Oct 12, 2020

Life goes on happily for the wild horses and burros of RTF

RTF in SLO, home to 24 burros and 84 wild horses
RTF in SLO, home to 24 burros and 84 wild horses

Dear Friends of Return to Freedom,

While the world outside shifts and adjusts, the horses and burros who call RTF their home are none the wiser.

We've had to work harder to find the means to continue their high standard of care without interruption, but because of our loyal supporters, our precious residents haven't lacked a thing.

Although fundraising is slower this year due to the pandemic, we have been able to add a new member to our development team to help with fundraising. 

The Ranch—

At our Lompoc headquarters, RTF has added ranch support positions to help fill long-time under-staffed areas.  For the ranch, RTF hired one Equine Assistant (assisting the Equine Manager) and one additional Ranch Hand. We still need to hire two more solid ranch hands to pick up some of the schedule.

While in July and August we opened up for private tours and small groups for our Wild Horse Photo Safaris, our program income and participation are still low compared to 2019 due to restrictions. Our scheduled May event to celebrate the 25th birthday of Spirit, the Kiger mustang stallion who was the muse for DreamWorks’ 2003 animated film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, had to be cancelled, and we moved it online with video messages from friends and much more—including an auction! This has helped to reach new people and also recoup some of the loss we have due to most of our programs being shut down. Private meet-and-greets with Spirit were and continue to be popular.

Much of the summer and early fall has been spent clearing brush and trimming trees in a continued effort for fire control. The burros had been moved around the sanctuary to graze ravines and we have cleared an enormous amount of chaparral along the roads to widen buffer zones in case of fire. 

Also, a previous adopter had their sanctuary destroyed in the CA fires. With fire sweeping across their property at 95 miles an hour, it was a miracle most all of their animals survived. The horses were hauled off in the nick of time. Fifteen of their adopted horses had to return to RTF/Lompoc for sanctuary, adding to the cost of operations at RTF.  We recently launched a Fire and Emergency Fund to help with this ongoing need.

Ongoing daily care for 200 horses, including worming and trimming hooves in the chute, also continued at the Lompoc location.

Callie King has been a regular volunteer to donate her wonderful skills at the sanctuary a few days a week. In addition to helping to evaluate and instruct equine volunteers, she focused on gentling a few of our horses who need special care, so they can be regularly handled safely. She also worked with five Spanish horses rescued last year, who have now been safely adopted out together to an RTF supporter.


RRR Ranch

This past quarter at RTF’s far north satellite, home to 65 Gila horses, a lot of work was done on Irrigation and irrigation system repairs, including pouring concrete and fixing broken valves. 

Under the supervision of RTF Ranch Manager Jason, 58 tons of hay were cut, baled and stacked in the barn. Four-plus acres of short field of star thistles were removed and cleaned.

During the entire month of July, every three to four days ranchhands set up and/or took down 1,400 -plus feet of temporary fencing in order to rotate the horses for grazing, and took down and set up 1,900 feet of fence to permit grazing of an additional field.  The hands also installed 1,600 feet of temporary fence to improve grazing in another field.

Necessary improvements were also made to the chute used to hold horses for medical needs.

Jason also travelled to Healdsburg and hauled seven Choctaw ponies to this ranch to escape the fires. After two weeks there, the horses were hauled to Return to Freedom’s Lompoc location.

Our northern satellite ranch had no sunshine for nearly 40 days because of fires and smoke, creating very poor condition for the pastures to grow grass, so we will have to begin to feed hay earlier than last year. 

San Luis Obispo

We just started supplemental feeding up at our SLO satellite where we have 24 burros and 84 wild horses.


Inside and outside of Washington, D.C., Return to Freedom continues to advocate each day to end horse slaughter and for lasting changes in how the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service manage wild horses and burros and the rangelands on which they depend.

In July, the House of Representatives approved a Fiscal Year 2021 funding package that included $102.6 million for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program and continued key protections for America’s horses.

Faced with an unprecedented push on Capitol Hill for the use of lethal management tools like euthanasia and unrestricted sale (to slaughter) starting in 2017, RTF was part of a years-long effort to provide Congress with a viable science-based, non-lethal alternative that could achieve bipartisan support.

That work helped yield a $21 million finding increase for the program from Congress in FY 2020 and directions from appropriators that BLM needed to pursue a new non-lethal, humane management direction including a significant increase in fertility control. We are pleased to report that the House has maintained the $21 million increase for 2021.

The House bill also:

--continues a prohibition on both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service using taxpayer funding to euthanize or sell without restriction (to slaughter) healthy wild horses and burros;

 --bars the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using funds to hire horsemeat inspectors, keeping in place an effective ban on horse slaughter within U.S. borders;

 --includes an amendment supported by RTF that requires that BLM utilize $11 million to implement the fertility control vaccine PZP. While the amendment would represent a sizable investment in fertility control, more will be needed.

