May 23, 2018

One “Hallelujah Horse” Makes His Way Home

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Dr. Nicole Eller and Tanka.

In February 2017, Dr. Nicole Eller, a veterinarian for the ASPCA’s Field Investigation and Response (FIR) team, was asked to assist in the largest-known horse rescue in United States history.

More than 900 starving and neglected horses were seized by the state of South Dakota from the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) in November 2016. By January of 2017, all of the horses had been turned over to Fleet of Angels (FOA), an equine protection organization based in Evans, Colorado. 

FOA and its founder, Elaine Nash—who were awarded the ASPCA Equine Welfare Award in 2017 at our annual Humane Awards Luncheon—used a network of rescue partners to place 300 of the rescued horses in new homes. 

But the 600 remaining horses had been held back by a lien placed on them by the state to cover hay costs, and were at risk of being sold at auction to kill-buyers, who would have had the horses shipped over U.S. borders for slaughter. That’s when several animal welfare groups, including the ASPCA, HSUS and Patricia Griffin-Soffel (who founded Sweetbeau Horses— a 501(c)3 based in Woodside, California, that rescues, trains and rehomes at-risk Mustangs), raised $150,000 to pay off the lien. The auction was cancelled—to a chorus of “Hallelujahs” on social media—and the herd has since been known as the Hallelujah Horses. 

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In the Nevada desert, Thomas Smittle rides Tanka.

Fleet of Angels eventually found homes for all of the 900 horses, using a careful adoption application process—an amazing feat for any rescue organization. 

“The equine advocacy community really got behind us,” says Elaine. “Through dozens of organizations, sanctuaries, rescues; hundreds of donors and adopters; and thousands of social media supporters sharing our story, we pulled off the largest rescue of horses ever.”

Dr. Eller, tapped for her equine veterinary expertise and her extensive work with wild horses, spent nearly three weeks in Fallon, Nevada, and Fort Collins, Colorado, with the Hallelujah herd, gelding wild stallions, trimming feet, administering vaccines and conducting blood tests.  

When she finished, Dr. Eller sensed her interaction with the Hallelujah herd wasn’t entirely over. “I had a feeling that eventually one of the horses would make its way back to me,” she recalls.

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Thomas and Tanka.

In November 2017, Dr. Eller visited her partner, Thomas Smittle, an independent horse trainer, on a movie set in Nevada. Thomas, a Lakota American Indian, plays himself in the upcoming movie “Mustang,” set for release this fall, which tells the story of a convict who takes part in rehabilitation therapy that involves training wild mustangs.

“When Thomas introduced me to his horse, I recognized him as one I had gelded in Colorado,” Nicole explains. The horse—named “Ite Tanka” (Lakota for “great face”) —is a six-year-old bay who’d been placed by FOA with Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary in Lompoc, California. Tanka was then hired for use in the movie loaned out for use in the movie by SweetBeau Horses. 

When filming was over, Patricia Griffin-Soffel gifted Tanka to Thomas.

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Left: Dr. Eller and Thomas with Tanka. Right: Thomas and Lakota with Dr. Eller and Tanka.

“I could see they were meant for each other,” says Patricia, who started Sweetbeau Horses with 25 stallions rescued from the ISPMB case. 

“It’s funny how paths cross,” explains Patricia, who met Thomas in 2016 while both were doing equine therapy for military veterans suffering from PTSD. “He really impressed me, and I was so happy to hear that our mustang was in his hands during the movie.”  

To Thomas—whom Dr. Eller describes a “true horseman”—horses are teachers as well as companions.  “Horses have taught me a lot about being a good human being,” he explains. “On a daily basis I learn something new, and it’s usually from a horse.”

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Left: Thomas and Tanka. Right: Dr. Eller and Tanka.

“I love seeing the world from between a horse’s ears,” adds Dr. Eller. “I’ve been propped up on horses ever since I was two, and got my first horse, a black-and-white pony named Velvet, when I was seven.”

Thomas’s equine exposure dates back to his childhood, as well, where the first horses he knew were a pony team his grandfather used to farm and log in Oregon, where he was born and raised.

Both Dr. Eller and Thomas acknowledge the many challenges of horse ownership, including having enough space to keep a horse responsibly. The cost of care—even though Nicole is a veterinarian and Thomas a hoof trimmer and trainer—is also a factor.

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“It’s sort of like having a child,” says Thomas. “They can become a part of your life in that way.”     

Tanka’s new family includes Dr. Eller’s two horses: Jojo, a seven-year-old black mare; and Lakota, a 20-year-old former Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mustang.  Three rescued dogs, two cats and an assortment of rescued chickens round out the family.

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Tanka was, of course, welcomed warmly by everyone and is enjoying his new life in a safe and loving home. That deserves a “Hallelujah!” indeed.