I spoke with Samantha Milbredt, who is part of the Internet-based group Rebels Equine Feedlot Sales (REFS), about what she does and the controversy surrounding it (read more in our previous article).
Rebels Equine Feedlot Sales
Milbredt wanted me to know that REFS is not a rescue organization. Throughout the interview she often called it a rescue organization but then corrected herself.
Milbredt told me that what REFS does is try to identify sellable horses among the many that Chuck Walker, the owner of a Zillah-based feedlot, buys at auction for slaughter.
Milbredt describes REFS as a three-person group. Milbredt assesses the horses on Walker’s feedlot. Helen Love, the “technical whiz,” puts photos of any of the horses Milbredt deems to be sellable on the group’s website. And Cindy Dolowy is in charge of marketing, putting notice of the horses on Craigslist.
Milbredt says that she test the horses for lameness, such as by riding them up and down concrete alleyways. She also looks at disposition and temperament. And she makes sure the horse “can ride.” She said, “We are not vets, but we are pretty educated.”
I asked Milbredt how much money Walker makes from each sale of a horse. She calculated that he often spends $25 on a horse at auction, and the average horse will sell for $500 through Rebels. Milbredt tacks on another $100-$150 to cover the costs of her work, her phone charges involved in the transaction, her travel the 40 miles each way to the feedlot, and the hiring of a rider to test the horse. This brings the average cost to $625.
She said that it’s financially beneficial to Walker if he can sell a horse through REFS and not have to pay the cost to ship it to Canada for slaughter. She said, “There’s no doubt about it. He makes more selling it off.”
About Walker she said, “Rescue fanatics make people like him not want to work with you.” But he feels comfortable working with Milbredt who says she has been working with him for eight or nine years.
She said that “there are way worse ones than him” in the business.
Sleepy Hollow was a rescue organization shut down by the Lincoln County District Attorney for animal abuse.
Milbredt said, “Sleepy Hollow Horse Rescue bought horses from the feedlot through me.” She said, “We raised money for them. We wanted to help.”
Milbredt said that she and her boyfriend at the time would buy a horse and deliver it to Sleepy Hollow. The woman who ran it would pay them in tack sometimes but that they didn’t make any money from delivering a horse to the organization.
She said that she told the woman who ran Sleepy Hollow that she could help her raise money but that “we have got to fix your place up.” The owner agreed, so Milbredt helped her “organize her office.”
Milbredt told me, “I didn’t see abuse. What I saw was a rescue doing the best they could. Some of the old horses were a little skinny.” She added, “You could tell there was something going on. When we gave her the money, she wouldn’t use it for what it was for.”
“I would say she was probably a hoarder,” Milbredt said, but she stressed that she is not a psychology expert and wouldn’t know the clinical signs of that condition. “She had stacks of paper in her office. It just wasn’t normal,” she said.
Milbredt said the woman “started to get better. She started to work on fencing.”
I asked Milbredt if she had served on the board of Sleepy Hollow. At first she said no. But then, as she thought about it, she said, “I don’t think I was on the board. I might have been though.” She said, “I remember being at one meeting of theirs.”
I asked her if Sleepy Hollow was following proper 501(c)(3) filing procedures. Milbredt didn’t know, but she said, “I can guarantee that they weren’t formal enough.”
Milbredt told me that she “split way before it closed down.” She asked me if I knew when it had closed. I said 2005. Milbredt said that she started Columbia Basin Equine Rescue in 2004. So Milbredt calculated that she had left about a year before Sleepy Hollow was shut down. She told me that the rescue organization moved to a different location after she left and that she had not seen the place shown in the photos in our article.
About the fallout surrounding Sleepy Hollow, Milbredt said people “threatened my life. They’ve said I was going to sell my dad to slaughter. I’m not of that character. I don’t want to deal with evil, judgmental speculation.”
Columbia Basin Equine Rescue
I asked Milbredt about her former 501(c)(3). She said, “CBER was a pretty cool organization. We were very successful in rescuing slaughter-bound horses. We rescued 3,500 horses in four years. Because it was new, we experienced incredible growing pains. We were supersuccessful at what we did. We didn’t have enough people. We were crazy trying to get all this work done. We were too big.” She added, “We never fought back when people started slamming us.
After the board decided to close CBER, Milbredt as a co-signer was held responsible for the business’s operating line of credit. Milbredt said they used the line of credit to pay Walker if someone committed to taking a horse and then backed out, for example, or to pay the accountant, or to reimburse Camelot Farms for boarding. At this point, Milbredt faced the possibility of bankruptcy. She managed to pay off her responsibility through her other work.
Milbredt said about getting a rescue horse, “It’s a gamble, a major gamble. It’s safer to have a horse that’s assessed. I’m not as big hearted as some of the people out there. I would never send my own horse to slaughter. But when they made slaughter illegal, I heard sad things like horses being turned out free on the reservation and then being gutted by coyotes. Can we save them all? No. Should we save them all? No.” She added how dangerous some horses can be and said, “It’s not worth getting people killed. Maybe I’m more like the Humane Society. If a dog bites, they put it down.”
I asked Milbredt why if REFS is not a rescue organization that potential buyers are often directed by REFS to a rescue organization to facilitate the negotiations. She said, “I don’t know. I’m not on the marketing part of things.” Then she said, “If there are people [who are possible buyers] out of state and it’s going to cost them $1500 to rescue a feedlot horse [because of hauling and quarantining], I refer them to a rescue to help them raise the funds. That’s when I give the number to a horse rescue. Then the horse rescue will do the research.”
To explain why an out-of-state buyer might need help raising funds before actually taking possession of a horse, Milbredt said that she, for example, charges a lot of money for keeping horses at her property, Camelot Farms, during quarantine because “I don’t want to do it anymore. Because I show $25,000 horses here [at Camelot] and I’ve got those freaks writing bad things about it.”
