Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Glassman Photography. This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue. 

Before starting our volunteer day at Return to Freedom, we gathered in a barn where our leader, biologist Celeste Carlisle, asked us what we enjoyed about horses. Some people said they liked learning from animals. Others lauded their whimsical personalities or calming demeanor. I fidgeted on my haybale seat. I don’t have much experience with horses. Or animals in general. I’d come to the sanctuary to escape smoggy city life, get some exercise, and soak in the coastal scenery.

“I like their beautiful colors,” I said, blushing as I heard my insubstantial words.

Luckily, a 6-year-old comedian quickly captured the spotlight when he made a joke about horse poop. As we headed over to the central barn to start work, I realized with dismay that he had set the tone for the day.

“This is your poop fork,” said Carlisle, as she grasped the wooden handle of a pitchfork. “You take the manure and put it into the wheelbarrow, then rake the leftover hay.”

It didn’t take long for me to get lost in the calming repetition of scooping, tossing, and raking. Sunlight poured into the barn, and friendly horses peered through the fencing to check out our work. In the 1990s, sanctuary founder Neda DeMayo devoted herself to the plight of wild horses. A longtime horse lover, she researched conservation policy, visited sanctuaries, and created a plan to help. In 1997, she left her job as a Hollywood stylist to create Return to Freedom in Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County.

Most of the ranch’s 255 horses and burros are wild and come from government roundups on public lands. The sanctuary re-releases these animals and lets them live out their lives with minimal interference on its 300 acres. The sanctuary also rescues horses from abusive homes or failed adoptions and houses many of them.

Most of the sanctuary’s horses and donkeys roam free on the surrounding golden hillsides. Volunteers can glimpse the wild creatures during a guided hike by foot. As we climbed away from the ranch, we passed the dun mustang with flowing black hair that inspired the animated film Spirit and the “three amigos,” a band of inseparable donkeys.

As I watched the mustangs roam the countryside, I felt privileged to help preserve their home—even if my role was as modest as mucking. A

Return to Freedom: The American Wild Horse Sanctuary, (805) 737-9246, The sanctuary hosts free volunteer workdays on the second Saturday of the month.

Other Trips to Help Animals
Whales in Costa Rica
Snow leopards in Central Asia 
Orangutans in Indonesia
Meerkats in South Africa
Elephants in Thailand