Return to Freedom: Gone But Not Forgotten

Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary is home for the wild horses, wildlife, and other animals who have found refuge here. Their presence creates a transformative quality which touches all who visit. As our cherished friends and teachers move on to greener pastures, we celebrate and honor them and what they taught us.



In 2001 in the Warm Springs area of Oregon, a liver chestnut mare roamed free with her wild herd until a government roundup shattered her world forever.

Chased by helicopter and trapped in catch pens, this mare and her herd were scattered to auction lots around the country. Everything she once knew was ripped away from her in a moment, without warning. The chestnut mare — now called Epic — would spend a year moving from auction lot to auction lot, wondering what this strange new world was and undoubtedly longing for her family and her freedom.

We do not know what happened to the rest of her herd. Maybe some of the young ones were adopted, so people could try their hand at “breaking” a wild horse. But no one wanted this mare and Epic was eventually sent to a long term holding facility and made available for sale to the highest bidder. The highest bidder was a rodeo and Epic would spend the next chapter of her life beaten and broken on a daily basis as bucking stock. When her tired body and diminished spirit made her no longer suitable to entertain the crowds at the rodeo, Epic was sold to a black market horse slaughter farm in Tampa, FL. It would not be long before this mare — once wild and free — would be butchered alive for her meat.
At about the same time, Richard Couto was working undercover for Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) on an investigation into illegal horse slaughter farms.

His investigation (warning: content may be disturbing) brought him to the same farm where Epic was awaiting her grisly fate. When Richard arrived on the farm the conditions were shocking. Animals were on fire; pigs were eating horse carcasses and signs of abuse and neglect were rampant. He spotted a chestnut mare with the number 3617 branded on her hip. He knew immediately that it was a BLM brand and that this defeated, sad mare was once one of America’s most cherished symbols of freedom. How could this be her fate? Couto fabricated a story about wanting the mare as a riding horse and was able to purchase the mare from her butchers. Couto not only saved Epic from a horrific fate that day, but he also saved her unborn foal. The mare was pregnant. The fate for unborn foals in these ruthless slaughter farms is to cut them out of the mare and sell their meat like veal (baby calves raised in small crates till they are butchered).

Epic and her foal, named Kudo, lived for the next year at Wild Horse Rescue Center in Tampa. There she was loved, nursed back to health and cared for. Her nightmare was over.

Then, Richard Couto, of ARM, contacted Return to Freedom to go a step further for Epic and her colt: In September 2012, Epic, Kudo and her best friend Miss Mara made the journey across the country to live out their days at the rolling hills of Return to Freedom’s wild horse sanctuary. Here they have joined other herds that lost their wild homes and found a new one at the sanctuary.

On September 14, 2022, the forever cautious and wild mare , Epic, left this world on her terms —-joining Mara who left us a few years ago.

Luckily, her beautiful colt Kudo has integrated well and is surrounded by a herd of friends. He was able to say goodbye and witness her lifeless body, but he has a long life left to live.

Pictures of Our Beloved Epic



On the morning of Oct. 8, 2018, we said goodbye to our beloved friend and ambassador Sutter, the palomino stallion with a heart of pure gold. Sutter was 32 years old.

Sutter has carried the dreams of so many and in sharing his story touched the hearts and minds of thousands of people who now know about the beauty, strength, and nobility of the stallion, the American mustang and their fight to survive.

Sutter was one of our greatest teachers and reminds us that when we extend love, we receive it. Sutter was captured from public lands in the Warm Springs area of Nevada when he was about two years old. He suffered extreme abuse as a young colt when he was adopted to a trainer and was returned to BLM, deemed “dangerous,” and was marked as a horse to be destroyed. Luckily a compassionate horsewoman Robin Collins-Keller witnessed his return and was able to adopt the golden colt that day.
With the right environment and communication, Sutter became a trusting and loving mount. He is a testimony to the forgiving nature of horses. Sutter came to live at Return to Freedom’s Wild Horse Sanctuary in 2002. He is a noble representation of the wild horses from the Great Basin made up of largely of breeds that were used for Cavalry horses bred with larger draft horses that arrived from Europe in the 1800s and helped create the big ranchos of the Great Basin.
In 2016 Sutter was named Horse of the Year by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for his work As an ambassador for the dwindling number of horses who deserve our promised protection on public lands.

The following year, Sutter was inducted into the EQUUS Horse Stars Hall of Fame along with four others for their “inspirational and life-changing impact on people.”

