Wednesday, February 2, 2011


      ©1/2/10 Craig Downer
        One year ago, on January 2, 2010, Bob Bauer, Craig Downer, and I documented the ultimate black stallion, the noble American mustang now known throughout the world as Freedom, captured while leading his family, 11 of them in all, only to make his famous, nearly impossible escape over a six-foot metal fence and through a three-strand barbed wire fence 20 minutes later, following his brief but terrifying experience in captivity during the Calico roundup in Nevada at the Black Rock East trap site.  
     Here is our experience of that day and what we witnessed, pooling documentation from all of us present: Robert Bauer, Craig Downer, and I.

     AND NOW, the horses' experience, told by a human friend:
       That fateful morning, only one band --  a "band" being a family group of wild horses with one stallion as their leader -- was pried off the mountain.  Freedom's tightly knit family of 11, including himself, was targeted by the helicopter and forced off their starkly beautiful mountain home as part of the 1,922 horses BLM removed from the 550,000-acre Calico Mountain Herd Management Area (a combination of five Herd Management Areas cumulatively called "the Calico Complex"). 
          In the normal course of everyday life, he allowed River, his loyal 17-year-old lead mare, to lead the band, enjoying the shared experience of responsibility for the family, respecting her experience and knowledge of their range and its food and water sources as he trusted his own.  She often led the family as they grazed and meandered in their nomadic way through their home range, going to watering holes, favorite places known by them for certain flowers and shrubs at different times of the year, visiting with other bands in the Black Rock East herd of wild horses. As stallion, he possessed veto power and would change their direction if he wished.  
         In times of crisis he would often take the lead, like all wild stallions, who are the protectors of their families, then periodically drop back to the rear when he felt the need to place himself between his family and the threat (in the case of a roundup, the helicopter).  
         Freedom was a watchful, protective, high ranking stallion, proud of his sizable family.  Moreover, he was devoted to them, keeping them safe, mutual grooming with each mare and his young adult son, backing the mares in teaching boundaries to the little ones, keeping other stallions at a distance, and mating each mare when she was ready and wanted him.  (Yes, mares want their stallions when they are ready.)   This precious family -- his six mares, two-year-old golden son, three foals, and two more on the way -- meant everything to him.
       They were enjoying the cold, clear morning, savoring some cold grass they had ferreted out.  Pawing the snow aside, River had found a lovely little stockpile of green growing under a line of dwarf sage.  The three foals had nursed and were chasing around, "foaling around" in the sun.  His two-year-old son Blondy was mutual grooming with his mother, Glass (she's delicate and always seems to have some scrape or other, hence the name).   
            Shattering the peace like nothing they had heard before, this strange, terrible bird of prey, the big glass Monster, had come up over the rise and headed toward them, sending the foals running to their mothers. 
 ©2010 Elyse Gardner

