This summer, Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary hosted a dozen terrific work-study volunteers from Europe, Canada and the United States.
Samantha Asher, Josephine Blossfeld and Karen Schellekens often spent long days preparing and providing special feeds and homeopathic remedies to our special needs horses and burros, making daily checks of water, fences and the overall well-being of the horses, updating the equine database, making notes about the horses, assisting when horses were vaccinated, wormed and having their feet trimmed, and helping out with visitors, volunteers and special events. In their spare time, they went riding and spent hours watching the horses interact in their family bands on the ranch.
In August, Samantha, 20, of Cirencester, England, returned to The Royal Agricultural University to complete her degree in Equine Management after five months at Return to Freedom’s Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary. Josephine, 19, of Hornbeak, Denmark, and Karen, 21, of Antwerp, Belgium, arrived in June and July, respectively, and will finish up their work study program this month. Josephine has spent her time since school working with horses and sharpening her photography skills. Karen, will have completed her studies in biological and agronomical studies when she finishes her work study program here, where she came to write her thesis on herd dynamics and dominant behaviors.
How did you come to RTF?
Samantha: Through a mutual friend of (Return to Freedom President and Founder) Neda (DeMayo) and mine. I came for a university placement.
Karen: I needed an internship, and I was very interested in the situation of the American wild horse. I was looking for sanctuaries, but I didn’t see anything that met my expectations. My mom saw a video online about the horses being rounded up and it was from Return to Freedom, so I sent in an application for the In-Residence Work-Study Volunteer Program.
Josephine: I was here for a clinic in May with horse trainer Linda Salinas. Then, I found out you can apply for an In-Residence Work-Study Program, so I applied right before I got on the plane. I came back three weeks later.
What did you know about wild horses and burros and about the wild horse issue before coming to RTF?
Samantha: I knew very little, but I wanted to learn. I knew about the horrible things (the Bureau of Land Management) did during and after roundups and how horses and burros have emotional and family bonds. I knew most about the Sulphur Springs herd from studying at university, how rare and special the breed is.
Karen: I looked up a little bit about the whole situation and what was going on. What inspired me most in the beginning was the Cloud documentary. Then, I looked on the website for Return to Freedom, where there’s lots of information. Once you come here, you realize how bad it is – there are so many horses (in government holding pens and pastures) that need homes. There’s nothing like that in Belgium.
Josephine: I knew there were wild horses in America and about the Spanish bloodlines, because I’d worked with Spanish horses in Europe. (After attending the training clinic), I thought (RTF) was amazing and that (an internship) was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I met Samantha at the clinic and we got along really well. I wanted to know more about wild horses. When you’re a horse trainer, it’s key to know about wild horses.
What challenges did you encounter as an in-resident work-study volunteer?
Samantha: At first, it was just me working so it was a lot to take on and cope with time management. Once I established a schedule things were much easier. But my hardest challenge was becoming a leader and a manager when two other interns came to the ranch.
Karen: I have never worked with wild horses or horses that are completely unfamiliar with people, so that was pretty challenging. You have to be really careful about your body language and what sort of energy you project. The training method that (RTF uses) is by Carolyn Resnick, and I wasn’t familiar with that method until I came here. You have to be so focused on yourself — that you’re not doing anything that the horses can pick up on. The traditional method that’s used back in Belgium is nothing like that.
Josephine: We are responsible for many things, so to know everything that’s going on can be a challenge with more than 100 horses.
How is working with RTF’s horses and burros different than working with other horses?
Samantha: The RTF horses and burros are so special and sensitive. The domestic ones are so easy to do so long as you are calm and quiet around them (that is what they are used to). Domestic horses are trained to put up with anything and to not be so sensitive to the little queues that the RTF horses pick up on and react to.
Josephine: There’s a huge difference. It’s something completely different. You have to think. You really have to stay focused all the time. But it’s so much more interesting because they haven’t been broken by people. These are pure horses that are totally themselves.
If you attended a BLM roundup, what was that experience like?
Samantha: The roundup was an incredible experience. Luckily, it was not as awful as some and most of them are. No horses died while I was there (although one did die later, as a result of capture), whereas at a lot of roundups many horses die every day. It was long hard days of getting up early taking pictures, writing continuous notes, sending information back to Neda and then coping with the emotional heartbreak of watching these (wild horse) families being split up.
What question or questions did you receive most often from visitors or volunteers?
Samantha: How many horses does Return to Freedom have? [Answer: 333 horses and 46 burros total in three locations].
Josephine: They ask how we like it or how did we hear about it. Many say that they are so jealous because this is such an amazing opportunity.
What’s something about wild horses or burros that might surprise people who haven’t worked with them?
Samantha: Burros: they can be very reclusive and some can be mean/territorial. Horses: their family bonds are just as strong, if not stronger, than bonds between humans.
Karen: The fact that they’re so sensitive and that they’re incredibly social. People forget that horses are social animals and have to live in a herd. I’m very happy to see that the family bands are respected here and are not being torn apart like they are on the range.
