico range sound like they were severely malnourished and needed saved as much as the ones we got in…the real crime here is that no one wanted to do anything about it…till the BLM stepped up…now that you see the dead and dying… you are to quick to point fingers… get off your duff, go for a long walk on the public domain and see what other horses your neglecting!…”

    (1) What’s with the “Your horses”? They belong to everyone in the US and that includes you.
    (2) No one wanted to do anything? Hmmm, no. We didn’t want the equines handled THIS WAY.
    (3) The dead and the dying comment is tragic and just plain wrong. Where are the dead and dying Mr. Weber? At the cattle guards, the fenced off waterholes, the holding pens, on the Mexican/CAnadian kill floors? Because if they were on the range prior to this round-up, you don’t think the round-up agencies would have put those reports and photos up to justify this current incompetence? They didn’t do that because thay DON’T have it.
    (4) Let’s see Mr. Weber…people like Craig, Ginger, etc and many of us are getting off our duffs and have documentation that shows these equines didn’t need to be rounded up AND ARE DYING BECAUSE OF THE ROUND-UP. And as a side note, just exactly how do you expect us to go out there and see all the dying equines when in reality access has been highly restricted and in many cases, DENIED! In fact, many herd areas have been zeroed out.

    To put it politely Mr. Weber, you seem to be an ignorant or benefit reaping BLM cheerleader; not an informed, fully thinking interested party.


  9. What can we do about this… do you have a petition… anything… if not, please start on ‘CARE2’ is a good place to begin an online petition – I will sign for one. This is simply wrong and we must not allow it to continue. Stop it. It’s our responsibility, as it is (as usual) our species doing the damage.


  10. I think that just because blm had four “top” equine veterinarians to assist with these horses and their round up program it doesn’t give them the right to even think that they could know the stress levels in these horses. It is known that when a horse enters his flight mode and is cantering or galloping away from perceived danger that more acids are turned up into their stomachs thus causing ulcers. Flight from a UFO, because to them that is what it is and is very stressfull indeed because, when a horse gets scared they do not think they are going to get hurt, they think they are going to get killed. That *is* the intensity of the fear present in horses displaying the flight behavior. When horses are made to gallop or canter for long periods of time it has an ill effect on them as in seen in race horses–ever wonder why race horses develop a lot of ulcers? Just because blm thinks they have their @sses covered by having 4 equine vets working with them it doesn’t mean that these vets have any experience with horse psychology and horse behavior. I know Animal Control takes horses from people who do far less than blm. In Calif. they could take your horse for as little as not having a proper shelter or enough space or for conditions such as it being too deep of mud in their corral. Look at these holding pens! The weanlings and yearling can’t even get their food until the bigger horses are done eating because there isn’t enough room, they have no shelter from the wind or rain, they are living in conditions that destroy a horses hooves standing in their own piss and manure. Why doesn’t Haven Humane or Animal Control get on their cases and do something to assist or tell blm how to make these horses more comfortable. Horses are motivated by #1: Safety, #2: comfort, #3: food, #4: play, #5: breeding


  11. It is so sad to think that no one in the BLM or even US has any real experience in the capture of wild horses in a stress free teqnique. For years I have studied the ongoings of BLM managed roundups. It seems throughout the US people cry out against the use of helicopters for roundups. I have succesfully captured and relocated wild horses on vast open country without the use of these machines with the help of usefull equipment trained animals and persons. Thinking of the cost implication of helicoptors I cannot see how this is even closely financially comparable to professional wild horse capture by foot. The horses I have rounded up have been coralled voluntarily thus the only stress occuring is that of when the horse realizes that it has been enclosed. At first it will become nervous, with whatever first contact it makes after this being very shaky, but all this should be in the hands of trained people who have understanding and patience. Having first hand seen death at the hands of overeagerness I can fully agree with dr Nock that stress kills wild horses.


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