 ©2010 Elyse Gardner

©2010 Elyse Gardner

          Everybody's heads shot up, play and grazing stopped.  All eyes were on Freedom, who took off heading west at a fast trot and broke into a lope after he was sure everybody was on board, for the Giant Bird was following them:  the hunt was on.  Unbeknownst to them, all but one had just enjoyed their last precious mouthful of wild grass, their last minute of family in the wild.  Each one would always remember the beauty and catastrophe of this singular, beautiful morning and the moment it turned into a nightmare marathon run for their lives.  
          He gave River the lead and got behind them.   The Thing kept up.  River hated it and broke into a gallop.  No matter how fast they ran, it stayed with them.  It didn't come too close until River veered right and tried turning everyone back.  Then it charged.  
          It roared after them and assaulted their senses even when it hung back.  By its unrelenting presence Freedom knew it wanted them; the Monster Bird wanted them.  He knew the range; he knew how to outrun the crafty ones, knew how to protect his family.  He always had.  He had a momentary shiver; he had never faced such a one as this... but no; he would deliver them.  This monster bird of prey would go hungry.  Twenty minutes into the chase, River glanced back at him.  
          Running to the front to lead them to safety, he took and maintained the lead, with River staying close behind him.  The responsibility was entirely his.  He took it on strongly, gladly, somberly.  He was their stallion.  
          Pain shot up his leg as he stumbled on the snow-covered sage stumps into jutting lava rock, leaving his skin on the rock and a gash on the bony front of his fetlock on his right front leg.  They nearly went off the ledge where the snow had built into a drift, promising footing where there was none.  
          He tried his valiant best to lead his family out of harm's way.  They had all always depended entirely on him, and now they were running close, attention riveted on him, listening carefully. They all were counting on him now, doing everything he asked.  
          He tried everything.  He had taken them around the big sage-covered hill with the tufa rock formation that marks the sudden drop down into the angled gully that unfamiliar pursuers always had trouble negotiating.  He galloped them through the draw up the hill to the right, along the rimrock of the sage-covered mesa when he decided to bring them back up around behind that old abandoned mine... but wait; he had to veer them left to evade the roaring monster.
           He realized the rules were all gone.  Fleeing earthbound predators meant his pursuers needed footing as he did, and the drop after the tufa rock would usually stumble an enemy, but this Winged Dragon had no such limitations and pursued them hard across land no earthwalker would traverse.  This made the chase truly deadly, giving the Monster an unfair advantage.  It drove them on, and they found themselves dangerously close to a ledge on nearly impassible ground covered with snow.    
          Freedom was none too happy about not being able to get back up to path near the abandoned mine, but his heart was pounding -- the fearful noise and size of the Glass Beast coming directly overhead flooded his senses; his heart pounded so hard he thought his lungs would explode.  Dahlia's foal tripped, stumbled and fell, scrambled quickly back to his feet. She fell behind to stay with him. The monster circled around but would not leave as Freedom circled to pull his family back together, and It soon charged them again, forcing them on.       
          Now Freedom wanted to veer left, but again, the big Preying Bird cut him off.  He veered right; the bird backed off: relief.  But he wanted desperately to take them up around behind that mine, so he started to veer left again, and again the bird came roaring up, cutting off his path.  Again he veered right; the bird backed off.  He abandoned thoughts of the old mine.  Adrenalin covered the pain from the nasty wound to his leg.  Tomorrow would bring burning pain, but his wonderful physiology masked the pain for now and he was able to press on undistracted by injury.
          As the miles wore on all they could hear was their own hoofbeats, their own blowing and breathing, and the horrible beating of the Monster's strange wings.  When it charged close in on them they could hear nothing else. The terrifying physical sensation of Its looming presence was mind-numbing, and he began to sweat.  They ran down trails and gullies, they ran up hills, chests heaving with exertion, their breath forming  vapor torrents as they ran. Sometimes the foals called out, asking for relief, but none was given.  They were running for their lives.  
         Freedom dropped to the back for a time to help keep the foals protected and moving forward.  River took over the lead. 
         At times the monster hung back, lurking.  River, however, continued to run,  making the most of what seemed an opportunity to gain some distance.  They slowed to a trot only when footing or the family required it.
         The little ones were using all their skills learned in play now, leaping over sage and running for all their soft little feet would take them.  River and Freedom saw that they continued to keep the creature at bay by running away from whatever side it was on.  She would settle for that, for now.  
         Freedom didn't understand.  The grueling miles tore on.  He knew that when fit and strong, their mustang endurance could outlast any predator yet encountered, but this Creature showed no signs of tiring.  The babies and Aiyana, at 25, were far from their prime, and this would soon be too much for them.  
          The foals' feet were dangerously worn, too soft for this pounding and this distance.  But they were strong, and they all had to keep moving.  

