WHRC pasture

Marin Humane offers employees a paid, weeklong sabbatical related to animal welfare. I chose to spend this time volunteering at the Wild Horse Rescue Center in Webster, Florida.

The large property with its sprawling trees and Spanish moss offers an enchanting refuge to animals and people alike. As the name suggests, their mission is to rescue and rehabilitate America’s wild horses.

I’d arrived at the center late at night. Waking up that first morning, watching the herds graze on lush green pastures, I felt like I’d been whisked away to a magical place where animals are left to roam in peace.

Unfortunately, each of these horses’ recent pasts had been anything but peaceful. To understand their plight, we must look at the history of the American mustang, which is long and complicated, but comes down to this: Today’s mustangs are probably descendants of horses originally brought to North America by the conquistadors starting in 1493.

After hundreds of years of reproduction and dispersal, and integration into Native American cultures during the 17th and 18th centuries, mustangs reached their peak populations in the late 19th century. It’s estimated that there were more than 2 million free-roaming horses in North America at that time.

Starting in the early 1900s, they were systematically rounded up for use in wars, or to make room for ever-growing herds of cattle and sheep, as well as oil and gas operations. They were shot from trains and later planes or poisoned by deliberately contaminated water.

Populations declined so rapidly that Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 to preserve these animals that had come to embody the spirit of the American West. They were put under the purview of the government, which established 177 herd management areas across the Western states (21 of which are located here in California, with a combined “appropriate management level” of 2,200 animals across the state).

mustang with freeze brandTo this day, mustangs in excess of these numbers are occasionally captured from their home range after being chased by helicopters — a frightening and stressful method that often leads to extreme exhaustion and injuries. I first learned of this process while watching a documentary in the ’90s and distinctly remember my heartbreak for these beautiful animals that fled in panic only to lose their freedom and find themselves trapped in a holding pen.

There are approximately 45,000 mustangs and burros (a small donkey species) in these holding pens, but only about 2,500 get adopted each year.

Diane Delano, Wild Horse Rescue Center’s president, has dedicated her life to helping these charismatic creatures. She rescues, transports and patiently works with wild mustangs until they trust her enough to form a partnership. Once tame, these horses make faithful and reliable partners and can be trained and ridden just like any domestic horse.

You can help mustangs by adopting one — either directly from a government holding facility, or from a trusted organization like the Mustang Heritage Foundation.

Adopting a horse isn’t an option for everyone, but you can always support and donate to reputable groups like the Wild Horse Rescue Center, as well as Front Range Equine Rescue (locations in Florida and Colorado) and Return to Freedom here in California.

You can also follow the work of these advocacy groups and pay attention to their calls to action, suggests Bruce Wagman, an animal lawyer and Marin Humane board member.

America’s free-roaming horses continue to face challenges, and our collective support can ensure their freedom and well-being for generations to come.

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