Also in July, the House passed an infrastructure package that included language RTF lobbied for that would ban transporting horses in double-decker trailers, which even the USDA has labeled inhumane, under any circumstance. 

Funding bills from the Senate have yet to move forward.

With the support of thousands of people taking action through our website, RTF continues to advocate for: consistent funding support for, and the implementation of, safe, proven and humane fertility control vaccines, like the longer-lasting PZP-22 as well as PZP, public-private partnerships like darting programs and herd monitoring, and rangeland restoration while strongly opposing surgical sterilization of wild mares and burro jennies and lethal tools like euthanasia or unrestricted sale (to slaughter).

As shown by ongoing BLM and USFS roundups this summer across the West -- few of which have included treating and releasing mares and burro jennies with fertility control that would reduce the call for future roundups -- it is critically important that Congress not only invest in a new direction but provide much-needed oversight of BLM’s program. 

In September, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board passed recommendations that included calling for the immediate use of fertility control, holistic planning that takes into account all uses of Herd Management Area, including private livestock, and an outside audit of BLM’s decision-making structure.

The recommendations are a marked change from 2016-18, when the board, which typically leans toward livestock interests, recommended BLM kill tens of thousands of wild horses and burros in government holding and sell them without restriction (to slaughter). 

The work by RTF and other stakeholders to present Congress with a non-lethal, multi-pronged alternative to BLM’s nearly five decades of roundups and warehousing of wild horses helped lay the groundwork for the advisory board’s move away from lethal options. RTF biologist Celeste Carlisle, in her second year representing wild horse advocates on the board, has worked hard to build relationships and change the culture of the board.

On the issue of horse slaughter, RTF continues to advocate aggressively for passage of the SAFE Act (H.R. 961 / S. 2006), which would permanently ban horse slaughter in the United States and the export of American horses for slaughter. As of this writing, the bill has earned the backing of 236 cosponsors in the House. Though time for the House and Senate to vote on their versions of the bill is starting to run low, RTF will continue lobbying hard down to the wire.

As we continue to care for hundreds of wild horse and burros at our sanctuary locations, and to advocate for their counterparts still running free on the range, we never forget that it is only the continued support of our like-minded friends that make these good lives and important work possible.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts,

All of us at RTF 

Hope with Galahad's band of mares in SLO
Hope with Galahad's band of mares in SLO
Wendy Malick with horses adopted by RTF supporters
Wendy Malick with horses adopted by RTF supporters
Choctaw horses at RRR satellite ranch
Choctaw horses at RRR satellite ranch
Irrigation work at RRR satellite
Irrigation work at RRR satellite


Jun 29, 2020

The continuing saga of the Gila Herd


As we've told you previously, in 2017 RTF rescued 117 members of the historic Gila Herd from a troubled sanctuary to keep them from an imminent auction at which they most likely would have been sold to a killer buyer and sent to a horrific slaughter.

When the horses were rescued from that unfortunate situation, Return to Freedom and The Black Hills Sanctuary stepped up to help Fleet of Angels with this effort and pledged to share the responsibility of providing sanctuary for the Spanish Gila herd, in an effort to maintain their bonded families and unique heritage.

Due to the declining health of the founder of The Black Hills Sanctuary, they were unable to receive the horses in 2017-2019. The entire herd has been protected and managed by RTF over the last few years on 1000 acres of leased pasture, and you have helped to make that happen.

Last summer the herd sorted themselves quite naturally into two large herds and 64 were relocated to a private ranch managed by RTF and the remaining 45 horses remained on the 1000 acres of leased pasture.

After the sad passing of Dayton Hyde, the founder of Black Hills Sanctuary, their director Susan Watt is now able to receive the horses. We are thrilled for the horses that Black Hills Sanctuary is now ready to welcome them to their permanent sanctuary.

On June 13, the RTF team traveled to Alturas, CA and spent the week preparing the 45 Gilas that remained on leased pasture for their final journey to Black Hills.

In Alturas 39 horses were prepared for transport. Forest Service staff came to help on their day off, bringing water and Jute fencing to help funnel the horses. It took 3 three days to catch them and once we were able to create the funnel we were able to get the herd into the corral area. The portable corrals were set up and our new hydraulic squeeze chute was utilized. Dr. Nicole Eller came to draw blood and look over the horses for their Health Certificates. All horses were wormed and then transported to the Dreamcatcher sanctuary nearby, where they are enjoying a 200-acre pasture while awaiting transport to South Dakota.

Six of the horses were brought to RTF’s Lompoc facility. Three are stallions who will be gelded, and one is an older stallion who will remain in Lompoc with a handful of other Gilas that live in our special needs /senior pasture.