          As Freedom ran for this last time to the lead to relieve River, he called to them to encourage them, something he didn't often do: "Run, my baby mustangs, run! You are strong, you are mustangs, you know how; now run!"  
         Their little faces were pinched, their nostrils flaring, reaching for oxygen, little baby wild mustangs running as their ancestors had to run from the old mustangers.  Their father's call spurred them on; they dug in and pushed on.  He loved them so...
         The great monster now had them running across this great huge flat expanse, away from his mountain, his home.   When he spotted the fence he hesitated, collecting himself. All were winded, gasping for air. Aiyana's head hung.  
    ©1/2/10 Craig Downer
Aiyana and Glass were fighting to hold their heads up. 

              The foals were valiantly keeping up, but they needed a rest.  Freedom was proud of Blondy -- need to rename him soon, he's a young stallion holding his own now.   Did The Creature need a rest?  It let them be for a few moments.  Maybe it would give up.  

©1/2/10 Craig Downer   Freedom hesitates, collecting his thoughts and the family.
               The brief respite ended as the Great Beast came roaring at them now, and Freedom's heart pounded again as they took off in a final desperate effort to outrun this thing that had now plagued them for miles, for 1 1/2 hours.   Dahlia's mother, Aiyana (later known as Princess Diane by the kind human who reveres her and restored her to a wild place with a handsome Palomino appaloosa stallion named Lightning -- but I'm getting ahead of myself) was 25 years old, desperately sucking air through nostrils flaring with each inspiration while her sides heaved with the exertion,   She was badly winded.  The foals had never gone this distance in a day before, let alone in 1 1/2 hours. Aiyana slipped and stumbled on the ice.  This marathon could kill her.  
                River was 3 1/2 months pregnant, tired and sore but steady as she goes.  Dahlia, the lovely Dahlia, was terrified, but her mothering of her foal kept her grounded and sensible, staying with him and just slightly behind him. 
               Here Craig Downer's photo shows Freedom at full gallop trying valiantly to lead them into an escape from the monster that had been besetting them for miles.  This is the last-ditch, final effort to remain free.  But they are already in the mouth of the trap, and Judas horse, Shorty, bless his sorrel heart, will execute his job flawlessly once again and deliver these wild cousins into captivity.
                          ©1/2/10 Craig Downer
                   He failed.  Freedom had failed, overpowered and outsmarted by the roaring glass monster. Despite his best cunning, despite his amazing valor and his commitment to his family, despite his intelligence and range savvy, Freedom had failed to deliver them as always he had from every threat before.  He had driven off, outfoxed, outrun, or fought off any threat to his family before.  
                  He had never known such calamitous defeat.  Caged, forced on a path into this cage?   Tired as they were, and as much as their lungs burned from the exertion and the cold, the experience of the six-foot pens was nerve-wracking. They would have kept running if they could. Trapped!  He could barely move!  Cramped.  Limited.  Never before had they known this sensation of forced immobility.  They clung together.  At least they had each other.
                 This captivity was a first, but he remained staunchly determined and watchful for any opportunities.  And he knew the family was counting on him.  
                 Freedom was in high gear.  Fully alert, assessing everything.  He despised the defeat, but he wasn't finished.  The girls looked at him, questioning, afraid.  He told them he would figure something out.  He always did.  
©1/2/10 Elyse Gardner                 The Conversation      
 Glass, Shalwin, and lead mare River peer anxiously into Freedom's eyes, looking to him, as always,  for guidance:  What would you have us do now?  You can see the outline of Freedom's face on the right as he looks back into the worried faces of his mares.     No, he would not give up...
           But he was overpowered and outsmarted by the Glass Monster and the two-leggeds.  Here they were, encased by a six-foot fence all around, rendering him unable to defend them against this predator.  They huddled together, taking comfort from one another, still always one turned one way, one the other, having each other's backs.
       ©1/2/10 Elyse Gardner

