Recent University of Cincinnati journalism graduate Paloma Ianes spent late spring and summer as an in-residence volunteer at Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary. She helped with tours and photo safaris and helped ensure that workshops ran smoothly, assisted with ranch work, photographed resident horses and burros, created advocacy-related graphics and became a valued and integral member of the RTF Team.
What questions did you receive the most when leading tours?
While leading tours, I was given the amazing opportunity to help educate individuals on wild horse history, genetics, behavior and contemporary issues. As with any complicated, multi-layered topic, the guests had many questions, which would often lead to really productive discussions. I would say one of the most common questions I received was where the individual horses came from. When I introduced a horse to the guests, they would almost always immediately inquire about the horse’s history and background, and how he/she ended up at RTF’s sanctuary. Usually the response would lead into a broader discussion about Bureau of Land Management roundups, holding facilities, long-term pastures and adoptions.
You worked with equine photographer and RTF board member Tony Stromberg during his photo clinic and interacted with other photographers. Any tips for would-be equine photographers?
After learning from Tony, and the countless other talented photographers that I had the opportunity of interacting with, I think my biggest piece of advice for would-be equine photographers is to try and make a connection with the horse or herd that you are shooting. It’s easy to just point, shoot and snap away, and chances are you are still going to get a pretty picture. However, I found that the truly great shots come from a photographer who will observe the animals, take time to learn their behavioral patterns, and really sync their energy with the horses. One of the best ways to go about doing this is simply spending a lot of time sharing territory with the herd or horse that you are going to photograph. The more time, the more chances for a connection to form, allowing you to capture unique and magical moments on camera.
You had the opportunity to watch trainers Linda Salinas and Carolyn Resnick during the horse-training clinic. What was that like?
Having the opportunity to observe Carolyn and Linda at work was amazing, and truly beyond words. They are both such talented and one-of-a-kind women who have inspired me to follow my heart and to pursue a life with horses based on trust, love and respect. Carolyn truly opened my mind to an alternative way of thinking about horses and the human-horse connection. She also clarified a lot of things for me. I had many ideas and feelings about horses and their role in people’s lives that I really didn’t know how to explain or articulate thoroughly. After listening to Carolyn’s experiences and stories I find myself having a much stronger grasp on what it is that has always drawn me so fiercely to horses. Watching her work with the horses is magical. She is so effortless in her way she communicates with the horse she is working with at the time. I would encourage every horse owner and lover to take part in her method in any way they can.
I would also like to mention how special it was to meet and spend time with all the incredible women who attended the workshop. Obviously, Carolyn and Linda’s methodology was the focal point, but I think all of the clinic participants had something to offer, whether it be about the horse-human connection or life itself. Never in my life have I had such an amazing opportunity to be surrounded by so many like-minded women. They came from different walks of life but somehow through the power of the horse, ended up spending three life-changing days together. It was a spiritual experience.
I know it’s tough to choose – but which are your favorite RTF horses and why?
It is extremely difficult to choose just a few favorites from all the amazing horses that are part of RTF but I do have a handful of horses that I can say that I have really gotten to know and love. I’d say one of the first horses that sticks out in my mind is Amber. (Amante and Stella’s daughter). Not only beautiful and unique in her physical and genetic make-up, but her personality is equally amazing. She is so sweet and curious and crazy smart. She is also very playful and has these moments where she gets a spark in her eye, and then she just takes off running, having the time of her life.
A second horse I will always have a place in my heart for is Moondust. He is a Choctaw pony, and is the sweetest horse you could imagine. He is a little bit aloof at times, but will always be the first in line for a scratch.
Last but certainly not least is Uno. Uno is not technically one of RTF’s horses (he was part of rescue effort by RTF from a sanctuary in South Dakota), but he became very special to me and my experience. He is a beautiful chestnut horse with the sweetest temperament. He is very curious and inquisitive. From the first time I met him, I’ve known he is a horse that will create deep bonds with the people in his life. I can’t put into words what it is about him, but immediately he had an effect on me. At the rescue where he was living he was living amongst a mix of other horses, most of which wanted very little to do with people. Not until he arrived at RTF was he given the attention he deserved.
Uno taught me to always take the time to appreciate each individual (whether it be horse, person or other) for what they are. Don’t judge and assume you know someone based off a few facts from their background. Uno reminded me why we fight for animals and people to have peace and freedom. He reminded me that every being has a purpose and a journey, which, if given the chance, can inspire others to follow their calling. He is a very special horse.
What are the most important things that you learned about wild horse behavior from your stay?
One of the many things my experience at RTF allowed me to do is observe natural wild horse behavior. I think one of the most fascinating experiences I had in this regard was my time in Lassen County, where RTF has leased land for the rescued Gila herd. I got to witness the stallions, brought from a temporary facility in Nevada, be reintroduced to their mares and foals, who had already been living at the Bieber ranch for four months.
The entire reintroduction was action-packed. Due to the four-month separation between them, the stallions jumped in to reestablish the hierarchy and reclaim their bands. We watched them fight and chase each other, while also herding the mares and foals into separate groups. It was absolutely fascinating to watch from a behavioral point of view. I never had such a clear display of natural horse behavior, as they would act in the wild.
One thing I noticed is how the natural body language of the stallions is reflected in some of the things that riders (specifically English riders) train horses to do. I have ridden horses since I was 10 and spent most of my time riding English and even got a taste of dressage with my instructor. One thing that was always a challenge for me was getting the gilded Arabian I rode to collect properly and arch his neck. When successfully done, this allows the horse to almost be spring-like in their step. When I was watching the stallions, I noticed that before or after a territory battle they would perform a kind of dance with each other. During this, the two stallions would circle each other, all while holding the most elegantly collected poses. Their necks were beautifully arched and they would strut out with purpose and precision.
It reminded me so much of what my instructor and I strived to achieve with my horse back home. It’s interesting to think that these forms of riding are, in some way, reminiscent of behaviors horses are naturally inclined to do. It really makes you think that back when riding styles were being developed, people had observed these social behaviors and saw a beautiful posture that they wanted to recreate under the saddle.
From your perspective, why is the wild horse and burro issue important?
For me, the wild horse and burro issue is extremely important because I have a strong passion for horses, wildlife, and conservation. This passion has always been part of who I am, since the day I was born. I understand, however, that not all people have this natural inclination towards these causes and many of them struggle to see the relevance of the wild horse and burro issues within their own life.
To them I would say the following: The wild horses and burros of America are a piece of a puzzle. This puzzle is made of many other pieces from wildlife species and public lands to ethnic diversity and freedom of religion. Each one of the pieces is a critical and defining feature of this country, and part of the identity of every citizen who calls the U.S. home. If we lose this integral puzzle piece, we would have a gaping hole in our country’s identity.
Though their ancestors did, today’s free-roaming horses and burros don’t carry people and cargo on their backs. Instead, they now carry our nation’s history, and with it an intrinsic value to our nation’s future. They are the survivors of a difficult journey, who now remind us to preserve into the future with the same courage that has kept this country afloat through endless hardships and battles. The wild horses and burros are survivors. They live in the most remote places in our nation, often enduring harsh climates that would wipe other species out. Instead, they thrive, and manage to still form herd bonds and raise families with love and care.
If this isn’t a clear metaphor of what Americans are facing today, with all the violence of contemporary politics and society, then I don’t know what is. This is why we must do everything to protect them. They are us, and we are them.
Photographs by Paloma Ianes