After they recover from their gelding, two of the mature stallions, along with a mare and her soon to be 2-month old filly, will travel in separate compartments to The Black Hills Sanctuary and rejoin their herd who will arrive there ahead of them. One of the stallions we brought to Lompoc is a 3-year-old colt who will be gentled and available for adoption with a buddy to a safe, qualified home.

We will miss our Gila friends, who were always destined to leave us, but we are happy that they will never be moved again and will enjoy the protection offered by our colleagues in the Black Hills. Return to Freedom continues to manage a conservation program with the now 66 Gilas still under RTF's care in Northern CA and a dozen of their counterparts who remain with us in our Lompoc and San Luis Obispo sanctuary. 

In addition, we are grateful to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for taking some of the young Gila colts to be gentled and adopted from their facility in Kanab, Utah.

Thank you for your help caring for the Gilas, and we hope you will continue to follow their lives and be an important part of them.

All of us at RTF 

Gila happy to be out of the chute and on her way!
Gila happy to be out of the chute and on her way!
Gelding will stay with mentor(Father?) Thor at RTF
Gelding will stay with mentor(Father?) Thor at RTF
This savvy Gila mare is ready for the Black Hills!
This savvy Gila mare is ready for the Black Hills!
Veterinarian working at the chute
Veterinarian working at the chute
Thor and his friend soon to be reunited
Thor and his friend soon to be reunited
Jun 1, 2020

First part of a challenging year...

Coco and Sophia from Devils Garden
Coco and Sophia from Devils Garden

Quite A Year So Far...

We started this year with no hint of the challenges which would shortly come. But no matter what goes on in the world outside, RTF has over 500 wild horses and burros to feed and care for, and that happens in spite of world events. We’d like to share some of what has happened in our world over the past few months.

Devils Garden Horses

On New Year’s Day, two inseparable mares, Sophia and Coco, were released onto the green hills of Return to Freedom’s 2,000-acre San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary. As they trotted up the hill, they were greeted by loud braying from a group of burros, then first one, then more of the dozens of horses that make their home at the sanctuary.

With the help of a dedicated supporter, RTF was able to provide sanctuary to Sophia, Coco and 10 geldings from Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory. They were among the last older wild horses – those most at risk of being sold to slaughter— after their capture during the U.S. Forest Service's 2018 roundup in the Devils Garden Wild Horse Territory in Northern California. In all, 932 wild horses were captured during the roundup.

Happy “Accidents”

Although since 2000 we have helped to pioneer the use of non-hormonal, reversible birth control in the course of keeping our sanctuary population stable, even our 91-98% success rate lets a few foals slip through— and that’s one “failure” that is still a joyous occasion and invigorates the whole herd!. It also demonstrates that this form of birth control provides a future on the range for more generations of America’s wild horses and burros while phasing out the current tragic family-splintering roundups. Here at the sanctuary, it allows stallions and mares to live together naturally while curbing the rate of reproduction.

Now, meet some precious recent arrivals—

Little Cameron was born overnight on March 4 at our Lompoc, CA, headquarters to Willow, from our Sulphur Springs herd. Cameron’s sire is the magnificent Cerbat stallion, Amante.

Apparently, Willow laid down close to a gate that night, and her newborn slid right underneath, because our equine manager found the wobbly newborn ambling down one of the sanctuary's dirt roads! When she brought Cameron back to his band, it quickly became apparent that Willow had not bonded with him, and the foal's young siblings, Fuego and Nora, behaved aggressively toward the newcomer. 

Our ranch team relocated Willow and Cameron to give them time to connect. Fortunately, they have! 

Young Neptune was born on Friday, Feb. 21, also at our Lompoc headquarters, to Juno, a member of our Hart Mountain herd. Neptune’s sire is Freedom.

Neptune was named by one of our Instagram followers after the Roman god of horses as well as the sea. This little guy’s roots go back to Hart Mountain in Oregon. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducted a complete removal of 279 wild horses from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, due to pressure from hunters to manage the area for pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep. Of those, four stallions and nine mares arrived at RTF’s sanctuary in 1999.

Then there’s Ruby Tuesday

This pretty filly was born to 15-year-old mare Diamond overnight on Tuesday, Jan. 21, in Lompoc. Her sire is 19-year-old stallion Samir, who, like Diamond, is a descendent of our foundation herd from Hart Mountain in Oregon who arrived in 1998 and 1999.

The Hart Mountain Fish and Wildlife Refuge removed all cattle and in 1998 they removed all the wld horses there. Veteran wild horse advocate Jim Clapp (founder of the first Wild Horse Sanctuary in the 1970's) was hired to remove the horses on horseback and with bait trapping, so that the herd that came to RTF's American Wild Horse Sanctuary arrived in their family bands.