            I saw him looking at me through the rubber netting as I photographed them, his eyes penetrating.  His intelligence and presence pierced me in my core.  I felt almost nauseated at the sight of him and his devoted family penned up like that.  The sensation called to mind the day I found the legendary stallion Conquistador standing silently in the rusty metal stock trailer, trapped with his lovely family, his very nobility and dignity a judgment upon the paltry, greedy humans who put him there.  I felt then as I felt now under Freedom's gaze, embarrassed and ashamed of my species.
  ©1/2/10  Elyse Gardner        River, Dahlia, Freedom, with Blondy in between
He was resolute and ever the stallion.  He felt the responsibility to find an answer, and it drove his every move.  
     ©1/2/10  Elyse Gardner                  The last moments together.
Freedom's golden son, Blondy, wedges his way in close, taking comfort in his father's strong presence.
            Freedom's injury at his front right leg at the front of the fetlock joint was evident now, stinging and aching as he stood there still.  He dismissed it; no time now for pain.  I was impressed with his comportment, how he kept his focus even though injured, agitated, and momentarily defeated.
           Then it got really bad.  They -- the humans -- came in and somehow got Dahlia out a gate before he could gather them all together. Suddenly again they were at him and his family with those awful white-bag whips, flapping and rattling like big hissing snakes... a gate opened and he went through, but they slammed it shut before the mares could follow,  hitting River on the side of her head. Things could hardly be worse.  He would not be separated from his family.  
          When the wranglers forced him along with these loud rushing white bag-stick whips and got him alone in their makeshift alleyway to examine him and begin his assimilation into their world, he reared up, refusing the limitation of this metal panel fence and getting hung up for a terrible, life-changing minute.  He nearly dislocated his right shoulder in the process.
©1/2/10 Elyse Gardner

As he struggled to free himself, he looked into the eyes of this small, hard woman who shook a plastic bag-topped stick at him, and he recognized those eyes.
©1/2/10 Elyse Gardner

          He had seen that same look in eyes staring out at him as a foal, when the coyote with her young watched him hesitate to cross the pond as his mother and the band got ahead of him.  He had called anxiously to mom, and she came right back and taught him about crossing the water.  But he never forgot the coyote's crafty, watching eyes.  There was no help to be found there.  He was not safe with those eyes.  He knew they promised nothing he wanted. 
         A corner was turned:  He could not, would not endure this again.  
         He knew, when he came unstuck, he would give it his all, take every opportunity and make every effort to the last of his great strength, to escape domination by this woman and her kind and to regain his freedom.  
         When he at last struggled free from this fence-thing, they put him in a pen by himself.  He didn't have much room, but he would make it work.  He was ready; the decision was already made.  Without hesitation, he risked everything rather than remain in captivity.   He had lost his mares, his foals, his freedom.  He had nothing more to lose.  Carpe diem; he may not get another chance.  
          It was six feet high, taller than anything else he had ever before jumped, but he was strong and smart and knew how to negotiate all sorts of obstacles in the wild; he would learn about this one right now.   He would die trying if he had to.  
©1/2/10  Craig Downer
          He made a run at the fence in the short distance available...
         Up, over... oh, oh,  no good -- crash.   
         Get up, quick, shake it off.  Need more lift, need to summon more strength.  Don't think about the pain in my leg from the long Monster chase only 20 minutes ago.  No, I'm going home:  Give it everything, right now, right now, this is it...
©1/2/10  Craig Downer

The pathos of this photograph reveals the desperation and determination Freedom gave this second effort.  He gave it everything he had. 
        With this second try, he cleared the six-foot fence, caught a glimpse of his precious frantic Dahlia running up to the fenceline in the pen next door -- how he wished she'd follow!  