Josephine: I have seen a few people be surprised about how scared (wild horses) can be of you. (People may be surprised) that there are so many different bloodlines and so much history in the horses.
What was the highlight of your time at the sanctuary?
Samantha: Working with Neda and learning from her. She is so knowledgeable and really understands the horses. Being able to watch her and learn some of what she knows is information I will take with me for the rest of my life and never forget.
Karen: I met Jaime Jackson, who is a very famous barefoot trimmer. He’s one of my idols. He also invented the Paddock Paradise (a management system based on how horses behave in the wild). You don’t just give horses hay and some water; they have to walk around to get to the hay and get to the water. There’s a lot of movement. Another one of the highlights is just being able to observe the horses. You don’t get bored because it’s so interesting. Wild horses are the best way to learn about horse behavior – you can’t learn that from a domestic horse that’s in a stall all day.
Josephine: That I’ve been able to connect with some of the horses here and get a relationship with them — especially after knowing what they’ve been through. They still want to connect with you. That’s been pretty rewarding.
I know this will be a tough one, but what’s your favorite RTF horse and why?
Samantha: I would have to say Hubert, (a 4-year-old gelding from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Reservation area of Northern Nevada). When he first got put under my radar for training I knew he was special. He started out scared of everything, leaving you to sit in his corral for an hour or so with a bucket of grain and a halter waiting for him to come to you. After just a few months of working with him he is now the most loveable, kind and friendly horse I know. Everyone who meets him wants to adopt him, and I am just so proud of how far he has come. But I can’t forget about my Buenos Aires, (a 15-year-old Kiger / Pryor Mountain mustang gelding and the son of Spirit). He has taught me so much about being more sensitive with horses and relaxing and just having fun. I didn’t train him — I think he trained me and I love him so much. He is amazing to ride and just an awesome horse in general.
Karen: I would have to go with Chloe, (a rescued 9-year-old buckskin mare). She was one of the horses that we were able to work with. We had the opportunity to go into a pasture and just see which horse would come up to us, and Chloe came up to me. I didn’t have a lot of expectations. Once we started working, we just clicked. She’s so focused on you and picks up on everything you do. She’s such an amazing horse.
Josephine: Sutter, Neda’s 30-year-old stallion. It’s so unique that he was caught in the Calico roundup (in Nevada’s Calico Mountain Complex) when he was 2, then he was abused, yet today he is still willing to bond with people and welcome people into his world. He shouldn’t really trust people, anymore, (because of his past), but he just does. And Heather, (a rescued 9-year-old gray mare) – Neda gave me her as a horse to work with on her ground manners and ride. We’ve been out riding a lot. She’s a challenge, but it’s been fun.
What are the most valuable lessons that you learned?
Samantha: I learned that the wild horses and burros aren’t what they seem. You always have to look that little bit deeper to really understand them. But I really learnt to come out of my shell and take charge of the situation when in a management position, which I really needed to learn. I am so glad I got the opportunity to take on that position and grow both in the job and myself.
Karen: Just being with (horses) can give you so much more than working with them or riding them. Most people who are with a horse always want to do something with it. You can get so much more if you spend time just being with them in the pasture. They’re magnificent beings, and they have to be respected.
Josephine: It’s always a huge lesson just to travel and be in a new environment. You learn to communicate with people and other staff members. I’m going to take so much from the horses that will stay in my toolbox forever. (For example), to work with a wild horse gives you such a basic knowledge about the horse. It gave me a totally new understanding that will definitely benefit me in the future.
What do you aspire to do next?
Samantha: If everything works out, I would love to come back and work at Return to Freedom. It was the best working place I have ever been in, and I learnt more in these few months than I have at university.
Karen: My dream is to become a trainer or someone who can work with problem horses and educate people about how to take care of their horses. I would like to do a post-graduate course in animal behavior, especially horses.
Josephine: I’m probably going to come back! I aspire to do more with my photography. I’ve done a lot here. I’m going to come back here and volunteer and travel around California. And, of course, I’ve been inspired to help the wild horses.
What one piece of advice would you give young people interested in working with horses?
Samantha: Just do it! When it comes to horses they need to know that they can trust you and that you won’t lead them to danger. Once you have their trust they will do anything for you. If you are kind and understanding but sure of yourself, the horses will just come to you. If you ever falter, something will go wrong. Working with horses is a very rewarding thing. It may not make you rich, but if you really love them, it will make you unbelievably happy.
Karen: Learn to appreciate them the way they are. Learn to not want anything out of it. The traditional horse industry is you have to win and do this or do that. If you’re just with them, you’ll get so much more out of it than if you win a competition. I feel like those kind of people don’t let a horse be a horse. When you’re with them, you get this sense of gratitude that you’re allowed to be part of their lives and they’re accepting you. Horses don’t judge you — you can be who you are with them.
Josephine: My best advice would be just to appreciate that we are able to be around horses today and that there are still actually wild horses. It’s such an incredible, rewarding thing to be a part of. I think everyone should try to have a relationship with a horse.
For more information about RTF In-Residence Work-Study Volunteer Program and other volunteer opportunities, click here.