Pictures of Our Beloved Sutter


Est. DOB 1984. Captured 1998. Died October 31, 2014.

As we approach the holiday I want to share some sad news, but also gratitude.

Mystic, one of our ambassador stallions left this world to run in the next. He was approximately 30 years old. It is painful to know he is no longer here in the hills, but many of us share 16 years of memories with him and for that time we are forever grateful.

Mystic was one of the first stallions to arrive at Return to Freedom in 1999. He was captured during the total removal of 279 horses from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon.

RIP, Mystic. I love you so much. You made this dream a reality. We see you. We honor you.

—Neda DeMayo, Founder, Return to Freedom

Pictures of Our Beloved Mystic


Born April 3, 1991, Died May 29, 2021.

It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of a beloved Choctaw Mare, Ricochet’s Doll. Born on April 3, 1991, Ricochet lived 30 long and beautiful years. Ricochet was one of the foundation mares from Black Jack Mountain Oklahoma. Ricochet’s Doll was small but strong, and supremely intelligent. She had a shy demeanor and was very attentive to the activity around her, always keeping herself on the periphery. She was especially close with her offspring who all have very sweet temperaments. She would often be found grazing side-by-side or mutual grooming with her daughter Mariah.

The Choctaw horses are Spanish horses that remain from the early colonial efforts of the Spaniards in North America. These horses are important as a genetic resource because they have become rare, and are one of the oldest strains of horses in North America. These horses have been pivotal in the conservation of Colonial Spanish horses in North America.

Our Choctaw Herd will surely miss this unforgettable matriarch.

Rest in Peace, Ricochet. You were so loved. We see you. We honor you.


Diamante was a striking, blue-eyed pinto Colonial Spanish mission stallion from the Wilbur Cruce herd. He was born in January of 1997. Diamante was truly a medicine horse and had a generous spirit.

On August 8, 2018, Diamante said goodbye to this world. He had survived a severe colic earlier in July. Thanks to many of our generous donors, Diamante was able to have surgery right away and seemed to be doing very well. He returned from the clinic and was getting stronger. But early in the morning on August 8, he was down again and in a lot of pain. We rushed him to the clinic and they could not get him comfortable to he went into surgery so we could determine what was happening. Unfortunately, he had a segment of his small intestine that was displaced through a small hole in his abdomen. Known as Epiploic Foramen Entrapment, it is one of the most common forms of internal hernia in horses.

Diamante (DeeDee), touched so many of us with his beauty and grand spirit. We miss him very much.

Diamante was a perfect example of the horses brought over by Padre Kino in the 1600s. With his headquarters, The Mission Delores in Sonora Mexico, Kino was responsible for creating 27 missions in the Southwest. Padre Kino was known as “The Priest on Horseback” and for bringing high-quality livestock over from Spain including horses.

In 1885, Dr. Reuben Wilbur bought a small manada of horses (25 mares and 1 stallion) who lived on his ranch in Southern Arizona until 1990. They were left to roam the Cruce ranch, therefore, being exposed to the process of natural selection. In 1990, his great-granddaughter Eva Cruce, sold the ranch and dispersed the horses with the help of equine geneticist Dr. Cothran, Dr. Sponenberg and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Many went to Robin Collins, Heritage Discovery Center(HDC). In 2002, HDC reached out to Neda DeMayo for help with the conservation of these horses whose DNA showed they go all the way back to the Caspian horses. A small herd was purchased privately by the DeMayo family and they have served as Ambassadors of the original Spanish Mustangs enriching RTF’s educational programs.

Pictures of Our Beloved Diamante


On January 2,2021, we said goodbye to our beloved stallion, Silver King. He was a mature stallion rounded-up with his family in 2010 from Nevada’s Silver King HMA. Stampeded by deafening helicopters, Silver King and his herd were chased relentlessly over dangerous terrain and into an inescapable trap. Silver King and his mares’ heart-wrenching screams echoed as they saw their world and each other disappear through the cold metal bars of the holding pens.

What Silver King did not know as he fought, defended himself, and was loaded onto a crammed trailer to be hauled from his home range, his freedom and his world, was that there were still caring people determined to protect him and his family. Return to Freedom — and our loyal supporters — will always to do what we can to ”save the pieces”. We are proud and happy to tell you that we eventually reunited Silver King with his mare, Grace—and a few others from his band. In 2017, he was reunited with his family band and released onto our 2,000 acre San Luis Obispo sanctuary. They had been together, happily roaming the hills with more than 60 wild horses and burros ever since.