Dahlia is frantic as she watches her stallion leave.      
        Goodbye, my lovely dove, I can't help you now, I am so sorry -- and then — Ah, wait; here's a barbed wire perimeter fence!  Okay, this is no time to back down, right now go, crash it, give it everything -- ugh... 
        ©1/2/10 Craig Downer
          Okay.  Okay.  Okay.  Sigh (but keep moving).
         (Nickering to himself...) I did it...  I can move! Nothing between me and the mountain.  Just keep moving... going home...  Thank You...   Go home, get away, must get away, heal these gashes from the barbed wire.
          Escaped with my life; without my life, my family... one foot in front of the other for now... 
          Good bye, Beloveds, I cannot help you, must heal...  They already took you away from me...I will watch for you, I will come for you if I can...   
          But the next day all the horses were shipped out, the trap was broken down, and nothing was left except trampled grass, some hair and blood on the barbed wire fence which had been repaired, and some manure.        
          We celebrate you, Freedom.   I hope you never have to look at another one of my kind again.  I am so sorry to have to say that...
            What did Freedom leave behind?  More aptly phrased, whom?
                             A NEW LIFE OFF THE RANGE
      That's where my story now begins.  
      Meet Dahlia, Freedom's three-year-old mare, whom I watched and filmed that January 2nd, the day that broke her heart and crushed her spirit. 
           They took Dahlia's foal -- they took all the foals -- and ten minutes later she watched her stallion leap the fence and head back for the mountains without her as she stood trapped. 
     Dahlia was in the pen adjoining Freedom's at the time he made that tremendous effort and leap to freedom.  She was in the back of the pen, heard the "clang" as his hoof hit the top of the metal panel fence as he cleared it, and she came running, frantic, helpless as she watched her stallion — her foal's father, her strength, her security -- heading home for their mountain without her. 
© 1/2/10  Elyse Gardner/Robert Bauer

© 1/2/10  Elyse Gardner/Robert Bauer


         She began to pace, then run, back and forth in her adjoining six-foot-high enclosure, making a sliding stop the first time.  I realized she was trying to work up the courage to follow him. . .
 ©5/8/10 Elyse Gardner               Dahlia at Broken Arrow five months later                    

        I'm looking forward to sharing the footage on Dahlia and other members of Freedom's band which I will share in coming days.  But in honor of their one-year anniversary, just past, I wanted to at least begin to bring you their stories now, and while another huge roundup is taking place in the Antelope HMA in Nevada, planned to be even larger than the Calico roundup of 1,922 horses. 
  ©5/16/10 Elyse Gardner
 "Look River; there's that woman again.  Hmm."
River keeps a gentle but wary eye out.  Dahlia is right behind her.  
           I will tell you that we finally found Dahlia with River and the others at the Indian Lakes/Broken Arrow holding facility in Nevada.  It took us five months to find her.  She and her family mares stayed away from the fences and food each week while we were out there touring, trying to see 1922 horses in under three hours.  Dahlia is extremely shy, a wild beauty, and she always clung to River, hiding behind her.  With the help of a couple of very special people who made it possible (and you know who you are), and thanks to Barbara Clarke, Director of DreamCatchers Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary in California, I was able to get these two girls and keep them together.  My commitment to them and DreamCatchers' commitment to them is they will stay together for the rest of their natural lives.  
            You at least deserve to know that especially if you have stuck with this long blog post.  As a good storyteller I should leave you in suspense, but this is real life, it isn't a story, and I want to sing my praises and appreciation of Barbara Clarke and DreamCatchers, who passed away in November 2016.  Barbara was one of those behind-the-scenes people active on behalf of wild horses — and rescuing horses — for years, extremely knowledgable, and one of the most genuinely humble people I've met.  She left a snooty high security government job in the Department of Defense years ago in favor of working with and for horses.  The horses had a true friend in this woman. 
          Here is DreamCatchers' mission statement:
            Our mission is simple: create a natural and stimulating environment that allows mustangs to rediscover their freedom and independence and to let the public experience what would be lost if roundups and adoptions continue.
         "Wild horses are not saddle horses in waiting. They do not belong in our backyards, corrals or show rings. They belong in the wild where they can be free and separate from humans.”
- B.A. Clarke
         After leaving her successful career in the high tech world, Barbara began a new life as Director of the Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Carmel– a long jump from what she did in the defense industry working on certain segments of nuclear weapons.
         While Director of Redwings, Barbara wrote and had published numerous articles on the meaning of sanctuary in a technological society, winning the prestigious San Jose Mercury News Silver Pen award, named one of nine influential women in animal welfare by Town and County magazine, was featured in The 2002 International Animal World Encyclopedia, and was on the board of directors of The Association of Sanctuaries, where she helped develop standards of care for wild and domestic horses and sanctuary business ethics.
          Barbara had continued her work in the sanctuary movement as Director and cofounder of DreamCatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary, a natural habitat environment for mustangs. Her DreamCatcher legacy continues under new leadership, and I solicit your donations on their behalf.  The Calico girls I brought their are still there appreciating open space and security from helicopters.  
          I am shamelessly plugging DreamCatchers because my girls are happy there, and I am confident in DreamCatcher's commitment to these animals.  I love visiting them and greeting the other horses, as well, who are all free to come visit should they wish to — and many do.