She added, “I don’t want to deal with uneducated horse people. The rescue people have their own quarantine place. I don’t deal with them anymore. Some people appreciate my education and knowledge and ability to take care of these horses.”
She said, “That’s why we closed the 501(c)(3),” referring to Columbia Basin Equine Rescue. “We don’t want to deal with horse rescues anymore. Unfortunately or fortunately the situation will attract rescue people.” But she said there is one group she will work with, the one led by Donna Udeski. She couldn’t remember the exact name but thought it was something like “Thunder Mountain.” She said they have filed for their 501(c)(3) status but don’t have it yet.
About them she said, “They appreciate what you do. By them working with us it’s opened the door a bit about what I would list. I was listing the horses I knew were sellable. But the rescue will take younger ones and older ones. They take some of them.”
I asked Milbredt if the rescue organizations have seen the horses other than in the pictures on the REFS website and on Craigslist. She said no. “The truth is the rider and I are the only people who know them.”
She said, “We are selling horses, not rescuing them, but we are selling them to people who are interested in rescue. We are dealing with recreational riders, trail riders, kids.”
The Auction-Feedlot-Slaughterhouse System
I asked Milbredt why people who want to save horses don’t buy them at auction instead of through REFS and other operations. She said, “I don’t know.” Then she said, about the horses, “This is their last chance.”
She thought about it some more and said, “There have been a few people who have bought horses out of Stanwood.” I didn’t know what Stanwood was. She explained that it is a holding facility where horses heading for slaughter are gathered until there are enough of them to fill a truck destined for a slaughterhouse in Canada
Milbredt thought that Stanwood had shut down because of animal rights pressure and that the owner had partnered instead with a Canadian processing plant, where he makes “way more money.” [It appears that Stanwood is still open—perhaps under a different owner.]
Milbredt said that she visited Stanwood once. “It’s like driving into a Nazi camp,” she said and added that the owner nonetheless “was nice” and “explained everything.” She described lime green buildings and wire fencing. She said, “We saw the alleyways, the ramp that went up,” and her voice trailed off.
Then Milbredt returned to my original question about purchasing horses directly at auction. She said, “Absolutely. The rescue people should go directly to the auction to get horses. I think money usually brings out the worst in people. I’m just covering my expenses. There is no right or wrong way to rescue a horse. Who cares how you do it as long you’re saving horses?” She added, “Why is there a rescue Nazi who says you have to do it a certain way?”
Then I asked her, if people should go straight to auction, why does she run REFS? She said, “I do it because it’s safer. I get to assess the horses.”
About horses bought at auction she said, “They’re dangerous. They buck. They try to flip over on you. All the horses Rebels lists are ones I have checked out.”
She said, “If you’re a realistic horse person and you want to get your money’s worth from a horse, it makes sense to go to a place where they assess the horses. If you’re a big-hearted person who wants to rescue a horse, go to the auction and buy it.”
She talked about buying horses from feedlots: “People think they’re going to get the greatest horses in the world. In the eight years I’ve been doing this there was one awesome jumper and I have him. Don’t expect to get an Olympic jumper out of a feedlot. Maybe the horse might have had a heart murmur or had a splint or wasn’t 100 percent sound. All we can do is tell you what we see. We’re not vets. We’re not trying to be vets. The only guarantee you get is that you’re rescuing it from slaughter. People make mistakes. When you’re assessing 120 horses a day there’s bound to be mistakes.”
I asked Milbredt if there are any guarantees when a person buys a feedlot horse. She said, “I tell people I can’t promise the horse will be in the same shape as when we assessed it three or four days ago. I might call you because there might be something wrong.”
Complaints Against Milbredt
Milbredt wanted to address the case of Sonya, a sponsored horse. The sponsor had requested that Sonya, who had an injury, be euthanized instead of forced to endure the trip to the slaughterhouse. At some point Sonya was nevertheless returned to the slaughterhouse. Milbredt explained that there were two sponsors of Sonya and that she got permission from one of them to send Sonya back “but not the other. My bad. It wasn’t like we just did it. Someone gave me permission to do it. One party was contacted and that’s how it was left.”
I asked Milbredt why she hadn’t responded to the allegations against her about Sonya on the Wiki page on alexbrownracing.com. She said, “I don’t have that much time to be on Wiki pages.” She referred to another person who was doing the Internet work. Then she added, “I was the only one doing all the physical work. I’m a crazy workaholic and it was way too much.”
In reference to another situation in which a purchaser, Barbara Brooks-Worrell, discovered that the gelding she had bought had been injured at the feedlot, Milbredt said that Brooks-Worrell said she no longer wanted the horse. Milbredt said then it shipped to slaughter. Milbredt then offered her a mare for the same price. Milbredt said to me, “I never in a million years [told Brooks-Worrell the mare] was [otherwise] going to slaughter. I gave her options. The mare was at my farm. I did not say it was going to slaughter. I would have given it back to the [person who had brought it to us].”
Milbredt seemed confused by the controversy surrounding her. She said to me, “I go to church. I go to counseling. I’m a really, really good person. ”
She said there are “so many snakes in the industry.” She seemed to be wondering why she is involved with REFS at all. She said, “I am getting my artwork in galleries. I have a rental property. I sell expensive showhorses.” She explained that her father owns the property she lives on. “I don’t pay rent. I don’t pay for food,” she said.
At the end of our conversation, she said, “I don’t understand why there is so much backstabbing within horse rescue. Get as many horses saved as possible. We don’t all have to do it the same way.”
Photo from Wiki page on Alexbrownracing.com.