Thank you to Lumin Road Productions, Victory Tischler-Blue, Bruce Feagle and Focus Features for the footage.

The Mustang

“The Mustang” tells the story of human perseverance and connection with wild horses. The movie tells the inspiring story about a convict’s connection with a spirited wild horse in a prison horse training program and how it allows him to confront his own tumultuous past and open up emotionally.

While an engaging story, “The Mustang” cannot tell the full narrative of America’s wild horses and burros and the struggles they face. America’s wild horses are caught in a battle over the use of our public lands and grazing, water and other resources on those lands. For decades, costly and tragic government roundups have removed tens of thousands of wild horses from America’s remote and rugged Western rangelands. These heartbreaking roundups have created a need for high-quality sanctuary programs like Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary and training programs like the one portrayed in the film.

Return to Freedom was involved with “The Mustang” with the hope that a broader audience of moviegoers will become aware that there are still wild horses in America and want to learn more. We hope that people will not only recognize the powerful connection between human and horse but all species’ powerful and existential desire for freedom. As a result, we hope people will join Return to Freedom as we work to preserve the freedom of our wild horses and burros on their rightful Western rangelands and protect those that have been captured and removed from their habitat.

Behind the Scenes

The Horses
Movie Stills

Quick Facts

Involvement with The Mustang

Our involvement provided a unique opportunity for Return to Freedom to share the story and struggles of wild horses and burros on our rangelands. Return to Freedom was involved in “The Mustang” by providing initial input on the script, contributing six sanctuary-born horses from our adoption program for filming purposes and ensuring the horses’ well-being and humane handling during filming. Through involvement with the movie, our horses were engaged in meaningful training that ultimately led to their long-term humane adoptions. One of RTF’s trainers and farriers was hired as a wrangler and actor for “The Mustang” and was on set every day so we felt comfortable that they were getting good care and handling. We were invited to visit the set as often as we wanted to and the horses did very well.

Theme and message of movie

“The Mustang” is an inspiring drama that tells the story of a convict’s connection with a very spirited wild horse and how it allows him to confront his own tumultuous past and open up emotionally. Though the powerful connection between human and horse is recognized and celebrated, the film cannot fully tell the story of America’s wild horses and the struggles they face on and off the range. We hope the theme and message of this film moves the conversation forward to advocate for and protect wild horses and burros on America’s rangelands.

Government roundups and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Policies

Conflict over population size and the allocation of grazing resources has threatened the existence of wild horses and burros on public lands. As a result, government roundups that have occurred for decades remove and prevent tens of thousands of horses from returning to their natural habitat. Because of this, adoption and training programs like the prison training program portrayed in “The Mustang,” paired with education, can provide horses a positive life where they are cared for safely and humanely.

Inmate wild horse program

Inmate wild horse programs have the potential to be life-changing for prisoners, lowering recidivism rates for inmates while providing humane, meaningful lives for horses that will not be returned to the range. Though our mission is to see wild horses and burros free on our Western rangelands, decades of traumatic government roundups of wild horses have created the need for humane adoption and training programs, similar to the prison program portrayed in the film and sanctuaries like Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary.

Return to Freedom FAQ

Why did Return to Freedom get involved with The Mustang and how does it support your mission?

Being a part of “The Mustang” provided a unique opportunity for Return to Freedom to promote awareness for the protection of wild horses and burros roaming free on America’s rangelands by reaching a broader audience of movie goers. Many American’s are still not aware that we still have wild horses and burros on our Western ranges and that they are fighting for their lives in a changing world.

How were Return to Freedom’s horses used in the movie?

Return to Freedom provided six horses for “The Mustang” and ensured their well-being and humane handling during the duration of filming. These horses, born at the sanctuary were chosen because of they were habituated to humans and would have the opportunity to engage in additional training intended to lead to their long-term safe adoption. Ultimately, five of the six horses have been adopted.

What is Return to Freedom’s take on inmate horse training programs?