           If you are half as relieved as I was to find this haven for these girls, I hope you will demonstrate that gratitude with a "Thank you, DreamCatcher, for taking these girls" donation both for the horses and in memory of Barbara.  A one-time gift is wonderful.   A regular monthly gift or sponsorship of a horse, if you like, even if it seems like a small amount to you — is an ongoing blessing and investment into the lives of the fortunate horses and burros there, and a sweet affirmation of this hardworking, genuine woman.      
           Just click on this link to donate to DreamCatchers.  
           Hay prices are high this winter.  It doesn't seem as glamorous to send a check to the same old sanctuary when there are new horses to rescue... But where would be without places like DreamCatchers?  

         Freedom and his family have given us an up-close view, a glimpse into wild horse family life and the trauma of a roundup. 
ONE LAST THING..........  
         As special as they are, Freedom and Cloud — his famous, noble palomino counterpart in the Pryor Mountains — are no more or less special than the amazing wild stallion Laura Leigh of Wild Horse Education described to me whom she saw driven into the "wings" of the trap with his family at the Antelope roundup only to turn around at the last minute and escape by running out of the "funnel. "
          Then he turned around and ran back part-way into the wings and stood there looking at his family, who were by then enclosed in the trap pen, then ran all the way out and halfway up the hill, stopped, and looked back at his family in the trap pen for several minutes.  
         Laura could see him trying to think how to get his family out.    
         She cried as she described him to me.  

         When he finally turned to leave, he turned and stared at her. 

©1/31/11 Laura Leigh

Then he finally left, alone, his whole life, as he knew it, left in the trap pen. 

        I believe Freedom and Cloud are ambassadors for the rest of their kind.  I hope you will introduce friends, family, and coworkers to them this week.  Many people I meet tell me,  "I didn't know they were doing roundups or using helicopters like that.  That's horrible."  

          I hope you will use this blog to help educate family, or send the links to your Congressional representatives.  

          I hope you have benefited by this glimpse into the lives of our wild horses — and by association, their humble burro friends, too.  

I remain, for the wild horses, mules, and humble burro friends, captive and free, and
in memory of those who were, and those yet to come, in perpetuity,

Elyse Gardner Walsh
                                                                                                            ©Elyse Gardner  1/2/10

To either learn more  to help the horses, visit and/or sign up on the following websites.  We can be most effective If we sign up so we are notified when action (a phone call or brief letter, usually) is needed.  My voice with your voice in a choir, is multiplied a thousandfold.
Wild Horse Education at:
The Cloud Foundation at:
Wild Horse Preservation:


  1. Wonderful documentary, in perfect Elyse style. A heart warming tribute to Freedom and his family. Thank you Elyse, well done. I pray as we all do, that Freedom is running wild, and was fortunate enough to find some of his kind, and begin new life and family. Thank you for your undying search for Dhalia & River, and their subsequent rescue to Dream Catchers.
    I hope I am right, in that River is there with Dhalia. Honoring your work Elyse. Blessings....

  2. This is such a wonderful documentary, Elyse. I do wish though that someone would spot him on the range - hopefully with a new family. I would feel SO much better if I know he was all right.