May 1, 2018

The Care You Help Us Give Everyday

Cowboy, going strong
Cowboy, going strong

We often start our updates by commenting how busy it’s been at Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc CA, at our satellite location in San Luis Obispo(SLO), and at our Gila Herd leased pasture.

This report is no exception. Whenever an organization’s mission includes caring for living beings, in this case over 500 of them, there is an additional sense of urgency and responsibility that doesn’t exist in an enterprise consisting mainly of an office of administrative staff working at their desks.

We have those too, and they are an essential element for to support and implement RTF’s mission, but the horses living safely here are totally dependent on us, and we are dependent on the generosity of our loyal supporters who have never failed us. Without public support projects like ours are not possible.

RTF is now in its 20th year, and many of our residents have been with us since the beginning. An aging population requires ever-increasing care, and we have learned over the years how to provide that. The seniors at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary are often complimented on their excellent condition. On average, they are living into their thirties, and some are now in their mid 30s.

Return to Freedom's equine management philosophy assesses quality of life after medical care taking into account age and condition. We give every horse, no matter their age, a chance.

In keeping with our philosophy, sometimes tough decisions must be made. Dolly, a mare from the herd from the Sheldon Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which has since removed all wild horses and burros from their lands, was born at RTF in March of 2011. Relatively young, she nevertheless began to show decline after joining another stallion’s harem band at our satellite sanctuary in San Luis Obispo.

In February, Dolly was brought back to our headquarter Sanctuary in Lompoc due to a general weakness and difficulty in eating. She clearly had been kicked in the jaw and developed an infection opened at the bottom of the left mandible. 

On February 20th, our longtime vet, Dr. Pankau, visited her. He examined her and floated her teeth (filing their teeth to make the chewing surfaces relatively flat or smooth). After administering antibiotics and vitamins, Dr. Pankau let us know she needed a surgery on her mouth. Transported to his clinic on February 23rd, x-rays showed a broken molar and a partial chip, which were extracted. Her blood test indicated some renal issues as well. She came back home March 1st.

While we were hopeful, at the end of March, Dolly’s condition kept deteriorating. One day, after a pleasant time eating grass in a green pasture, she laid down, unable to go on. It was sadly determined that a quality life was no longer possible. Dr. Pankau came and put Dolly down so she would no longer suffer. We will all miss her.

It’s very difficult to lose a friend, but often, there is happier news.

One favorite senior living at RTF is Cowboy, a 27-year-old domesticated gelding who found refuge at Return to Freedom in 2004. He arrived here with the name "Split" in reference to his split ear, a sign he was treated roughly in his past. We renamed him "Cowboy".

This past Fall, Cowboy suffered from severe colic and was taken to the vet for diagnosis, treatment, and observation. We opted to go through medical treatment instead of surgery and he came through after being hospitalized for seven days. He is now back with a diverse group of senior horses and doing well again. This shy fellow has been retired for the past five years with other senior horses who no longer do as well in the hills or competing for food in the larger herds. 

Last week KC, now 33 years old, began to colic. Concerned that he would not be a candidate for surgery at this age, our veterinary team gave him personal care and intravenous fluids round the clock. His sponsors who rescued him and sent him to the sanctuary over 10 years ago, remained in touch with RTF staff and veterinary team but were not expecting miracles. But a miracle occurred! Much to everyone’s surprise and relief, KC’s pain dissipated and he resumed normal functions by the second day!

We take every reasonable measure to support our horses as long as possible in a quality life. Older horses need some special care, and we recently changed the rations and schedule for their special feeding which not only improved their assimilation of nutrients but reduced costs by $500 a week! Of course, with the number of horses we have, we have also added a few more horses to the special feeding regimen. We recently created sandy areas in two more paddocks for horses to lay down comfortably, one for four older residents and one for our famous Sutter, a 32-year-old stallion (Return to Freedom ambassador Sutter is the first horse born wild on the range named to the Horse Stars Hall of Fame. In 2016, he was the ASPCA's first Horse of the Year honoree).

Imagine the wide range of experiences of a horse born in the wild and living his or her golden years here with us. If only we all spoke the same language, what a conversation that would be! Sara with the help of volunteers, makes sure that Sutter and KC and other domesticated seniors receive essential oil rubdowns and other pain management, grooming and attention.

In the last few months, we moved some of the older horses in the front paddock in order for them to live together, sort of an old timers’ club. We also transported 8 horses from the SLO satellite for special feeding and care, and relocated others within the sanctuary to more compatible locations.  130 horses also had their hooves trimmed in our padded hydraulic squeeze chute. If you’ve ever watched this process, you know it takes strength and patience. Imagine doing it 130 times!

