Not long after their first phone conversation about a still-unfolding crisis involving hundreds of horses in South Dakota, Patricia Griffin-Soffel and Neda DeMayo adopted a mantra:
Leave no horse behind.
Last October, having learned about a whistleblower’s report of horses neglected at the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros in South Dakota, Griffin-Soffel felt driven to action. That led her to Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, which was already working to provide feed for the at-risk ISPMB horses and communicating with other advocates and local authorities.
DeMayo, RTF’s president, was struck by Griffin-Soffel’s intelligence, optimism and commitment to make a difference for the horses.
“The costs just to feed the hundreds of horses impounded in South Dakota were daunting,” DeMayo said. “But here was this woman who was willing to put significant resources into helping these horses, so we continued having conversations. Because we worked together, we were able to do more than we ever thought was possible,” DeMayo said
In the months since, the partnership forged on the fly between Griffin-Soffel, a software entrepreneur who recently sold her company and owner of five horses, three of them rescues, and DeMayo, was pivotal in driving solutions for what is believed to be the largest horse rescue in United States history.
“I was inspired to pursue the rescue mission because Neda was able to create an actionable plan,” Griffin -Soffel said, “As things unfolded that were out of our control, plans changed — but somehow we kept moving forward.”
Griffin-Soffel quickly became the largest donor behind a rescue of what turned out to be more than 900 horses that the State of South Dakota deemed neglected in October 2016.
RTF provided nearly two decades of expertise with rescue and care for unhandled horses and was able to galvanize support from wild horse advocacy partners, including the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, The Unwanted Horse Coalition, Habitat for horses as well as other donors.
Now, as May begins, hundreds of the at-risk horses have arrived or are headed for new homes across the country — including 137 horses plus new foals now in the care of RTF. Fleet of Angels continues working to find adoptive homes for the remaining 175 horses who left the freezing temperatures and mud in South Dakota one month ago for a now adequate staging facility in Ft. Collins, Colo., to vet and prepare horses for adoption.
“So much progress has been made thanks to the commitment of so many people, many never even named for their contributions, but it isn’t finished until all the horses that are adoptable can find a home. There are 176 waiting under the care of Elaine Nash in Ft. Collins for their person to show up,” Griffin-Soffel said.
With Griffin-Soffel’s commitment to contribute significant funds, RTF and the consortium of nonprofit organizations and donors matched her donations to provide feed and care for the at-risk horses and support the on-the-ground efforts of Fleet of Angels, which managed adoptions and operations, and Palomino and Matt Armstrong of Chilli Pepper Mustang Rescue, who oversaw daily care in South Dakota in below freezing blizzard conditions.
With Griffin-Soffel’s ongoing support key to the effort, the groups were able to avert a public auction in December 2016, at which most all of the horses likely would have fallen into the hands of kill buyers, including wild blind stallions and mares.
South Dakota’s State’s Attorneys subsequently reached a settlement deal with ISPMB that saw almost all of the horses turned over to Fleet of Angels, allowing the organization to continue matching adopters across the country with groups of two or more horses.
“Elaine (Nash, CEO of Fleet of Angels,) and her team worked 24/7 in the worst winter in recent history to make the impossible happen,” Griffin-Soffel said. “Then it seemed the world had their arms around these horses and it took on a life of its own. Thousands of people around the nation donated and adopted and cheered on the heroic efforts.”
Said Nash, “What Patricia has done for this rescue effort is remarkable. Her financial contributions have helped tremendously in our work to save the 907 at-risk horses in this massive mission.”
Fleet of Angels later moved 313 of the remaining horses to a staging area in Colorado, including 21 that Nash chose specifically for Griffin-Soffel to launch a training and placement operation to specifically target unwanted stallions.
Meanwhile, Return to Freedom transported 60 stallions from the Virginia Range herd and the 112-member (and growing) Gila herd to Nevada. RTF assembled a small team that fed, trimmed, vaccinated, wormed and gelded all 60 Virginia Range stallions, so that 50 could be sent on to live at Mustang Monument and 10 to The Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, Calif.
RTF has since moved the Gila mares and foals to property in Northern California’s Lassen County, with stallions and geldings to follow.
Griffin-Soffel’s commitment to the rescued horses will continue in two ways:
First, she has pledged funds that RTF must match in order for the Gila Herd Conservation Project to be successfully funded for the next two years.
Because RTF is dedicated to keeping the integrity of herds intact whenever possible, as well as maintaining a conservation program for unique and threatened strains, it made sense to develop a plan for a sustainable future for the Gila herd, which are descended from Spanish Barb horses brought to the southwest in the 1600s.
RTF will assess the Gila herd’s viability for a conservation effort and seeking a permanent steward or partner for the program. It will also identify bonded horses and harem bands eligible for adoption to forever homes and sanctuary.
Phillip Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics at Virginia Tech University, has provided phenotypic observations, while RTF is sending hair samples from the Gila horses to E. Gus Cothran, director of the Texas A&M Animal Genetics Laboratory, to determine the heritage and variability within the herd.
“What’s continued to inspire me as things developed is Patricia’s sincere desire to understand the issues and look deeply into solutions both with her support for the Gila Herd Conservation Project and her own program.” DeMayo said, “We are supportive of her vision to create a program for at-risk horses in the future, specifically stallions who are often misunderstood and have a difficult time adapting to domestic environments.”
Second, Griffin-Soffel now plans to take an even more direct role in the future starting with 25 2- to 5-year-old stallions from the South Dakota rescue mission, which will be in RTF’s care initially to address their immediate veterinary needs and care. Griffin-Soffel and her husband, Michael, have formed a new 501C3 organization, Sweetbeau Horses, hoping to model it after the successful Extreme Mustang Makeover program led by The Mustang Heritage Foundation’s President Paula Carr.
“Extreme Mustang Makeover is the most successful adoption program there is for wild mustangs, and I am humbly going to try and learn everything I can from that program as I incubate my small start-up,” Griffin-Soffel said.
Her own reward, Griffin-Soffel said, will be to see the transformation of traumatized horses to happy partners for life:
“Sweetbeau Horses is created with the mission of showing horse owners what an incredible bond they can have with a strong gelded mustang stallion. We will only offer exceptional and well-trained geldings that we believe will be in demand for every equine discipline. A Sweetbeau Horse will be the gold standard for your next horse and a recognized brand in itself.
“We save them from starvation and other agonies but in the process of saving them, we steel their freedom and that can never be replaced. I hope to give these horses a chance at loving their lives again.”
Read more about the Gila herd conservation project here.