I started riding horses when I was six, just a gangly little girl with eyes that were too big for my face. I cried the first time, not from fear but from pure excitement. I was overwhelmed with emotion, as only a little girl can be. I’ve always loved horses—the way they run, the strong muscles beneath their rippling flanks, the swish of their tails—and I’m not alone. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a little girl who doesn’t love them, even if she’s never seen one in person. It’s just magical that there is an animal willing to let people ride it. The relationship between people and horses is ancient. Horses are depicted in the 25,000 year-old paintings of Chauvet Cave in France. Their influence is obvious in our culture. Horses were pivotal players in our great western migration and in our most famous battles. What better animal to help teach people the value of nature and the importance of conservation than man’s age-old companion, the majestic horse?
We used to chase and capture America’s wild horses. If we couldn’t catch them, we’d shoot them. If we couldn’t tame the ones we caught, we’d shoot those too. The wild herds dwindled, though a few survived, hidden in the vast hills and forests of California or the craggy mountains of Montana. Today, wild horses are making a comeback, thanks in large part the efforts of Return to Freedom, an organization dedicated to the preservation of these incredible creatures.
From their website: “Return to Freedom is dedicated to preserving the freedom, diversity and habitat of America’s wild horses through sanctuary, education and conservation while enriching the human spirit through direct experience with the natural world.” They preserve the wild herd while protecting and educating the public. Their sanctuary is a large operation. They welcome the public and are always looking for volunteers.
One of the aspects Return to Freedom that I find fascinating is their revolutionary non-hormonal birth control method of population control. By giving the horses temporary, reversible hormone treatments, they control the population without harming the animals, effecting their social behavior, or reducing their genetic diversity.
“Return to Freedom’s pioneering model represents a breakthrough in the humane and effective management of wild horses, allowing them to express the social organization and behaviors common to the species, without fear of uncontrolled reproduction.”
-Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, Director of the Science & Conservation Center, Billings, MT
The sanctuary is home to over 250 wild horses and burros. Volunteers help care for the animals and help with conservation efforts. Volunteers can work for a weekend or can live on site for an extended period of time through the Return to Freedom work study program. Return to Freedom is partnered with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a diverse coalition working to design and implement responsible wild horse management projects.