Although we are a Sanctuary and not an adoption organization, there are occasionally some horses who are deemed to be good candidates for rehoming. Other work in recent months included training nine horses to prepare them for adoption, and carefully adopting out ten horses.

A large ranch needs constant attention, so the Sanctuary grounds got lots of attention too. The road into the ranch is long and winding, and got some needed repairs. This is the road used to bring hay, water, feed, veterinarians, volunteers, guests, and staff into the sanctuary, so the impact is significant! We also created some gravel roads along the fences for better access to the pastures. In preparation for our summer program season, volunteers and staff repaired and painted parts of barns and stalls, painted outside tables and benches, fixed the front paddocks and the back barn’s main entrance, and trimmed trees around the ranch. Whew! 

Just as we’re always busy, we are always grateful to our supporters, without whom all the work and care just described would be impossible. In our 20th year, we remain clear that the good people who make this work possible are beside us in spirit as we protect and care for our precious residents here at the American Wild Horse Sanctuary while we continue our advocacy work to protect wild horses and burros on the range. Thank you for caring so deeply and for following our progress down RTF’s long and important trail.

Until next time,

All of us at RTF


KC, Photo credit: Tony Stromberg
KC, Photo credit: Tony Stromberg
Dolly, Sheldon Refuge mare
Dolly, Sheldon Refuge mare


May 1, 2018

Fieldwork w/the Gilas: Dust, Hard Work, and PB&J

Shota (head down) & Soffel, now in CA
Shota (head down) & Soffel, now in CA

Return to Freedom’s ongoing two-year Gila Herd Project relies upon the support of generous donors, partnerships with other organizations, the hard work of RTF staff and affiliated experts. Here, Celeste Carlisle, RTF Conservation Science Consultant, looks back on her first days working with the herd:

"In the spring of 2017, field work to gather data about Return to Freedom’s newly rescued Gila Herd, as well as basic veterinary care and primer doses of the fertility control vaccine PZP, were begun at our leased holding facility in Fallon, Nevada. We often gloss through the story: “We ran ‘em through chutes and vaccinated them.” But, to put it lightly, field work tends to be fraught with the exciting and the unexpected — and also a heck of a lot of logistics. 

Preparing to treat and collect samples and data on 120 wild horses takes some time. Hair samples for genetic analysis will go to two different labs and a form must be filled out for each horse in advance so that the sample can be affixed to the proper form. The truck must be packed with supplies: vaccines, wormer, first aid kit, water, notebooks, syringes, tarps, ice chests, dry ice, gloves, random assorted emergency gear (for human, horse, or truck emergencies along the snowy pass). This takes me all day. 

I call my brother, Ethan, who is a geologist and works in the field and is just ending a job, and I tell him he should join me: “I need the help, and it’ll be fun!” I load up snacks (the always field-appreciated peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making supplies) and my two other field assistants (a chihuahua and a pug-pit-beagle-something-or-‘nother) and we lumber out of the driveway. 

The immunocontraceptive vaccine has been special-ordered from our friends at the Science and Conservation Center – it is shipped on dry ice and must be received immediately. It doesn’t arrive at my house before I need to leave, so I arrange to pick it up at the UPS distribution center partway to Fallon, a side trip I hadn’t anticipated, but a good one since it turns out to be a convenient spot to meet and pick up my road-traveling brother as well. 

We drive over hill and dale (Donner Pass) in the dark and snow to my favorite hotel in Fallon (the pickings are slim.) When we arrive, it takes some finesse to offload ice chests, Rubbermaid containers of supplies, luggage, humans, and dogs into the hotel room. My brother turns on the TV and promptly falls asleep. I prep our clipboards and charts and mix many, many doses of the PZP vaccine late into the night. We need to be at the holding facility early in the morning to meet the wranglers and the veterinarian.

Up at dawn, and the truck is reloaded. The dogs are going nuts (they are big fans of field work). My brother and I grab a not-very-good hotel breakfast, stop at the grocery store for cheap donuts for everybody, and head to the Gila’s very temporary home, just outside of town and next to the Fallon Naval Air Station (this will come into play later). Mike Holmes, a tough and true Nevadan and a long-time wild horse professional, is waiting for us. 

MIKE: “You’re LATE.” 

ME: “Good morning, Mike! This is my brother, Ethan.” 

MIKE: “Uh-huh.”