While Return to Freedom’s ultimate goal to see wild horses and burros remain free on America’s rangeland, decades of government roundups have removed and continue to prevent tens of thousands of horses from ever being returned to their natural habitat. Because of this, adoption and training programs like the prison training program portrayed in “The Mustang,” when run properly with a patient and skilled trainer and paired with adopter education, can provide horses a positive life where they are cared for safely and humanely.

How can moviegoers get involved or support Return to Freedom?

We hope moviegoers recognize the powerful connection between human and horse and, as a result, join Return to Freedom as we work to protect the freedom and diversity of wild horses and burros that still roam freely on our Western rangelands as well as those that have lost their freedom and face an uncertain future in government run holding facilities and adoption events. Visit this webpage to learn more about how to advocate for wild horses, join our campaign, volunteer or provide a donation as we continue to use our voice for wild horses.

Wild Horse FAQ

Are there wild horses in America?

Yes! Federally protected wild horses and burros are found on designated rangelands, called Herd Management Areas, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or Wild Horse Territories, managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in 10 Western states.

In March 2018, the BLM estimated that the on-range population stood at 66,976 wild horses and 14,975 burros living on 31.6 million acres, 26.9 million of that managed by BLM.

Horses and burros may also be found on state land, tribal, and private land, as well as some other federal lands overseen by agencies like the Department of Defense and National Park Service, but these horses and burros are not afforded the same federal protections under the 1971 law.

What’s a mustang?

A mustang is a wild horse, rather than a specific breed of horse. The name “mustang” comes from the Spanish word mestengo meaning “a wild or stray horse” or “a horse without a home.”

How did horses end up out there?

According to Dr. Ross MacPhee, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who is pursuing ancient DNA research into the origins of the horse: The evidence shows that family Equidae, which includes all living horses, zebras, and asses, plus all of their extinct relatives, originated in North America approximately 53 million years ago. Since that time, equids have continuously evolved, producing numerous lineages. All of these are extinct except for the remaining species within genus Equus. The horse traveled to Asia over the Bering Land Bridge over millions of years as part of a migratory journey, along with many other mammals, many now extinct. Fossil evidence had long supported the idea that horses, once leaving the Americas, evolved into a new species, and so the horses which Spanish explorers brought to the New World were unfamiliar to this land. Advances in molecular genetics have proven otherwise: The horse completed its last adaptation in North America before its absence (a short-term blip in geologic time scales), and so when the Spanish and then early European settlers brought horses to this new land, these horses – Equus caballus — were, in fact, returning home. Some of today’s wild horses are direct descendants of those Spanish horses. Others are Indian ponies, cavalry stock, or work horses or others of different breeds that were released or escaped and that have returned to a natural state over the last 200 years and now live on often remote, rugged rangelands.

Are wild horses and burros protected?

Yes. Prior to 1959, wild horses and burros were often shot or rounded up indiscriminately by ranchers, hunters and “mustangers” who sold the horses for slaughter. That’s when an advocate named Velma Johnston, nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie,” managed to galvanize enough public support to cause Congress to pass a law prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses on public lands. It wasn’t until 1971, however, that another law, the Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act, was enacted to create a program intended to protect and manage wild horses on public lands.

Why were wild horses protected and how?

Yes. As part of the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971, Congress declared “that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.” The law is meant to protect wild horses and burros “from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” The law assigned responsibility for overseeing wild horses and burros on designated rangelands to the BLM and USFS. The law as amended allows the agencies to determine an appropriate population goal and take steps, including the use of helicopter roundups, in order to control the population. Controversially, BLM has set its nationwide “Appropriate Management Level” at 26,690 wild horses and burros – just 1,390 more than when the law was enacted out of concern for their dwindling population.

What is so controversial about wild horses on public lands?

