Report: A Death at the Delta Wild Horse Holding Facility

(January 21, 2022) By Melissa Tritinger

I just watched a horse die. Panicked, afraid, desperate for escape: terror-filled emotions trapped both the horse and myself in those moments. 

But let me go back a few years, to 2018 and my first trip to Utah to visit the Onaqui Mountain wild horse herd. Being from the East Coast, I had no idea what to expect. An early morning light accompanied the wild mustangs as they came toward the water. Awe-filled and teary, I watched as families crested the hill. The West was still wild, and this gift of witnessing it changed my life. The horses were rounded up twice since that time–2019 and again in July of 2021. The wild horses that I had come to know and love were no longer free. They were in a holding facility in Delta Utah, waiting to be rescued from the consequences of the helicopter roundup.

And so I returned to Delta, this time, in early 2022, with clearer expectations, but still the same awe. 

There is no glossing over what a holding facility is: an open-air jail. Small spaces, metal bars, and more gates than one can imagine. But it is the sounds that will haunt me. Squealing. The thud of metal bars slamming against horse flesh. Hooves churning, struggling in deep mud as horses attempt to maneuver in mass numbers. Baby foals squeal, usually a sound of vitality and promise, but here they are wails of boredom and loneliness. They lean onto each other, searching for comfort in a place that has none to give.


I had traveled to Delta to visit the horses that I was adopting and found them at the farthest point from the entrance. After some maneuvering through mud and manure, I neared them. Eyes followed me as I walked by, rows of heads staring upon me as I continued on. My heart ached for each one of those faces, knowing that the mud and filth that they were covered in would be on them until their adopters came to save them. There was a small sense of peace that these horses in this small holding facility had been fortunate enough to find homes. The Onaqui Herd is well-known, and this recognition from local organizations, photographers, and desktop advocates gives them voice and a second chance.

Yet, there are so many more holding pens like this one that are filled with wild horses that will never find homes. More will arrive in the next round-ups. That thought shatters my short-lived peace.

PROPERTY OF AWHCMy eyes finally rest upon the horses that I am about to bring home—I overlook the caked mud and filth on them. Cautious eyes search me, wondering if I am friend or foe. Quietly, I wait, before slowly approaching with soft footfalls. Both see me, their large brown eyes open and investigating. I didn’t think I could fall in love more deeply, but, at that moment, I did. I vowed to them that I would get them out of there and they would never live like this again.

A moment of beauty. A moment of reflection. An unbreakable bond created.

And then the horrifying sounds of panic shattered it.

It is hard to describe the sound of horses panicking. But there is heavy breathing, metal bars clanging, whining, grunting, horse flesh smacking against horse flesh. My stomach sank. 

I watched as a man on horseback entered into a small, mud-filled pen with too many horses and not enough space. His horse struggled to walk under him as the knee-deep manure swallowed his horse’s legs. He narrowly navigated to where the ground solidified. As he approached, the mustangs moved in frenzied terror away from him, as fast as they could and with as much force as they could. Two horses were caught at the end of the pack and were cornered between the bars and the man on horseback. 

No one had anywhere to go.

A beautiful gray and the most gorgeous grullo gelding I had ever seen were dangerously trapped. The gray desperately lurched forward with enough power to ricochet off the panels in front of him. This force, one born from fear, caused him to be thrown back into the golden black mustang behind him. 


"The Grullo" in the wild. Photo by Kimerlee Curyl

The heavy, deep mud meant that the grullo and the horse under saddle could not move fast enough. The gray pinned the grullo down into an unsightly mess of legs and horse flesh. As they untangled themselves, it was immediately apparent that the big, beautiful golden stud had something wrong. His gaze filled with confusion, with terror as he tried to escape the man on horseback who had not moved at all.

Something was very wrong. I knew it. The horse knew it. The man on horseback knew it.

The stud’s leg was broken, dangling from a horse that I had once watched run free on the range. A devastating and catastrophic break had occurred when the gray slammed backward onto him. He was powerless to get out of the way in those conditions. Yet, on three legs and still in a panic, the horse tried to run to the others. I watched as he dipped his head towards his leg, his eyes white with confusion, seemingly trying to understand what was occurring.  Somehow, he managed to get himself over to the others, but all I could see was the shock and terror in his eyes as his front leg swung like a rag doll.

I knew there was no safety left for him. The only option that remained was a merciful death. I tried to walk out of earshot, but I knew there was nowhere to hide from it. And, truthfully, I didn’t want to hide from it. And neither should you. This is the reality of what horses in holding experience. 

It is ugly. It is dirty, and it is deadly.  

The shot rang out, echoing against my ears and vibrating into my soul. I vowed to not let the needless death of this magnificent 3-year old horse be in vain. He had so much life to give, yet it was cut short in an instant. I was sick to my core.

Afterward, I walked into the office and I saw something that struck me painfully once more: Tag 7852, which had hung around the grullo’s neck, laid unceremoniously on a stack of paperwork. This beautiful soul who captured the hearts of so many, with an adopter who was desperately waiting at home for him had become nothing more than a plastic tag on a paper-littered desk.

We must do better. Please do not let this be his legacy. Please do not let another horse suffer this terrible fate. Speak up to demand change.

Melissa Tritinger is Deputy Director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.

Note: AWHC has contacted the BLM about this incident and will follow up with any information we receive. Until that time, please take action today and demand that Congress hold an Oversight hearing on the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. We need reform, and we need it now.