Posts tagged horse rescue

Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary

Nestled into the rolling hills outside of Lompoc, California is the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary. Home to 200 horses living in family herds, the sanctuary tends wild (feral) horses and burros while advocating and educating about their precarious living conditions and need for preservation. In late August, I scheduled a trip to southern California around their 10:00 am Living History tour. I stayed overnight in nearby Buellton so I could catch the tour on my way back up to my home in northern California.


Wild Horses and Transformation at Return to Freedom

I first heard about the wild horse sanctuary five years ago from graduate student Sandra Easter who shares my interest in women, horses, and healing. She had gone to Return to Freedom (RTF) when her life was swirling in the turmoil surrounding her divorce, a move, and her unknown future direction. Sandra had stayed at the sanctuary (in a facilitated experience) to just “be” with the horses, and found tremendous peace, acceptance, and personal insight. As she described her experiences, there was clearly a mystical or spiritual quality to her time watching and being with the horses. Sandra said that being with, or even being near the wild horses was very different than being with domesticated horses. She found it difficult to express her powerful experiences in words, yet her experience was transformative, with long lasting healing effects. A few years later, I found mention of Return to Freedom in Carolyn Resnick’s fascinating book, Naked Liberty, about her experiences with wild horses, and I wondered again about RTF. I was especially curious to meet Neda DeMayo, the founder of the sanctuary and was pleased to learn that she would lead the tour. As she greeted the visitors, Neda impressed me as someone very comfortable in her own skin. Neda has the build of an athlete, with thick chestnut hair, and eyes that are warm and watchful.


Living History Tour

Grandparents with their horse-crazy granddaughter, a middle-aged woman who felt compelled to come, and a mom and her daughters on their way to a pioneer camp made up our group. In the barn, surrounded by stacks of hay, we watched an introductory video made in 2004 that eloquently outlines the plight of the wild horses and the daunting challenge of RTF. From 2 million mustangs in the 1800’s, only 32,000 remain, mostly on U.S. government lands, after millions were brutally rounded up and slaughtered. Of those that remain, 22,000 of the mustangs are penned up in holding tanks, often for years at a time. Many of the horses left in the wild or in the unscrupulous hands of people that “adopt” the horses suffer from emaciation and disease.


A Pioneer Standing up for Wild Horses

In a thoughtful discussion after the video, Neda’s role as an advocate became clear. Even with all of the daily chores of caring for 200 horses and burros, running an organization, and fundraising, one of Neda’s most important duties is political advocacy. She pioneered the concept of placing family groups and herds rather than breaking them up. As herd animals, horses suffer when they are alone, because to be alone, or separated from the herd, is to be in danger. Her eyes cloud over as she laments the loss of individual species and the abuse she has witnessed. Neda’s years of fighting for the mustangs has led her to understand the painful truth that mustangs are at risk of dying out simply because they have little financial value.


She told us that that the very best way to protect the wild horses is by educating and rallying public support to ensure protection. DeMayo has taken the plight of the horses into the court of public opinion by garnering Hollywood attention and support for the important RTF programs and advocacy work.


After the tour and our questions, Neda introduced us to some of the many horses and even burros that live at the Sanctuary. We met “Spirit,” the mustang that was the prototype for the Dreamworks animated film by the same name. We met different rescued horses and learned their stories, as we had a chance to pet them. We walked up the hillside and into the area with the wild horses who came to inspect us quite readily. It made my heart glad to see other nearby family herds roaming freely.


Challenge and Hope

As the tour came to an end and I headed back through the winding roads to the main highway, I was awed by the enormity of the work that lies ahead to preserve the American wild horses. I was also filled with hope as I recalled the before and after footage of Paloma from the video. The video chronicled the emaciated, white pregnant mare that arrived at the Sanctuary, with the future for herself and her unborn foal uncertain.The “after” footage showed a vibrantly healthy mother parenting her foal Francesca Rose. The beautiful white Paloma (dove in Spanish) is a wonderful symbol of the hundreds of horses that have passed through the sanctuary. Paloma has even taken in orphan foals to mother them as well.


Next Steps

As I recall my morning at Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary, it is clear that the task requires the same qualities of the wild horses themselves: tremendous strength, endurance and persistence. The RTF Sanctuary is an important model, but its acreage is not enough to feed the horses it serves without supplementation. Herd sizes are maintained with non-hormonal birth control. In the summer months, feed alone costs $10,000 a month. We must be the voice for the horses and we must act now with all of our courage and strength.


There are many ways to support this vital work, including donations, purchasing books and gifts from the RTF store, and writing letters to our representatives in Congress and the U.S. Senate. For more information about Return to Freedom, and to support the work of RTF, please see


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