BLM’s task is complicated by federal laws requiring that it also manage public lands for livestock grazing (1934 Taylor Grazing Act) and other “multiple uses” (1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act), a balancing act that includes a variety of energy projects and recreation, as well as other wildlife, managed by hunting permits, and their habitats. Wild horses and burros are restricted to about 11% of BLM-managed lands. Even on their designated ranges, they are often greatly outnumbered by privately owned livestock – sometimes by 50 to 1. As a result, wild horses and burros are caught on the front lines in the battle over the use of our public lands the natural resources there. Those that use public lands for profit-making enterprises have placed pressure on government agencies and lawmakers to remove wild horses and burros, which they view as competition for forage and water. Each year, BLM removes thousands of “excess” wild horses and burros, often using helicopters, in sometimes deadly roundups. A portion of the captured animals are adopted or sold. Because of diminished demand for captured animals and because Congress has consistently barred BLM from killing wild horses and burros or knowingly selling them to slaughter, most end up living in government-owned corrals or leased pastures at ever-increasing cost to taxpayers. As of July 2018, 45,320 wild horses and burros were living in holding facilities, not on the range.

Is there another way?

Yes. Rangeland management for legally mandated multiple uses of public land is a complex challenge requiring a multi-pronged approached – including providing a sustainable future for wild horses and burros with humane, on-the-range management — but it can be done. For 20 years, Return to Freedom has advocated for the use of safe, proven and humane fertility control vaccines to curb the population growth of wild horses and burros in an effort to reduce and eventually eliminate the need to remove animals from their rightful rangelands. These vaccines include PZP, a vaccine that Return to Freedom has used at its own sanctuary with 91-98% efficacy – success that a growing number of projects on and off the range have achieved when vaccines are properly applied. In 2007, BLM stood within 1,000 wild horses of its own population target, yet it continued to continue the large-scale and fiscally unsustainable removal of wild horses. The agency has never spent more than 3.94% of its annual Wild Horse and Burro Program budget allocation on fertility control vaccines. Other potential policy changes include incentivizing the reduction of livestock numbers by ranchers and public-private research and fertility control projects. Meanwhile, the number of wild horses and burros on the range and in government holding facilities continues to increase. In 2017, BLM spent $133,225 per day to care for captured wild horses and burros — a cost used by opponents of wild horses as the basis to argue for inhumane options, including the mass killing of healthy, unadopted wild horses and burros, or mass permanent sterilization of wild mares using costly, unproven surgeries, or allowing captured wild horses to be sold without protections against slaughter.

How do wild horses live out on our public lands? What do they do all day?

Wild horses are organized into harems, with, generally, a single stallion, his mares, and their offspring. These small, tightly-bonded family groups are called “bands.” The term “herd” refers to all bands in a localized geographic region. Most studies show that band size remains quite stable, even when overall herd population is increasing, indicating that older stallions do not consistently monopolize mares, allowing new bands to develop within a herd. Direct male acquisition of mares accounts for about 55% of band changes that occur, while 45% come from mares wandering away from their bands. (Joel Berger, Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size, p. 170.)

The roles of horses within a band and their social cohesiveness contribute to the success of the group overall. The stallion protects and guides the band, fights off aggressors, and teaches young colts and fillies how to behave within the band both through play and when necessary reprimands (as those who have witnessed a stallion firmly correcting restless foals around him can attest to!). Mares within the band operate in a social hierarchy, with older, more established mares higher in the pecking order, and a “lead mare” generally followed more attentively by the group overall. Foals are nursed, nurtured and disciplined by their mothers (dams), but also educated by the other matriarchs in the band.

Wild horses are not territorial in the classic sense of the word, but they do tend to remain in large home ranges. They graze throughout the day and night, eating about 50% of their time. They rest quite often standing, but will lie down for short periods of time.

Thomas Smittle, who has worked as a contract trainer and farrier for Return to Freedom, was hired as a wrangler and actor for the movie “The Mustang,” a film about a convict’s connection with a wild horse in a prison training program. Thomas was part of such a program and found it a life-changing experience. WARNING: This interview contains some brief spoilers about the movie’s plot.

Sweetbeau Horses and Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue also provided horses for the film.