Horses graze peacefully on a vast plain; one picks his head up to look at something. Suddenly, the whole herd breaks into a gallop. Gradually the camera zooms out and the volume increases as we realize the Mustangs are being rounded up by a helicopter. They are funneled into a catch chute and loaded onto a trailer.
A Film to Remember
Focus Features invited select members of the equine media as well as equestrian social media influencers to attend a private screening of the film and a tour of the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary, which assisted with filming. I was fortunate to attend this special trip and learned a lot more about wild horses in the process.
After boarding a private charter bus, we were taken to Paseo Nuevo Cinemas in downtown Santa Barbara to see the movie. Although there was an amazing lightning show going on outdoors during a rare Southern California thunderstorm, it couldn’t compare to the touching story of Roman Coleman, a prisoner that everyone seemed to have given up on. As he fails to get paroled again and again, making more enemies than friends, a chance work assignment mucking out stalls for the prison’s Mustang training program changes his life.
Coleman notices a horse more wild than the others, locked in equine “solitary confinement” and kicking the walls—something he understands deeply. The program manager decides to let Coleman take a swing at training the horse for a fundraiser auction in a few weeks.
I won’t give away what happens as man and horse struggle to be heard, but the bond that forms between them will surprise you and may even bring tears to your eyes. I definitely did not predict the ending, so you’ll have to see it for yourself to find out what happens!
Sanctuary and Freedom
The following day, we were invited to the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc, Calif., to meet its president and founder Neda DeMayo. She introduced us to KoLa, one of the horses who appeared in the film, and talked about her Mustang advocacy work in Washington, D.C. Although she had never planned to “get political,” as she says, her lifelong love of Mustangs eventually convinced her that having a seat at the table was the only way to help these horses and put forth humane options for population control, such as birth control vaccines for wild mares.
The sanctuary has done an amazing job of securing private land to bring horses out of BLM holding pens. Approximately 400 horses and 30 burros roam the 1,500 acres of Return to Freedom’s properties. While most of the horses they take in continue to live this natural lifestyle, horses that take particularly well to training and socializing with humans are offered for adoption after a rigorous applicant screening process.
After admiring KoLa and taking about a million pictures of him—he’s truly gorgeous—we got to meet the most famous resident of Return to Freedom, Spirit. You may know him from the 2002 animated movie “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the current Netflix series, “Spirit Riding Free.”
Although Spirit is in his 20s now, he still looks and acts like a young buck, full of personality and eager to show off for visitors. He is part of the ongoing education being done by Return to Freedom that helps put the public in direct contact with horses in a natural environment.