Photography by T.Thomas Photography

Seven blind mustangs. That’s how the Hastings-based nonprofit This Old Horse first became involved in the country’s largest horse rescue mission. But once founder Nancy Turner learned of the plight of more than 900 mustangs in South Dakota, she couldn’t help but stay involved throughout the 18-month process.

It began in the fall of 2016, when state officials contacted Elaine Nash, founder of Colorado nonprofit Fleet of Angels, to help rehome 270 horses. Found starving and neglected, they had been seized from a failed sanctuary that had originally set out to preserve some of America’s original mustang herds. The outlook was grim, with winter fast approaching and no easy answers in sight.

Nash realized that the horses’ likely end would come at the hands of kill buyers, so she eventually took custody of all 907 at-risk mustangs, who became known as the Hallelujah Horses. Tapping her resources from across the country, she went on to lead a Herculean effort requiring hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars — not to mention blood, sweat and tears.

“People came together for this like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she explains. “It was absolutely incredible how people helped fund this and what people did on the ground in South Dakota in the most horrific conditions and circumstances. It was also very, very tough working with the sanctuary owner, who was battling to keep the horses.”

Rehoming these mustangs was no easy feat. Because of their wild nature, they had developed tight-knit bonds, and many had unique concerns, such as blindness or permanent lameness. On top of that, corralling, loading and hauling the horses were unimaginably challenging tasks. After making the noble decision not to tear apart bonded pairs or groups, Nash began shamelessly, selflessly reaching out to individuals and organizations to ask
for help.

That’s how she first got in touch with Turner, who was moved by the mission and agreed to take in those seven blind mustangs. Never mind that This Old Horse had no experience with mustangs. The nonprofit’s staff and volunteers were determined to make it work and quickly became knowledgeable in their care and management. The organization went on to adopt 19 more Hallelujah Horses.

A year after Nash first embarked on this mission, she had found remarkable success, finding homes for 887 horses across the United States and into Canada. But the 20 that remained, dubbed the Hallelujah Stallions, had particularly special needs. Most of them were elderly stallions who were too old to be castrated, and several were blind or going blind. Finding a suitable sanctuary for them seemed like an impossibly tall order, one that kept both Nash and Turner awake at night for many months.

But then, the unimaginable happened. Turner found them a proper foster home, at Josh and Ricka Kohnstamm’s 66-acre Firefly Farms in Goodhue. They agreed to transform a portion of their hobby farm into the Wells Creek Wild Mustang Horse Sanctuary. The Hallelujah Stallions took up residence there last May, and that’s where they will live out the rest of their days, under the care and custody of This Old Horse.

“It was exactly one year and one day from the time the court turned the horses over to us in January 2017 until we had all of them adopted,” explains Nash, who received the ASPCA’s first-ever Equine Welfare Award for her efforts. “Because one day after the year mark, Nancy made a full commitment to take the last 20 horses. No one in this country besides Nancy was willing to take on those horses. She’s a hero.” 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.