Thomas Smittle is there, too, a tall and gifted horseman who can gently reach his long body from side to side and get a horse to move wherever it is necessary to move that horse. Mike’s son Randy is there as well – he likes it when my brother and I give his dad a hard time, so we make sure we do so at every opportunity. Photographer Steve Paige is here, too. We happily greet each other.   Mike introduces us to one hell of a wild horse vet, Dr. Gerry Peck.   (Have I mentioned how fun this crew is to work with?)

The Gilas are located in two corrals near the livestock chute on the far side of a large cattle facility. They’re in Nevada because the State will let us pull blood for Coggins tests here (necessary for transport across state lines), where there are alleys and chutes set up for just such testing. We’ll spend today processing the mares and foals, so we feed them along a narrow alleyway leading to the livestock chute. They don’t seem thrilled by the idea of leaving their large, open pen for a much smaller space, but alfalfa can convince even the stoniest among them.

While the horses settle, we organize the chute area and ourselves. A small card table holds horse ID charts, vaccines, clipboards, and donuts. (Everyone claims that they do not eat donuts, but I notice they are all gone within a short period of time.) (And no, I did not eat them all…)

Flags with plastic bags attached to the ends lean on fence rails. The worming medicine is loaded into a triggered syringe, which can be quickly administered into a horse’s mouth.   Our trucks are backed into the work area and their tailgates hold forms for the hair samples, as well as vacutainer tubes for blood and papers for the health and brand inspectors. We outline our marching orders, gather our wits, start up the generator for the hydraulic chute, and begin a routine of contained chaos. 

About this time, the fighter jets at the Fallon Naval Base commence their daily exercises. Low. Loud. And directly overhead.

Thomas and Randy take up their positions in the alleyway, making sure they have one hand on the metal fence panels in case they need to haul themselves up and out of harm’s way. They cut a few horses from the group and wave the plastic bag flags behind them so they advance through the alley, which gradually narrows so that the mares sort themselves into a single file line. When three or four horses are in position, Thomas and Randy back off and I take over, pushing the mares forward, one at a time, into the livestock chute. When a horse enters the chute, the door is closed behind them so that they are contained within a padded box. Mike operates the hydraulics to gently squeeze the horse so that she will be safe and still. There are many doors which can be opened to access a different part of the animal: head, neck, legs, hind end. We work quickly so that the mare can be released quickly – no need to stress her unduly.

The vet is first, and he steps up, swings open the door near the mare’s neck, expertly draws blood and strategically pistons the wormer into her mouth so quickly that she hardly notices. He gives two quick vaccinations, and then my brother steps in, wraps about twenty strands of mane hair around his gloved fingers, and gives a quick tug to extract the hair follicles, which are necessary for the genetic analysis.

Dr. Peck and my brother back away to fill out their respective data forms, and I step in to close the head door, open the hind quarters door and administer the PZP vaccine. As I step away to record my own data and quickly draw identification markings onto the mare’s chart, Mike releases the mare from the chute and into a large catch pen and Steve fires off a quick round of identification photos: front view, left side, right side. We communicate to each other by yelling over the din of the generator and the scream of the fighter jets: markings, age, and the horse’s assigned number. We cross check our data sheets, and then we get ready to process the next horse: same positions, same procedure.

Mike thoughtfully allows us a lunch break after many, many hours. We eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the backs of the trucks and drink copious amounts of water. The dogs get a walk through the feedlot, and they find lots of gross detritus to sniff at and roll in. The sun is high overhead, and bright, but there is a fine crispness to the air. We’re feeling pretty good. My brother has forgotten to bring a hat, so he straps a gaudy, colorful bathing suit to his head, much to everyone’s delight. We return to work and finish out the day.

When we’re done, the generator is shut down and the horses are herded back to their original paddock. We throw them more hay, and they seem no worse for the wear. The crew compares notes and charts to make sure we jotted everything down that we needed. We pack up the trucks, stash supplies inside the chute for tomorrow, and head off down the road to dinner, showers, PJs, bad hotel TV, and an evening of checking over charts, updating files, and preparing for another day of field work. Sun weary and exhausted, we fall into a heavy sleep.

And so on…"


As we continue our work, we are only able to shoulder this monumental task because of our dedicated supporters who respect the wild ones and their right to run free on their range. We are truly in this together.