Pictures of Our Beloved Silver King


Jacobi is the first foal born to a young Choctaw mare named Francis Ma Con A Qua (Little Bear). Born premature in a torrential rainstorm, this tiny new foal was abandoned by his mother for a few hours after birth. Though new babies generally begin their lives with their herd, Jacobi was shaking with cold and so fragile that RTF staff decided to bring him and his mare into a deeply bedded stall in our vet barn.

We watched them closely and after 5 uncertain days, Jacobi showed signs of improvement and began to walk and run along side his mother. He enjoyed a short but happy life in the Choctaw herd pasture as a healthy and willful young colt. Like his ancestors, who carried the Choctaw and Cherokee people along the Trail of Tears, Jacobi had a strong heart and courageous spirit.


George arrived to RTF in 1999 from the Hart Mt. roundup when he was about 6 months old. He passed away on September 26, 2020. George was easy to socialize and enjoyed people and horses alike. He had been adopted to a very large pastured with very rich grass and unfortunately foundered. RTF took him back to be able to monitor his feeding. He loved long pasture walks, and wanted nothing more than to be someone’s companion.

The Hart Mountain Herd began with Mystic, who was captured at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, along with 275 other horses, and came to us with three bachelor stallions in 1999. Nine mares arrived from Hart Mountain about the same time and everyone was soon reintroduced. Herds are established when mares choose their stallions.


Comanche was a very special, paint mustang that came to the Return to Freedom Sanctuary in 2001. Rescued many years before that by a very special woman named Maggie Dumais, Comanche’s life was not always very happy. He endured many hardships before being rescued.

When Maggie brought him to live out his senior years at our sanctuary, he quickly became a beloved member of the RTF family of horses. He spent his summers grazing and enjoying the company of his herdmates in our south pasture. His incredible kindness and gentle demeanor with children made him the perfect horse for our youth at risk programs. Many young guests had an unforgettable experience grooming and bathing him, walking him or just stroking his soft muzzle.

In February of 2009, Comanche passed in the comfort of his winter paddock, with his best pal Marilyn at his side.


Sonora was one of the original horses discovered and gathered from the Wilbur-Cruce Ranch in Southern Arizona when it was sold in 1990. She was an extremely intelligent and cautious mare who displayed sophisticated leadership ability and was respected within her herd. She passed on her wise and discerning nature to her daughter, Isadora-Cruce.

Sonora died in a fluke lightning storm when Isadora was four years old. After some disorientation, the herd reorganized and Colorada (Ines’s mother) took on the leadership role for the small band.


Wilbur won the heart of everyone who met him, and as he meandered outside our ranch offices and barn area, he easily earned the honorary title of Mayor of RTF.

Wilbur, in younger days, with Cayuse and Cayuse’s mare, Millie.
Wilbur was over 30 years old and lived happily in the rolling hills at Return to Freedom’s Sanctuary since 1999. He was one of Return to Freedom’s first residents and arrived with a mare we named Dignity. Both mustangs were rescued from a feedlot where they were discarded after they had been adopted from the BLM. Just 12 hours before they would have been shipped from the filthy holding pen to the nightmare of a slaughterhouse death, we jumped in. We just wouldn’t let that happen.

Wilbur joined Cayuse’s harem band and was the stallion’s “right hand horse” for over a decade. He would gallantly escort mares to the water trough while Cayuse remained behind and holding court with his other mares.

About 4 years ago, Wilbur began to need more special care and feed, and we brought him to the main barn area where he was often seen free-grazing all day, never straying far from his beloved Antonia, a beautiful senior Spanish mustang mare. With only a few teeth left, Antonia needs to eat feed soaked in warm water.

Over the past two years, Wilbur had a few hard days when he needed some help getting up. Once up, though, he always rallied and would trot off to be near his friends. He stood outside the feed room door while our Equine Manager prepared the special feeds. While she pretended not to notice, he’d take a few bites from everyone’s buckets before heading over to eat his own! This little ritual helped him pick up more weight and he really seemed to enjoy the variety of the morning buffet!

Sadly, one recent Monday he just could not get up. We tried everything we could to get our old friend up one more time, but he just no longer had it in him. As heartbreaking as it was for us, Wilbur had a very peaceful send-off, while gazing at Antonia, standing watch over her soulmate from just a few feet away. All of us who loved him were quietly present as our kind vet helped him leave his failing body. He went instantly and easily, but the tears are still in our eyes.

R.I.P., beautiful boy.

Remembering Some of Our Other Friends, Too