How one sanctuary is ensuring America’s wild horses live out their lives as nature intended.
On the Central Coast of California lies Return to Freedom, a 300-acre sanctuary dedicated entirely to the preservation of America’s wild horses. The ranch is owned by the DeMayo family, and the sanctuary itself was founded by Neda DeMayo in 1997.
Over 400 wild horses and burros call Return to Freedom home. The aim of the sanctuary is to provide an environment where the horses can continue to live a natural lifestyle. Several unique herds roam the ranch, and the sanctuary also works to preserve rare breeds through its programs. Some of the herds in their preservation program include:
The Choctaw Herd
In 2005, Return to Freedom worked with John Fusco, Bryant Rickman and Dr. Phillip Sponenberg to develop the Choctaw Indian Horse Conservation Program. These horses participated in Choctaw culture and have been preserved first by the Choctaw and Cherokee people and later by private conservators. Once a thriving strain, there are now less than 200 of these horses, which is why the efforts of the conservation program are so vital.
The Sulpher Springs Herds
These two herds are named for the area in which they are found – the Sulpher Springs Herd Management Area in Utah. You may have seen photos of the stunning stallions that lead these two herds – one dun (Chief), and one grulla (Bear). These horses are of Spanish origin.
The Wilbur-Cruce Herd
In 1681, a missionary named Padre Kino arrived in Mexico, and he began to bring horses over from Spain. Almost 200 years later, Dr. Reuben Wilbur purchased some of the horses, and they were kept at his ranch for nearly 100 years.
“One notable difference with the Wilbur-Cruce strain, apart from other known strains of the Colonial Spanish horses, is that the population has always been privately managed, resulting in horses whose genetics are uninfluenced by modern breeds. This cannot be said of many other groups of horses with similar ancestry.”
A Different Take on Breeding Management
The sanctuary has an interesting approach to population management and their breeding program. “Because we allow our equine residents to maintain their natural lifestyle and social behaviors, we must manage population growth,” says the website. “For us, managing population growth by gelding stallions was not an option as that further depletes an already threatened genetic pool. Separating mares and stallions was also not a solution as that separates family bands, disrupts natural behaviors and undermines the natural lifestyle of wild horse herds. To manage population growth in an ethical and sustainable manner, we administer a non-hormonal and reversible contraception to our mares under the guidance of Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, Director of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, MT. By utilizing this approach, we are able to maintain our horses in their natural bands without uncontrolled reproduction or habitat degradation.”
The sanctuary does much more than simply provide a home for these horses. Recognizing that education, awareness and understanding are key to the continued preservation of the wild horse, Return to Freedom offers clinics, tours, youth programs, retreats and educational programs to the public.
How You Can Help
You can assist the conservation efforts at Return to Freedom through fostering, sponsoring or donations. Return to Freedom also started the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, which is a coalition of diverse organizations working together towards the common goal of ethical and appropriate wild horse management.
To learn more, visit wildhorsepreservation.org or returntofreedom.org.