A day in the life of an RTF volunteer

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RTF volunteer Lisa Drittenbas visits new friend Shalla.

What’s it like to be a volunteer at Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary?

Let Lisa Drittenbas, who recently spent time at RTF, tell you all about it:

My very first day as a volunteer started with a ride on the Kubota to the upper field with Jay, one of RTF’s sanctuary team members. It had rained and rained the days before but today was sunny and beautiful, with the deep green hills as a backdrop. I jumped out and plunged my big black boots into mud a foot deep, carefully waded over to open the chain on the big metal gate and swung it open. Jay drove through and we stopped and spread a bale of hay out for about 10 horses and a burro. The horses were getting excited and nipping at the hay in the back of the Kubota but a few claps and waves of Jay’s arm sent them a few feet away so that we could finish spreading the hay. We slipped and slid through the mud on our way back out in the Kubota and I closed the gate again.

Then we headed to the stables. The stables are where some of the special needs horses live. There’s Antonia, who is old and doesn’t have any teeth, some other horses who might have gotten colicky and needed some special food and care, and a couple donkeys, one who was so sweet and gentle, named Lola. My first job was – you guessed it – cleaning stables. Scooping up poop and putting it into a big green wheelbarrow with a rake is excellent exercise. I highly recommend it to work off those Christmas cookies.

Meanwhile, Jay and Elric, another RTF team member, were trimming hooves. They had to temporarily separate Shalla, who is (RTF President) Neda (DeMayo’s) horse, and her mother, Taj, beautiful white, Arabians. But Shalla was not having it. She kept banging her front hoof on the metal gate and causing a big commotion. That afternoon, when I came back, they had been put back together in the main arena and were running around it in circles, bucking and kicking and generally having a great time.

After lunch, it was time for the afternoon special feed. Now, the donkeys in the stable don’t get an afternoon special feed, and they were letting their displeasure known with a loud “Hee awwa! Hee awww!’’ Lola did get one little ball of wet food though, because she needed the medicine hidden inside it, and she ate it so tenderly from my hand I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t realize burros could be so gentle and soft and lovely!

We made up the afternoon special feed, customized for each horse. Not all horses get special feed, just 30 or so. Each one has a big white bucket with their name on it, like “Cowboy” or “Texaco.” Their food requirements are listed on a big white board. Jay and I formed an assembly line: he scooped in the low or high carb pellets or oats, I added water to it and a half scoop of vitamin powder and stirred. We hefted these heavy white buckets onto the Kubota (a great triceps workout!) and drove down to the lower pasture, mucked through the mud again and distributed the feed to various horses. By then, the days’ tasks were pretty much finished.

All of the animals have their own dispositions and personalities. Sutter, the 30 year old, is pretty mellow, as you would expect. Spirit – has a lot of spirit! Diamante slobbers whenever you feed him.

Some of them will come right up to you and snort hot breath on your face as they smell you and say hello. Or, they will turn around and present their rumps to you for a nice scratch. Others are a little skittish, such as Marilyn, who is blind in one eye. You have to stay on her right side and talk to her so she doesn’t get spooked.

The horses are amazing. They are so natural. Sturdy, healthy. Some are friendly, some shy away from people, but I never felt afraid of them. Of course, I was careful to watch out and respect them from a distance. They are huge, powerful animals and I let them have their space. Some have such beautiful coloring – dark, almost black hooves gradually yielding to warm reds, with manes that alternate blond and brown. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to contribute to their care. And to make it even better, several times I was sincerely thanked for being there. Today, my task was to help spread absorbent pellets and shredded wood in the stables, a relatively simple thing to do. After I helped fill up the food bins with big 25-pound bags Elric seemed to read my mind. He said, “Even if you don’t think you’re doing much, your help is so much appreciated. It really means a lot.” And I really felt he meant it. It feels great to be so valued and to have a chance to make connections with such amazing animals and people here at RTF. I will definitely be back!

—Lisa Drittenbas
Jan. 13, 2017

For more information about volunteering at RTF, please click here.