High on a hill in the Jalama Valley, a verdant rift in the Coastal Range south of Lompoc, Neda DeMayo gazes across a scene straight out of America's past. Bands of wild horses graze below.
One hill over, near the fringe of rambling oaks, two wild burros stand sentry, long ears alert. America's estimated 35,000 wild horses and burros are dwindling, rounded up from government lands and auctioned off to uncertain fates. But here at Return to Freedom, a 300-acre sanctuary DeMayo established in 1998, the animals find a brighter future.
The 220 steeds are descended from breeds once ridden by Spanish explorers, American Indians, and U.S. Cavalrymen. Now they enjoy, says DeMayo, "the lives nature designed them to live, in tightly bonded social groups in a protected environment."
A horse lover since her Connecticut girlhood, DeMayo worked as a Hollywood fashion stylist for such stars as Sandra Bullock and Antonio Banderas. Two car accidents, however, made her rethink her life and "take all the energy I was putting into a job and put it into what I really wanted to do." Now her "living history museum," as she calls it, is at full capacity, and she's looking to branch out into other parts of the West as well. "We have heaven right here on earth," says DeMayo. "I hope to give visitors an awareness of how important it is to preserve what's left of our open spaces, our habitats, and our wildlife species."
A taste of freedom
Return to Freedom welcomes visitors for 90-minute Sanctuary Tours ($20 donation) and longer Wild Horse Walking Adventures (both by appointment; first and third Sat Apr-Sep; www.returntofreedom.org or 805/737-9246)