Leader of epic White Sands horse rescue operation reflects on months-long roundup 25 years later

Dr. Don Hoglund led a team of cowboys and helicopter pilots in the rescue of 1,800 horses from the White Sands Missile Range in 1995.

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FARMINGTON — Dr. Don Hoglund is a veterinarian who has worked on Hollywood projects, helped establish a wild horse training program for prison inmates, written a best-selling book and trained tens of thousands of livestock owners how to better interact with their animals.

But when he is asked to name the most satisfying entry on his illustrious resume, Hoglund doesn't hesitate to cite his work leading an epic roundup of nearly 2,000 free-roaming horses on the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico nearly 25 years ago.

"That was the highlight," he said emphatically, reflecting on his experiences over a year at White Sands as the front man for a complicated and dangerous project that involved the U.S. Army, federal and state wildlife officials, federal and state politicians, animal welfare advocates, an international media contingent, unexploded ordnance, some of the most challenging environmental conditions imaginable, and, of course, approximately 1,800 horses that had no desire to — and no intention of — cooperating with Hoglund and his crew of cowboys and helicopter pilots.

That massive effort became the subject of Hoglund's bestselling book "Nobody's Horses," a chronicle of the capture that has been optioned several times by producers interested in bringing the story to the big screen. None of those efforts have borne fruit, but the continued interest in the book by filmmakers speaks to the tale's strong appeal, even a quarter century after it took place.

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See the roundups on the range – including one that goes wrong. Meet the ranchers who deal with horses. Meet the activists who try to save them. And meet Indy, the little foal who makes everybody care a little bit more. USA TODAY NETWORK

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Not that Hoglund is sitting around waiting for someone to finally close the deal. The affable, part-time New Mexico resident — he keeps homes in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Santa Fe — enthusiastically continues his lifelong work of helping humans understand how animals learn and reducing the chances of negative interactions developing between the two. He has achieved that by conducting hundreds and hundreds of workshops on efficient livestock handling through his company, Dairy Stockmanship.

"I teach them exactly when to add energy (to an interaction with an animal) and when to take it away," he said last week during a telephone interview from Wisconsin. "Of course, the third option is to do nothing. What I'm in the business of doing is teaching humans how to manage themselves."

Hoglund said the roundup at White Sands is something he talks about during nearly every presentation he delivers. His memories of the capture seem overwhelmingly positive, and he is proud of the contribution he made to saving the lives of so many horses.

But the experience haunts him, too.

"There are multiple edges of that sword," he said slowly. "I saved some lives, but I also removed the freedom of those horses."

There is no question many of the feral horses in the White Sands herd were emaciated, Hoglund noted. But there was an enormous downside to removing them from a place they and their ancestors had called home for generations.

These were, after all, legendary animals that had survived grueling and hazardous conditions for decades — including the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in human history at the Trinity Test Site during World War II. Largely hidden from public view because of the secretive nature of the testing programs at the missile range, they achieved an almost mythical status in some circles. Even if few people could see them, they had become as much a part of the identity of White Sands as the stark gypsum dune fields that cover much of the area.

But by the summer of 1994, they were dying by the hundreds as their waterholes dried up and their forage withered in terrain that included the Jornada del Muerto, a particularly inhospitable stretch of land whose name historically has been loosely translated as "Journey of the Dead Man." And the army, which had tolerated their presence since it took over the area of nearly 3,200 square miles during the war, was no longer willing to stay in the horse business. Something had to give.

Still, Hoglund sounds almost mournful when he considers his role in the roundup of the animals.

"We did remove their free-roaming status, and that should challenge any American who believes in freedom," he said.

Crisis in the Southern New Mexico desert

The rescue of the White Sands herd was one of those seminal moments in the history of the contemporary American West when various competing interests arrive at the same point of time and space, creating the necessity for extraordinary action. The die-off of so many members of the herd from starvation and dehydration drew international media attention and quickly elevated the situation to crisis proportion.

State government officials and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation were particularly alarmed, especially as talk of a tourism boycott of the state grew for its role in allowing the die-off to occur. They demanded action, but as the blistering, dry summer of 1994 faded into fall and even winter, no consensus on how to deal with the animals and alleviate their suffering emerged.

The situation was a tangle of complications. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 had been adopted by Congress and signed by the president to protect and preserve the 20,000 wild horses — down from nearly 2 million in 1800 — remaining on 47 million acres of the American West. Even though the law had been watered down by 1994, it had been largely successful in halting the decline in the population of wild horses.

The White Sands horses may have run wild for generations, but they were not, strictly speaking, wild horses. First, they lived on land owned by the Department of Defense, not the public. That left them outside the protection of the 1971 law.

Additionally, they — or at least their ancestors — once had been domesticated. The land where the missile range is located was claimed from its owners by the Army in the early days of World War II under emergency national security provisions. Most of the ranching families who quickly were ushered off their land were forced to leave behind their homes and many of their possessions — including their horses, which typically roamed free until they were needed for ranch work. As a result, the horses were considered feral, not wild — an important distinction.

