Among the grass-blanketed hills of Lompoc, California, graceful creatures dot the landscape, grazing in close-knit bands. At rest, each group is a mass of spring-loaded energy waiting to detonate. A herd suddenly breaks into a run, kicking up a dust cloud in their wake, an explosion of hooves and blowing manes. This is the land of the mustang.
This uniquely American panorama is becoming a rarer sight in the West, as open rangeland recedes and its denizens are left homeless. Enter Neda DeMayo, the 47-year-old founder of Return to Freedom, a 300-acre safe haven for relocated wild horses and burros. In the mid ’90s, DeMayo left a career as a costume designer and wardrobe stylist to start this nonprofit with a focus on education and public outreach. Today, Return to Freedom houses more than 200 animals, who together serve as ambassadors for conservation. "The horses are the teachers," DeMayo explains. "I’m only the host."
Return to a Dream
The ranch realizes a long-deferred goal for its founder, a horse aficionado since childhood. Two serious, back-to-back car accidents in the mid ’90s spurred DeMayo, then working for the likes of Sandra Bullock and other Hollywood clients, to leave her styling career. She pondered her next move as she recuperated at her sister’s flat: "I thought, well, what if I won the lotto?" she remembers. "What if I had all the money I ever needed — what would I do with my life?"
The answer soon came into view — literally. DeMayo had dreamed of rescuing wild horses since kindergarten, when TV images of helicopter roundups became rooted in her mind. Decades later, a similar moment sparked her decision: "I flipped on the television, and Hard Copy was doing an expose on canned hunts," she explains. "I got so angry. I said, I need to start my sanctuary now."
The news segment that pushed DeMayo over the edge was a culmination of nearly a hundred years’ worth of hard luck for the American wild horse. Since the early 20th century, habitat shrinkage and unchecked "mustanging" (capturing wild horses for sale or slaughter) had reduced the animals’ population dramatically. In the 1970s, legislation set penalties for inhumane treatment and placed a cap on herd numbers allowed on public rangeland. To enforce that cap today, the government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) relocates thousands of horses and burros each year to holding facilities where they await adoption or sale. Many eventually come to be mistreated or slaughtered. A DVD produced by Return to Freedom shows rescue footage of a group of sickly horses, their hip bones and spines jutting through their loose skin, fear flickering in their expressive eyes. It’s not hard to see why DeMayo couldn’t look away.
Making It Happen
Between that initial "aha" moment and the arrival of the first 25 animals at the facility in 1998 came three years of research and planning and, DeMayo admits, plenty of second-guessing. Educating herself was her first mission: To learn the skills she’d need to start her project, she began to volunteer at another wild horse sanctuary in Northern California; she then started working part-time as a correspondence coordinator for a nonprofit. Two years later, after scouring the West Coast for the perfect site, DeMayo and her retired parents pooled their savings to purchase a run-down 300-acre ranch. "It took us a year just to clean up the property," she recalls. "I had never run a ranch and I was here alone, not knowing how to fix anything. And I thought, oh my God, what have I done?"
Once the land had been spruced up and the sanctuary had begun to operate, the new nonprofit faced hurdles familiar to many young businesses: staff turnover, financial uncertainty, the long hours of labor required to get things off the ground. Now, as Return to Freedom celebrates its 10th anniversary, the pieces are finally falling into line. DeMayo entrusts much of the day-to-day management of the ranch to a dedicated crew of full-time staffers and volunteers. She devotes her own time to engaging visitors with tours, educational programs, and special events year-round.
These public outreach programs not only raise money for the organization, they bring much-needed attention to wild horse preservation issues, which has been DeMayo’s ultimate goal all along. The safe haven she founded now stands as a model among wildlife sanctuaries. "I wanted to do something a little different so that people, when they come for education, can see what herds are really like." To that end, Return to Freedom tries whenever possible to relocate herd families intact. Preserving family bonds maintains horse happiness and promotes genetic diversity between rare breeds, some dating back to those that arrived with Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
"There were times, before I started this thing, when I was praying, Please take this desire away, because it just looked like a huge endeavor…. If it wasn’t so strong in me, it would have been easy to walk away. But my passion drove me forward," DeMayo says. Her advice to others with a persistent, unfulfilled goal? Just get started. "I think when it’s a dream that won’t go away, you owe it to yourself to pursue it and be committed."
"As challenging as it is — and it’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever had — it’s the most rewarding experience of my life," she says.
Return to Freedom offers a variety of ways to support wild horse preservation, from sponsoring a single animal to getting your hands dirty as a ranch volunteer. As a donor, you can feed a single horse or burro for $45 a month, or sponsor an acre ($750) in the newly established Wild Horse Land Trust, which will expand the space available to house more rescued herds. The sanctuary also hosts periodic volunteer work days and weekends as well as youth programs and extended work-study volunteer projects. Educational tours, walks, and clinics round out the program schedule. Visit Return to Freedom’s Web site for more information.
Originally published on MORE.com, December 2007.