On a bright, sunny Wednesday, two mustangs, one palomino and one chestnut, stood side by side like the long-lost lovers they are, devouring the lush green grass on a San Luis Obispo hillside as if it were a gourmet meal.
The horses, Galahad and Hope, are part of a family band of five wild horses that once roamed free in Nevada’s Great Basin before being forcibly rounded up as part of a land management program.
On Wednesday, the Lompoc-based nonprofit conservation group Return to Freedom literally opened the gates for the horses and ushered them from a smaller fenced area to the rolling pastures of SLO Springs Ranch, located west of Irish Hills Natural Reserve.
The ranch, owned by Steven and Leslie Carlson, and Steven’s brother Richard Carlson, had offered its property as a satellite site to house about 70 rescued horses and 16 burros as part of the organization’s conservation program.
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The touching reunion highlights the mission of the 20-year-old organization, which aims to provide better lives for wild horses and burros whose natural habitat has been severely limited over the years, said Return to Freedom’s president and founder Neda DeMayo.
“The horses released today are emblematic of thousands of others rounded up from the range by the (Bureau of Land Management),” DeMayo said. “Return to Freedom exists to bring about positive change for America’s wild horses and burros. For a few hundred horses and burros, that means sanctuary.”
The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that manages wild horses, controls the impacts of grazing and natural water use in open spaces, and ranch cattle are kept in some of the same areas as wild horses. That has led to thousands of wild horses being displaced from their habitat and forced into warehouses.
Right now, the best defense for wild horses is the continued support of the American people, who have sided with horses time and again.
Neda DeMayo, Return to Freedom founder
While livestock graze on 160 million acres of bureau-managed lands, wild horses and burros are allowed on only 26.9 million acres, making up about 11 percent of the nation’s public lands. They are outnumbered by privately owned livestock by an average ratio of 50 to 1, according to the Return to Freedom website.
Return to Freedom monitors about 400 displaced wild horses at various sites in the West, including Lompoc, but also lobbies Congress to keep horses on open lands through various practices such as fertility control that limits populations but maintains a natural quality of life.
“These and other changes of policy and management practices can help create a sustainable future for wild horses and burros on the range, where they belong,” DeMayo said. “Right now, the best defense for wild horses is the continued support of the American people, who have sided with horses time and again.”
During an October 2010 BLM roundup, Galahad fought against captivity for five hours to remain by the side of his mare, Hope, according to DeMayo. The horses were directed into holding facilities by a helicopter and then separated by gender as part of a sorting process, she said.
The horses released today are emblematic of thousands of others rounded up from the range by the (Bureau of Land Management).
Neda DeMayo, Return to Freedom founder
About 40 percent of wild horses are kept in holding facilities to control populations, according to Return to Freedom.
Galahad and Hope were reunited last year after six years apart, and immediately recognized each other and stood nose to nose for an hour when they first reconnected, DeMayo said. They were recently taken to SLO Springs Ranch, where they were kept in a small gated area to adjust to their new surroundings.
“They’ve been side by side ever since they saw each other,” DeMayo said.
They were joined in the release Wednesday by mares Esther, Doris and Erin. The family band now can graze and drink from troughs on the ranch’s 2,000 acres. Another horse that is part of their group, Silver King, also roams the ranch.
“Thanks to a fellow advocate who was at the roundup in 2010, Laura Leigh, she was able to photograph these horses and was a witness so we could track them down,” DeMayo said.
If you go: A volunteer event will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for Help a Horse Day and Earth Day at Return to Freedom’s Lompoc location. For more information, go to: http://bit.ly/2phHJ6s. Volunteers will have the chance to meet ambassador horses, including Spirit, who was the model for the Dreamworks Animation movie of the same name, and take a tour. For more information, call 805-737-9246.