The truth is, nobody really knew what to do with them. And so, for months, nothing got done, despite the machinations of politicians, wild horse advocates, wildlife officials and military personnel.

Finally, as Hoglund wrote in "Nobody's Horses," the missile range's commander, Brig. Gen. Jerry Laws, ordered that the animals be removed, one way or another. In addition to the lack of water and forage for the animals, Laws — reportedly a man with high regard for horses — recognized that a military base where fire rained down from the sky on a regular basis was no place for horses, and the idea of continuing to leave them in harm's way was one he found unacceptable.

That decision set into motion a series of events that led to the recruitment of Hoglund — a man uniquely qualified for such a task — to lead the rescue effort. A veterinarian, he had devoted much of his career to working with both humans and horses. He had been involved in previous roundups and helped establish the acclaimed National Wild Horse Prison Inmate Program in New Mexico in 1987.

Though he would be loath to acknowledge such a description, Hoglund was even a bit of a rock star in the equine community, widely known for his work training horses on such film and TV projects as "Young Guns," "Silverado," "Desperado," "Lonesome Dove" and "City Slickers." He counted Disney CEO Michael Eisner among his friends and produced Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Disneyland. Additionally, he already had extensive knowledge of the White Horse herd and, indeed, years earlier had foreseen the problems that would lead to the crisis in 1994.

Even so, Hoglund got involved in the rescue with great trepidation. The situation was rife with potential problems, not the least of which was that the operation would take place not on federal wilderness, but on a missile range with untold amounts of unexploded ordnance. The sheer size of the roundup made it a massive undertaking, and the nature of the operation was inherently dangerous. It featured animals weighing anywhere from several hundred to 2,200 pounds running at full speed toward cowboys who sometimes were positioned on foot.

Perhaps worst of all, the media attention the die-offs had attracted assured that someone — probably the guy in charge — would be scapegoated if the operation went south and horses began dying from the stress of being chased, corralled and held in captivity. He knew he would be putting his professional and personal reputation, maybe even his life, on the line.

Hoglund took his time making a decision. Ultimately, he came to realize, he didn't have any choice.

"They trapped me inside my (veterinary) oath," he said, describing his vow to relieve pain and suffering whenever he encountered it.

Sidestepping that responsibility or rationalizing his way around it because of the perceived risks of the operation were not an option.

"You give that oath, you better keep it," he said solemnly.

Pain and reward

The rescue itself did not begin until well into 1995, as preparations took several months, along with plans to arrange adoptions for most of the animals after they had been corralled and treated. Hoglund would lead a crew of Army helicopter pilots and cowboys on all-terrain vehicles who would attempt to chase and guide the horses several miles over open terrain into previously constructed capture pens that were bordered largely by the prehistoric lava flows that pockmarked the range.

The White Sands herd was made up of numerous smaller groups, and so several roundups were planned over the course of the year. While an operation of that scale and under those conditions had never been attempted before, it was remarkably successful, with the equine fatality rate being kept to a startlingly low percentage.

But the roundups were only part of the solution. Every corralled animal later was herded into a processing chute, where it received careful medical attention and a series of vaccinations. Perhaps the highest priority was putting some weight back on the emaciated animals with high-quality hay imported from Oklahoma and plenty of cool, fresh water.

At first, the horses — accustomed to the sparse native forage and the alkaline springs of the range — refused to eat or drink. Eventually, Hoglund said, they came around, and the crew was gratified when most of the animals returned to full health despite their obvious displeasure at being penned up for the first time.

That didn't mean the danger was over. Hoglund found that out first hand when a miscommunication among cowboys left a gate to another enclosure closed during a crucial operation, turning a herd of nearly 200 horses back on Hoglund, who had been walking behind the animals in the middle of a large corral. When the horses found themselves trapped, they changed direction and, in a matter of seconds, advanced on the leader of the roundup with a fury that left him convinced he was about to die.

Miraculously, Hoglund avoided full contact with all but one horse as they raced by, but that flush collision left him with a badly broken left leg. The injury was extremely painful and left him hobbled for weeks, but Hoglund was grateful to have escaped with his life.

The pain also was mellowed by the satisfaction of the work and the relationships Hoglund developed with the members of his crew — especially Les Gilliland, who led the crew of cowboys that had been hired to conduct the operation. Gilliland's ranching family had been one of those sent packing when the Army took over White Sands, and some of the horses he had been hired to capture were descended from his family's herd.

Understandably, his resentment and distrust of the government lingered, and much of his hostility initially was directed toward Hoglund, the face of the operation. But as they worked together closely month after month, and saw their toil rewarded with positive results, the two men developed a deep and abiding respect for each other that eventually blossomed into a friendship that has endured the last 25 years.

"This is a story about adversaries working together," Hoglund said, describing himself as a science-minded, wanna-be cowboy when he came to White Sands in 1994. "Les Gilliland was the real deal, and Hoglund was the imposter."

