Return to Freedom: Inside a Wild Horse Sanctuary

Return to Freedom

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

In the rolling golden hills of the central coast of California is a 300-acre ranch with a unique purpose. Return to Freedom is a wild horse sanctuary, and home to over 300 rescued mustangs. I was lucky enough to stay here for several days, learning what it takes to care for such important charges and the sanctuary's larger purpose. Click through these images and learn about the sanctuary's mustangs.

Every Barn Needs A Cat

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

Return to Freedom is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving America's wild horses. With a small staff that handles everything from educational tours and photo safaris to the daily care of each horse, the work is varied and never-ending. Everyone has a job to do, including the resident barn cats.

Unique Horses

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

Return to Freedom was founded in 1997 by Neda DeMayo, and has since become home to hundreds of wild horses rescued from round-ups conducted by the Bureau of Land Management. DeMayo focuses on keeping family bands together, as well as preserving unique strains of mustangs that are in danger of disappearing altogether, such as this Cerbat stallion.

Sustainable Herd Management

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

Another focus of Return to Freedom is to act as a model for sustainable herd management. Utilizing a safe, reversible and non-hormonal fertility control drug called PZP, the sanctuary is able to limit the number of foals born each year to their herds. The drug's ability to dramatically reduce the reproduction rate of wild mustangs could help end the controversial BLM round-ups in a matter of years.

Room to Roam

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Finding enough space for wild horses needing a home has become one of the biggest challenges for the sanctuary. There is limited space and a constant stream of horses needing a new home after loosing their freedom. The sanctuary has been over capacity since its first year, underscoring the immense need for reform in the BLM's management of wild herds.

Out to Pasture

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

While pressed for space, Return to Freedom doesn't change its strategy for letting bands of horses live as close to how they would in the wild as possible, which includes giving them enough space to run and allowing them to determine how much interaction with humans they want. Some horses prefer to stay well away from human visitors, while others don't mind coming up for a pat.

"Fiery Lover"

credit: Rebecca Jackrel

Ambrasador Amante's name translates to Fiery Lover, and he has earned the title. He is a Cerbat stallion from the Cerbat Mountain area of northwestern Arizona. In search of mares for a herd of his own, he broke into a rancher's pasture and stole several mares. He was later rounded up, but not before putting three cow-hands in the hospital. This stallion is the quintessential wild mustang in body and spirit. He now lives at Return to Freedom with this band of mares.

Hart Mountain Herd

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

This is the Hart Mountain herd. Mystic, the stallion of this band came to us from Hart Mountain, Oregon with three other bachelor stallions in 1999. At around the same time, nine mares arrived as well and Mystic won out as the top stallion winning the mares as his own. Two of the bachelor stallions still challenge him from time to time but Mystic has stayed in the lead all this time.

Sulphur Springs Herd

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the more unique bands of mustangs at the sanctuary is this band from Sulphur Springs. According to Return to Freedom, this herd is one of the few that can claim direct Spanish heritage. Their markings also harken back to the ancient bloodline, with distinctive dorsal stripes, leg stripping, and black-tipped ears.

The Burden of Love

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Caring for these horses is a huge, and expensive task. Because there are so many horses on such a small property, overgrazing is a problem. With nothing to forage in the pastures, the horses must be fed hay twice a day.

An Expensive Meal

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The cost of hay alone for these horses is around $40,000 every month. So not only is it a lot of work, but it is a lot of money to keep the horses properly fed.

Choctaw Ponies

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Some pastures must be shared, with one herd being brought in to a smaller paddock and another let out of theirs. On this morning, the Choctaw ponies -- a strain of mustang with an amazing history but dire future -- were to have their turn in the larger pasture.

Forming A Partnership

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

While at the sanctuary, I witnessed one of the tours they offer to kids and their parents. The sanctuary puts much emphasis on education, teaching visitors about the plight of the mustang and creating a bond with these wild horses.

Ambassador Stallions

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

I also got to meet several "ambassador" stallions. Return to Freedom is home to Spirit, the Kiger mustang that was the model for a Dreamworks film; Sutter, a palamino stallion that was deemed a "dangerous horse" when he was young but proved to be a sweet and loyal saddle horse when put in DeMayo's loving hands; and Freedom, pictured here, who was born in the wild but came to Return to Freedom with his family band when he was months old. These amazing stallions make lasting impressions on visitors, and help to show just why mustangs are worth saving.

Freedom's Foals

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Return to Freedom uses fertility control, but it is 60-95% effective, which means some foals are born each year. Freedom and his mares are particularly fertile, and three foals are born every year. The foals are allowed to grow up in their family band, learning the social manners, discipline and herd dynamics they'll need to know as adults. They will be removed from the band after they are grown up.

Social Structure

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the most beautiful things I witnessed during my stay at Return to Freedom is the natural herd dynamics that are allowed to persist based on the horse-centric structure of the sanctuary. After watching a band of mustangs for awhile, pecking orders become obvious, special friendships or ostracism of certain horses are made clear, manners, social structure, anger and joy all surface.

Hope for the Future

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Mustangs are in danger of disappearing from the range. But sanctuaries like Return to Freedom are working hard to bring public awareness and better management techniques to the table. You can learn more at Return to Freedom's website, as well as with this in-depth article about the status of the mustang. Check out more images from this trip here.