Get Up Close and Personal With Wild Horses at This Sanctuary in Santa Barbara

wild horse santa barbara
wild horse santa barbara

Return to Freedom founder Neda DeMayo with Sutter, a domesticated wild horse. Sutter, a calico stallion, was captured at a young age and abused in an illegal rodeo. He was rescued and found a home at the sanctuary. (Photo: Karen Asherah/Return to Freedom)

With its miles of seashore, rolling hills of vineyards, and Mediterranean climate, Santa Barbara has long drawn visitors, among them a greater-than-average quotient of celebrities. So while it’s no surprise that some have even chosen to live in the county — Oprah Winfrey, Kirk Douglas, Ellen DeGeneres — one celebrity resident not only calls Santa Barbara home, he also draws his own share of visitors for a reason other than beaches and wine.

And he goes by one name: Spirit.

To be clear, Spirit is a horse. He served as the inspiration and model for the 2002 film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which was nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature. When production wrapped, DreamWorks Pictures searched for a home for the movie’s muse — which is how Spirit found himself in Santa Barbara.

“He’s a little bit of a diva,” explained Kelsey Santini, as she stood near Spirit’s fenced enclosure, where the stallion seemed to pose gracefully for a visitor’s photographs.

spirit wild horse santa barbara
spirit wild horse santa barbara

Spirit, a wild horse from the Kiger mustang herd, was the inspiration and model for the animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. (Photo: Kimerlee Curyl/Return to Freedom)

Santini leads tours at the Return to Freedom sanctuary in Lompoc, Calif., where Spirit and 286 other horses are housed. But this is not a place where the horses are saddled and ridden or go to sleep in stables. In fact, the sanctuary tries to minimize human contact as much as possible. And the reason lies in these horses’ special lineage. They are all wild.

“My vision was for a place where people would be exposed to horses living as they were meant to live in a community all their own,” said Neda DeMayo, the sanctuary’s founder. “We are just the hosts.”

WATCH: Movie Trailer to Spirit

Unlike their domestic counterpart, wild horses are not tame and live in free-roaming herds throughout the American West. The horse is known generally as a mustang and is descended from those brought to the New World by the Spanish, with varying degrees of crossbreeding with other horses such as cavalry mounts, Native American ponies, and ranch stock. Spirit is a Kiger mustang, hailing from herds in Oregon, with a close genetic relation to his original Spanish forebears.

wild horses santa barbara
wild horses santa barbara

Visitors observe wild horses on a hiking tour at the sanctuary. (Photo: Return to Freedom)

“The horses here are emblematic of thousands of horses,” explained DeMayo. “Their history tells the history of America.”

Spirit is one of the few domesticated wild horses at Return to Freedom, which means that visitors can actually touch and pet him. The other horses are given a wide berth.

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The introductory Living History Tour is $25 per person. The Wild Horse Hiking Adventure gets visitors a little closer to the sanctuary’s various herds, but at a comfortable distance. The 55 horses of the Hart Mountain herd from Oregon claim more than a third of the sanctuary’s 310 acres. On a recent morning, the four family bands — each with a stallion and his mares and offspring — stood on a steep, sandy hillside eating their breakfast of hay.

wild horses santa barbara
wild horses santa barbara

A sign outside Spirit’s enclosure at Return to Freedom sanctuary. (Photo: Mary-Rose Abraham)

In offering a sanctuary, Return to Freedom must find balance among maintaining a wild habitat for the horses, educating and giving access to visitors, and, not the least, funding the horses’ upkeep through school visits, photo safaris ($150 per person), hikes, and tours. For example, while wild horses would find themselves feeding on seemingly endless open land, overgrazing and the persistent California drought means workers at Return to Freedom must supplement with hay twice a day, at a cost of $30,000 per month.

Return to Freedom is open to visitors year-round and tallied 800 visitors during the peak season of May through September. They came from as far away as New York, Germany, and New Zealand.

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“It’s almost a spiritual experience, getting back into harmony with nature,” said Santini about the tours she leads. “Just ‘to be’ with these incredible wild animals because they are allowing us to.”

So why must these wild animals be given sanctuary to begin with? In a 1971 act, the U.S. Congress deemed wild horses and burros “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and placed them under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM estimates the number of wild horses at 48,000 but says the public lands in 10 Western states can really sustain only 26,000. So every year, in a highly controversial practice, horses are rounded up — sometimes by helicopter — and stored until they are adopted.

wild horses santa barbara
wild horses santa barbara

Wild horses from the Hart Mountain herd roam over 100 acres at the Return to Freedom sanctuary. (Photo: Mary-Rose Abraham)

Last year, according to BLM figures, nearly 50,000 horses and burros were in the agency’s care. Only 2,671 animals were adopted.

Sanctuaries have taken in many of those horses, and they are all open to the public, in places such as South Dakota, Nevada, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

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DeMayo — whose very first word was “horse” — has taken in as many animals as her land and funding can accommodate since she founded Return to Freedom in 1997. The horse population is kept under control by injecting the mares with birth control yearly. Still, she and her staff are now raising funds to establish a $10 million land trust to take in even more wild horses. Plans include building a noninvasive educational center for visitors.

“This is a place that gives a peaceful experience to the visitor and instills gratitude and joy,” DeMayo said. “Animals are sentient. They have a sense of humor, they suffer loneliness, they feel affection, and they develop bonds, just like we do.”

For more information about Return to Freedom, visit

Mary-Rose Abraham is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @maryroseabraham.

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