by Neda DeMayo, Founder of Return to Freedom

So many people ask me what first made me get involved with wild horses and start Return to Freedom (RTF). Then I get a lot of the same questions, so I thought I’d write this letter! I like to tell people that a six-year-old created RTF!

One of my earliest memories of wild horses was watching them being chased and captured on television. Whether it was a movie or the news, I cannot recall, but I will never forget the anguish I felt as a five-year-old child standing by helplessly as these beautiful horses were traumatically chased and captured.

Neda DeMayo with Sutter
I cannot remember when I was not in love with horses. “Horse” was the first word I spoke, according to my mother (Stella DeMayo).

I began riding lessons when I was four years old and, in the years that followed, I “lived on the back of a horse.” Living in Connecticut surrounded by miles of trails, I rode my horses whenever there was daylight, and sometimes by moonlight. I competed in hunter-jumpers, competitive trail, and eventing.

I attended a prep school for two years, and then transferred to a new alternative school focused on humanities and the arts. I studied mixed media and video and joined the Connecticut puppet guild, performing at the Connecticut Shakespeare Festival. I graduated, mainly due to my writing portfolio.

After graduation, I immediately left the east coast and travelled across the United States to California, having amazing adventures along the way!

When I reached California in 1979, I studied mask performance and pantomime with Leonard Pitt in Berkeley. A classmate and I performed street theatre and gave mask-making workshops in Berkeley and Project Artaud.

I visited a friend in a yoga ashram and decided to study and become a holistic practitioner. I became certified in a variety of natural healing modalities, including Irridology (with Bernard Jensen), Polarity Therapy (with Alan Siegle), and Alchemical De-hypnotherapy (with David Quigley).

My pursuits in the theatre, healing arts, and meditation led me to travel extensively, experiencing different cultures around the world. I returned to California and, missing the creative arts, I pursued fashion design. I later moved to Los Angeles to join my sister and friends in their theatrical endeavors.

Holding the vision of one day creating a sanctuary for hooved mammals (specifically wild horses and burros), I spent six to seven years as a costume designer and fashion stylist, mainly in Hollywood. I worked with international art directors, magazines, photographers, designers, and A-list celebrities.

Throughout the years, I still rode other people’s horses, but two serious automobile accidents in 1994 changed everything. I realized that I needed to get clear about what I really wanted to do with my life. You just don’t know how long it’s going to last, so I asked myself what would I do if money was no option … and then I did not make a move until I really “saw” it … and I have never looked back.

In the mid-1990s, the Associated Press published a widespread exposé on the adoption, abuse, and slaughter of wild horses. Like many other Americans, I was exhilarated to discover that there were still wild horses surviving in remote areas, but I was outraged that they were being destroyed. I researched other sanctuaries and the politics affecting wild horses. I also visited other wild horse sanctuaries, and a vision became clearer, my conviction stronger: The general public and government agencies need to align with nature’s priorities.

With a deep commitment to preserving what is left of our open spaces, natural resources, and wildlife, the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary was born.

In the 1990s, I studied with various natural horsemen, all wonderful communicators in their own right. Because of our common passion for wild horses, I developed a strong friendship with horse trainer Carolyn Resnick. I spent two years learning Carolyn’s liberty training methods. Based on the leadership dynamics within a balanced herd, Carolyn’s methods were the most congruent to how I saw horses interacting with each other.

Spending two years with Carolyn, I developed my Arabian mare Tajradda, purely at liberty, no ropes. I had always dreamed of learning haute école and going to the Spanish Riding school. With Carolyn’s guidance, I went from moving with my horse at liberty to starting her bridleless, to a safe trail horse and liberty exhibition horse. It was a dream.

In looking back, it all makes sense. The natural healing modalities, collaboration with artists, publicists, and media.

Two horses at Return to Freedom
My intention is that my time on earth will inspire love, reverence, and joy for the planet and all the enchanting creatures that live here. I also hope that parents will nourish the dreams of their children. After all, a six-year-old created Return to Freedom!

The dream of harmony and balance between humans and the environment lives in all of us. For some, it is forgotten or misled. Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary is an environment where, through direct communion with the natural world, children and adults alike can recognize nature as our home and not something that needs to be conquered. That is my dream.

Live and love,
—Neda DeMayo