With Gratitude,

From all of us at RTF

Easter sipping water at the pond in CA in Jan 2018
Easter sipping water at the pond in CA in Jan 2018
Celeste Carlisle administering vaccines last year
Celeste Carlisle administering vaccines last year
Mar 5, 2018

Water, Winter, and Wild Horses at Return to Freedom's American Wild Horse Sanctuary

RTF's Gift Shop Comes Down
RTF's Gift Shop Comes Down

For years, one of the first things that visitors to RTF have seen as they slowly drive onto the sanctuary grounds has been our small but quaint Visitor Center. Here, in a small space, we packed in information and merchandise which educates visitors and helps to support RTF’s sanctuary and programs. 

Sadly, last winter the Visitor Center flooded, and despite our efforts to save her, the old structure has been pushed beyond its ability to resist the elements. 

So we have regretfully dismantled our old friend, with hopes to incorporate our center into existing structures, when finances allow.

Speaking of water…

In 2018, RTF will continue working on water conservation programs to protect our precious supply of life-giving water for our sanctuary residents. 

In 2016, phase one of our water conservation project was to line our large existing reservoir so that the precious water that was collected there would not disappear so quickly. In 2017, this now lined reservoir filled to hold over 18 million gallons of water. Over the year of course there was evaporation but well into the fire season, over 20,000 gallons of water was always available to be used in case of emergency. We can’t even tell you how relieved we were to have this resource on the sanctuary during the recent fires in our county. 

Volunteers have helped strengthen the fencing around the reservoir with long thick branches from the area to protect the reservoir floor. 

We’ll be adding additional storage tanks, hoses and pumps for emergency use for the horses and to be more prepared in case of fire. We’ll update you when other projects like this begin during the year.

For most of the year, the wild horses and burros living at Return to Freedom's satellite sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, CA, graze naturally. During winter months, we supplement with hay. Hannah Robertson, a volunteer, has been gracious enough to share her experience with you helping us do exactly that:

"This January I was fortunate enough to be invited to Return to Freedom’s (RTF) satellite sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, CA, to help feed wild horses! It was such an amazing experience from beginning to end, and I am forever grateful that I was able to spend time in such an amazing place.

As an animal-lover, I was thrilled to bring my dog Macy to accompany the wonderful folks from RTF, who treated me to an adventure-packed day. The people I met all had such big hearts and were very passionate about their love of horses.

A group of us started the morning with a truck full of hay and a Polaris off-road vehicle. Not only were the location views breathtaking, but I was able to see 80 horses living in freedom as wild horses should. It was amazing!

As we drove down dirt roads, we threw flakes of hay out from the back of the truck, and the horses would run behind. At one point, we must have been driving too slowly in the horses’ opinion, because one brave horse impatiently grabbed some hay directly from the truck and started munching.

Along the way, I learned that, like us, horses have their own culture. I was shown the different bands within the group, told of their love stories, their fights and how they sometimes leave their original bands to join up with other horses.

Macy was unsure of what to think, and was very “barky” at the beginning of the trip, but the horses must have told her there was nothing to really bark about. She was so happy to spend the day in the Polaris with everyone, receiving cuddles as we drove alongside the beautiful horses.

The most amazing part of the trip for me happened as the visit neared its end, when RTF’s Development Director, Andrea, asked me if I wanted to spend time alone with a group of wild horses! I was hesitant at first, since I had so little previous experience with horses, but I was encouraged to stay and “have a moment,” as Andrea put it.

She quickly taught me how to approach a horse. When I finally took a deep breath and, for the first time, walked slowly by myself toward a group of wild horses, they scurried away from me! I assumed I had approached them incorrectly. But as I stood there watching them and wondering what my next step should be, one single horse came slowly towards me, and even allowed me to pet him. Excited, I thought, “This must be my moment!” As my heart beat fast, I began to bond with my first wild horse acquaintance.

Eventually, the horse I had just befriended left me, rejoining the rest of his horse group. Before I could feel too let down, he quickly returned, and this time he brought with him another horse! They both spent time with me and again, allowed me to touch and stroke them. It was as if he had gone back to the other horse and told her, “it’s ok, she is alright, come meet her.” I was in awe that these horses wanted to say hello, and so generously become friends with a new human visitor.

The whole trip was wonderful from start to finish. Thank you to Andrea Wogsland, Neda DeMayo, Steve and Leslie Carlson, and all of the people who work with and contribute to this wonderful organization, for the amazing work that you do. You folks are truly making the world a better place.

This experience will forever be in my heart."

If you would like to be a volunteer too, learn more at

The reservoir, located near the oak forest.
The reservoir, located near the oak forest.
Hannah with the burros
Hannah with the burros
The view from the ridge--one reward for hard work
The view from the ridge--one reward for hard work


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