Saving America’s Mustangs a driving passion for Del Mar philanthropist

Paiute horses that Madeleine Pickens saved from slaughter last December were released onto the open range. Photo: Jon Collins.

By Joe Tash

As a child growing up in Iraq, Madeleine Pickens watched American Western movies and dreamed of immigrating to the United States. Among the images of the Wild West spirit that etched into her memory was that of mustangs roaming on the prairie.

Later, as an adult, Pickens learned of the plight of wild horses in the modern American West — rounded up and confined to government corrals, or even sent to the slaughterhouse.

Madeleine Pickens at her eco sanctuary that she is developing in Nevada for wild horses. Photo: Jon Collins

“The idea of them running free and being gathered up by helicopters in such a traumatic style, being disposed of or warehoused by the government was such a sad thing for me,” said Pickens, a businesswoman and philanthropist, and wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens. “So I got involved.”

Pickens, who owns the Del Mar Country Club, founded Saving America’s Mustangs, a nonprofit foundation. So far, she has purchased two ranches in northeast Nevada totaling more than 18,000 acres, and she wants to use that land, along with some 600,000 acres of federal land surrounding her property, to create a preserve for wild horses.

As part of her efforts to bring attention to her cause, the foundation has created a video appeal to Oprah Winfrey, and she shows off a group of mustangs she rescued at public events, from the Rose Parade to college football games. Her mustangs marched at the Del Mar Racetrack on Wednesday, July 20, as part of opening day festivities for this year’s race meet.

According to Pickens, the situation is urgent — a century ago, she said, some 2 million wild mustangs roamed the west. Today, only about 28,000 survive. “To me, that’s pretty close to extinction.”

Pickens’ plan, which has the support of a number of celebrities, including her husband, is for her foundation to manage thousands of mustangs on the Nevada preserve on behalf of the federal Bureau of Land Management. Pickens said she could save the government millions of dollars in annual costs, and allow the mustangs to flourish.

This summer, she brought 500 mustangs to her ranch that she rescued from being sent to a slaughterhouse, where they have now been released. Eventually, she would like to establish the Mustang Monument, a sanctuary that would also become an attraction for American and foreign tourists to experience a taste of the Wild West.

She envisions an eco-preserve where people could camp out overnight, see mustangs in the wild, and even get a taste of covered wagons and other staples of the days of cowboys and Indians.

“We have a sexy history and I want to capture this,” she said.

The ranch has been transferred to the foundation’s ownership, she said, and all proceeds from the operation will go back into furthering the nonprofit’s goals.

While her plan has drawn the ire of cattle ranchers who want to continue allowing their herds to graze the federal lands, as they have for decades, others in northeast Nevada support her plan because of its potential for generating tourism dollars, according to a December report in the Wall Street Journal.

Pickens said she has invested a sizeable sum of her own money into the foundation, but declined to discuss specific numbers. “This is my passion,” she said.

In April, Pickens testified before members of the House Interior Appropriations Committee, urging them to support the creation of an eco-preserve for wild mustangs.

Her foundation has also held galas, organized letter-writing campaigns and used public appearances — such as bringing the horses to opening day at the Del Mar racetrack — to get the word out.

Pickens said those who are interested in supporting the plan can log on to the foundation’s website at, to register to receive updates and find out how they can become involved.

The campaign has made a difference, she said, and has caught the attention of officials at the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public lands where Pickens wants to establish the refuge for wild horses.

“It’s time for a change,” she said, both in the way wild horses are treated, and in the mentality of cattlemen and ranchers who don’t want to provide roaming land for the mustangs.

“All we are saying is leave the horses alone, and they can’t handle that,” she said.

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Posted by Staff on Jul 21, 2011. Filed under Del Mar, Featured Story, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

8 Comments for “Saving America’s Mustangs a driving passion for Del Mar philanthropist”

  1. Molly

    I take my hat off to Ms. Pickens. I am so glad she was able to save the 500 Piute horses. I believe her plan is to take horses from the BLM that would otherwise be rounded up and sent to long term holding facilities, where they are kept at the expense of the tax payer, and many are sent to slaughter. This week saw the beginning of another cruel helicopter round up of 1700 horses in Nevada. sadly Ms. Pickens will not be given any of these horses. I don;t know why the BLM will not work with her and give her the horses so they can be free. I hope she can be successful in her negotiations with the BLM.
    Meanwhile I want Ms. Pickens to know that there are MANY BLM mustangs that were originally wild, that have been adopted by members of the public. Sadly many people feel no commitment to an animal and when it doesn;t work out they feel they can dump them either at auction or onto slaughter bound feedlots. Many of these mustangs are not yet saddle broke. Some of them go to Mexican charros where they are used for the inhumane sport of "tripping", others end up in a Mexican slaughter house. I would love to see Ms Pickens open her sanctuary to these BLM horses. If the BLM won't work with her to give her horses directly off the range or the ones in short or long term holding facilities, I would love to see her save these mustangs out of the slaughter pipeline.

  2. morgangriffith

    While I certainly applaud the efforts of Ms. Pickens to save the mustangs she has met with serious stumbling blocks with the BLM. Who knows when and even if these roadblocks will be removed. Meanwhile there are many thousands of horses of every breed, mustangs included, that find their way to the feedlots and then onto the slaughterhouses. While waiting for the BLM's cooperation I would like to see Madeleine give her support, heart and money to saving these horses that are only hours away from a tortured death.

  3. ACT

    Just a comment on the article. I applaud her efforts. The horses that she bought were NOT mustangs….they were feral horses from the Paiute Indians who gathered and were selling them at auction. The horses on Indian reservations are not wild horses nor are they covered by the Wild Horse and Burro Act.

  4. localobserver

    Too bad the picture was taken in early June from a helicopter and is of wild horses under BLM management in an HMA on Spruce Mountain- NOT the horses she rescued. She constantly visits the horses in the HMA by helicopter and flies very low, which is harassment and violates the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. The ranches she bought are on flat ground; 14000 acres of one ranch is unfenced and are not being used . The 500 horses are on her ranch in private pasture and being fed hay because there isn't any grass for them to eat. Mrs. Pickens is an expert at misrepresenting the truth.

  5. Guest

    Thank you localobserver! Not only is she harrassing BLM wild horses, but she appears to enjoy chasing her own mustangs with a helicopter too (see video link). All for a photo op. I thought she didn't like mustangs to be stampeded!

  6. The Rev. Deacon Ken

    Too bad Ms. Pickens and her vast wealth doesn't take the lead in feeding the starving children in Africa. The "wild" horses seem to be doing very well without her help.

  7. DRL

    I watched the video, she's not chasing them. Google BLM roundups, watch, read, then comment. I hardly consider running horses off cliffs humane. BLM helicopters at times fly just above the horses. Have you watched vids of horses with broken legs, necks, literally torn to shreds after a BLM roundup? Her vast wealth makes a difference to many of us, especially Native Americans.

    • ACT

      The fact that she is lying and saying that those are her horses is troubling. The fact that she often flies low over wild horses is also troubling an is harassment.

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