Meet Shiva Rose

In March, a beautiful dorsal striped dun filly was born into the Gila herd in one of our satellite ranches in Northern California. Little Shiva Rose is strong and sassy! Of the 63 Gila herd mares that were treated with fertility control, this filly’s mama Robin was not receptive to the vaccine – at least not this year! 

All of these youngsters have deep roots in the history of America's wild horses. Although they never had a chance to roam that vast range, with your help they will live wonderful lives, safe from the perils of human politics and power, right here at Return to Freedom's American Wild Horse Sanctuary.


You may recall that Return to Freedom’s Lompoc, CA sanctuary is home to Spirit, the mustang who served as muse and model for animators of DreamWorks 2002 Oscar-nominated film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” Youth and adults all over the world fell in love with America’s wild horses as this beautiful dorsal-striped stallion carried their dreams about freedom and horses in the DreamWorks film.

Since Spirit’s arrival at Return to Freedom’s Lompoc, CA headquarters sanctuary in 2003, the handsome, mischievous Kiger mustang has remained a favorite of visitors of all ages, including young viewers of DreamWorks Animation’s Netflix’s spin-off series, “Spirit: Riding Free.” 

This year is Spirit’s 25thbirthday, and since the start of 2020 we had been planning a live birthday party event here at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary. But the shutdown and restrictions cause by the pandemic derailed the live event, and much of the next few months were spent retooling the party into a virtual event, which did take place in May and will continue for the rest of 2020 to celebrate the spirit of the horse!. Our next update will describe the virtual Birthday for our friend and resident, Spirit. 


If you have been following our reports, you know that as well as caring for the residents at RTF’s sanctuary locations, our organization works to protect all wild horses and burros still living on public lands. They have faced serious threats to their very existence for many years, and we have always worked on the national stage to ensure wild herds a future on the Western landscape.

We’re pleased to report that February marked the continuation in a significant, positive shift in tone around the wild horse issue. For the first time, President Trump submitted a budget proposal that did not include a call for the use of either unrestricted sale (to slaughter) or “euthanizing” healthy wild horses and burros. 

For some background, as recently as 2017, the outlook for tens of thousands of wild horses and burros on and off the range looked very bleak. House Appropriators passed an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill that would have allowed the Bureau of Land Management to euthanize healthy wild horses and burros. Under the law and with congressional support, BLM signaled more and larger roundups with no plan to implement fertility control that would allow roundups to be phased out. 

In 2018, the push in Washington, D.C., shifted to mass sterilization, and BLM changed its sale policy changed to allow single buyer to purchase up to 24 horses per day with no waiting period, greatly increasing the risk that more wild horses would fall into the slaughter pipeline.

In response to these looming threats to the lives of tens of thousands of wild horses, RTF worked with the nation’s two largest humane groups and sat down at the table with other rangeland stakeholders to try to find common ground. 

As a result, we were able to present Congress with a non-lethal alterative to a status quo that was fast driving wild horses toward a cliff’s edge. Over the past dozen years or so, we have created a model, right here at our sanctuary, for the implementation of safe, proven and humane fertility control so that on public lands, herd growth could be stabilized, roundups phased out and the cost to taxpayers brought under control. 

Not only did Congress embrace the idea on a bipartisan basis, investing $21 million for Fiscal Year 2020, but other positive signs began to appear. In 2019, for the first time in three years, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board did not recommend unrestricted sale or euthanasia. BLM revoked its sale policy change, returning to a limit of four horses per buyer every six months. And it announced it would not seek authority to euthanize healthy horses, for now.

The President’s budget proposal continues this positive shift. There’s still cause for concern, however. BLM continues to use its base budget to pursue the study of surgical sterilization of wild mares, which RTF strongly opposes, and the president’s budget proposal calls for that to continue. 

At the end of the first quarter, we were also still awaiting a long-overdue report laying out a long-term management plan for wild horses and burros. Until Congress has the report in hand, the $21 million in additional funds approved by lawmakers will not be released to the agency. 

It’s critically important that we continue to work with lawmakers to ensure that BLM immediately begins implement a real fertility program with proven safe and humane tools that are available, and that the move toward humane management of wild horses and burros and a sustainable future for the rangelands on which they depend continues. 


It’s the support of so many caring people over our 22-year history that has made possible not only the happy lives of the over 500 wild horses and burros who reside with us, but our work to protect and conserve their counterparts still roaming the range. No matter what the world throws our way, we will always be here for the wild ones.

Thanks to everyone who has helped and continues to help make this possible. There is no RTF without you.

All of us at RTF.

Cameron and Willow-photo Irene Vejar
Cameron and Willow-photo Irene Vejar
Ruby Tuesday
Ruby Tuesday
Shiva Rose, just a few weeks old
Shiva Rose, just a few weeks old
Spirit's Birthday goes virtual
Spirit's Birthday goes virtual
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