One of the main issues between the two men was Gilliland's conviction that the animals should be left in place at the range. His concern for their welfare ultimately led him to help with the rescue, but he was deeply conflicted by his participation. After all, here he was, doing to the horses what the government had done to his family during World War II.

Gilliland considered the horses his birthright, Hoglund said, and in the early stages of their relationship, he was not inclined to give anyone associated with their removal from White Sands the benefit of the doubt. That changed only when Gilliland saw firsthand how committed Hoglund was to achieving the best possible outcome for the animals, given the limited options available.

"Les overrode his personal feelings and did what was right," Hoglund said, describing his friend as one of the finest humans he has ever known. "Some people are assigned the name hero. Les Gilliland earned it by his actions."

Is a solution possible?

The rescue, removal and adoptions of the herd from the White Sands Missile Range was, by almost any standard, an unqualified success. As Hoglund wrote in "Nobody's Horses," by late summer 1995 approximately 1,800 horses had been removed from the range, and hundreds upon hundreds had found homes with appreciative new owners via adoptions in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and California.

As the horses' fame spread, so did demand for them, and many of those who showed up at the adoptions hoping to bring home a rescued equine left disappointed. Several hundred other horses, deemed unacceptable for adoption because of health or behavior issues, wound up on horse sanctuaries around the country. A handful of the captured horses, despite the best efforts of their captors, did not survive the operation, and Hoglund noted the deep grief the members of his crew felt with the passing of each of those animals.

The White Sands rescue added a rare mostly happy chapter to the story of free-roaming horse management in the United States, an issue that remains deeply mired in conflict nearly 50 years after the passage of the landmark 1971 legislation that was designed to put it to rest. As pitched battles continue to be fought by competing interests over the fate of free-roaming horses in the American West, it is clear the 1971 law has fallen well short of its goal.

Hoglund — a man who chooses his words carefully in all circumstances and encourages others to do the same — said part of the problem is that there are several types of free-roaming horses, and few are afforded any legal protection under the 1971 law. For example, some are privately owned, some live on tribal lands. In the afterword to "Nobody's Horses," Hoglund distinguishes between wild, exotic, mustang and feral horses. Part of the problem, he said, is that many people conflate free-roaming horses with wild horses.

A disciple of Hoglund's, Laura Leigh, president of Wild Horse Education, an organization devoted to ending horse slaughter, makes the point even more directly.

"The wild horse is the only animal defined by the land it's on, not by what it is biologically," she said last week during a telephone interview from Nevada, where she had just monitored a roundup of more than 800 wild horses from the Triple B Complex.

Leigh is an outspoken critic of the federal government's handling of wild horses, going so far as to label a hearing last week on wild horse and burro management options in the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands a "crafted public relations stunt" and "a criminal enterprise."

Leigh argues vociferously that the interests of wild horses are being trampled by the cattle ranching, mining, drilling and timber industries. She maintains that wild horses have been made into scapegoats for the widespread misuse of public lands, and claims about the animals having to be removed from rangeland "for their own good" do nothing but incur her wrath.

She said she was jobless, penniless and homeless when she read "Nobody's Horses," and the book made a tremendous impression on her. Despite her dire circumstances at the time, she mustered up a joke at her own expense.

"When you're homeless, you have a lot of time on your hands (to read)," she said drily. "There's no house to clean."

Leigh and Hoglund have never met, but they have spoken several times, and each had high praise for the other. They share a similar take on how the issue of wild horse management in the United States has progressed over the last 50 years. Simply put, it hasn't, they both said.

"Nothing's changed. It's still a land-use issue," Hoglund said, explaining that resources such as water or grass can be renewed with time, but land is finite, and battles over who gets to use it are at the crux of the problem.

Leigh sounded simply exasperated.

"We're on a never-ending hamster wheel," she said, further characterizing the wild horse management program as a political game.

Hoglund described Leigh as extremely knowledgeable about the issue of wild horse management, but he was much more careful about how he aimed his fire at federal officials. He defended employees of such agencies as the Bureau of Land Management, and said the vast majority of them are simply doing what they are told.

"I think they're going the best they can, but they have a terrible budget, and they're understaffed," he said.

But members of Congress have allowed lobbyists to hijack the issue, he said, and that never leads to a good outcome. That has left wild horse management in the United States at a stalemate, he said.

Hoglund professed to have no idea of what a long-term resolution to the conflict is likely to look like.

"Do I have solutions? I wouldn't pretend to know," he said. "I know I'm not a politician."

Hoglund said he usually runs from debates over wild horse management and likes to stay in his lane, which is facilitating human-livestock interaction. His experience at White Sands featured a unique set of circumstances that are unlikely to arise again, but if he took part in a similar effort today, he said it would be with a strong dose of humility.

"I would certainly do my best to have learned from my mistakes," he said. "At this age, it is not an embarrassment to say, 'Boy, I screwed that up.' The reason is, I'm not trying to impress the girls anymore."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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