“Soldier on, soldier on my good countrymen Keep fighting for your culture now, keep fighting for your land. I know it’s been thousands of years, and I feel your hurt, And I know it’s wrong. And you feel
You’ve been chained and broken and burned. And those beautiful old people, those wise old souls Have been ground down for far too long. By that spineless man, that greedy man, that heartless man,
Deceiving man, that government hand taking blood and land, Taking blood and land, and still they can. But your dreaming and your warrior spirit lives on And it is so so so strong.”
Spirit Bird, by Xavier Rudd
About Wild Heart Sanctuary
If the horses at Wild Heart Sanctuary could talk, they would tell you some stories: stories of freedom, confusion, suffering, and perseverance. They are stories that are heartbreaking yet inspiring, devastating yet joyous. And although they cannot speak, these majestic beings still find ways to teach us, and ways to show us what they have been through. Without words, their actions and their stories move us: a clear-eyed look, a gentle approach, a moment of stillness to allow human touch.
Sonya Richins founded Wild Heart Sanctuary, a registered 501(c)3, to address the cruel captivity of wild horses in the American West. The mission and vision of Wild Heart Sanctuary has two main components: (1) To educate the public about the plight of wild horses in captivity, and (2) To provide a safe haven where rescued horses can heal, and with that healing inspire others to heal their own hearts. To fully explain why Wild Heart Sanctuary exists and what it fights for, we have to explore some disturbing truths. Thankfully, the story of the Infinity Herd – like so many American tales – has a happy ending. The horses at Wild Heart Sanctuary share their stories so we can learn and make a difference in the lives of other horses and all beings who want life and freedom.
A National Treasure
Wild mustangs have captured the imagination of Americans for centuries. In songs, photos, and movies, graceful herds of wild horses became a symbol of freedom, space, and majesty. Not only are wild horses an inarguable symbol of the American West, they benefit local ecosystems. Wild horses help spread seeds from location to location, and their grazing patterns act as natural fire prevention. Although ranchers and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) claim wild horses destroy habitats, a 1990 report by the US General Accounting Office conceded the BLM had no data demonstrating that removing wild horses from public lands did anything to improve those lands. In fact, the report stated that wild horses were substantially less damaging than cattle. This is due to the free range, roaming nature of the horses.
Americans have historically been in agreement about protecting wild horses. So much agreement that in 1971 the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed unanimously. This act states, “It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected 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 Act placed the wellbeing of wild horses in the hands of the BLM; it did technically allow the BLM to round up “excess horses” and place them up for adoption, but sought to protect their lives.
The Plight of Wild Horses
There was rampant mismanagement on the part of the BLM related to the 1971 Act, and holding facilities became overcrowded. However, horses rarely faced slaughter due to the protections under the act. Unfortunately, in 2004 Senator Conrad Burns of Montana added a few lines into a multifaceted bill. These lines created a loophole in the 1971 Act that became detrimental to wild horses in captivity. This loophole allowed older horses to be put up for sale – for any reason and to virtually any buyer. This began a terrifying era for wild horses that continues to this day. Older horses who spent years in unjust captivity are regularly hauled to Canada and Mexico where they are slaughtered for meat.
At one time, over 100,000 wild horses roamed the United States. While the current number is unclear, it now likely ranges between 13,000-18,000. Richins estimates the BLM is keeping between 50,000 and 60,000 wild horses in government holding facilities. For those in captivity, the BLM has yet to come up with a workable plan; meanwhile, the horses suffer or are sold to anyone who will pay. Richins produced a documentary, Mestengo, to shed some much needed light on the issue; the film was viewed at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Meeting The Herd
Stepping through the main barn door to the sanctuary, Durango is the first one to greet us. His tall body looks almost like an apparition in the contrast between the dark barn and the sunny, snow covered pastures that make up the 18 acre sanctuary behind him.
“That’s Durango, he’s the Lieutenant. He’s checking you guys out to see if he needs to protect the rest of the herd,” Sonya tells us.
We pass Durango’s initial assessment and he rejoins the other members of the Infinity Herd for dinner. Just like in a wild herd, members of the Infinity Herd have distinct roles: Kokopelli, the Lead Stallion; Durango, The Lieutenant; and Wind Walker, The Lead Mare. Their roles and personalities are evident as they eat, play, suffer the antics of Newt the dog, and approach us on their own terms.
The Infinity Herd
With thick coats and hooves free of shoes, members of the Infinity Herd otherwise look like any other horses, except perhaps for their size. Whether by actual measurement or because of their personalities, these horses seem bigger than others. Prouder. Yet there is a hesitance in each of them. They approach people when they feel safe, but their history with humans is clear in their interactions: they know they are from a different world than we are, and they have a certain wisdom about every move they make.
The infinity herd started when Richins was filming Mestengo. At a holding facility in Price, UT, Richins met Wind Walker and her filly, Noble Moon. A helicopter chased the two during a BLM round up. They watched as their stallion died trying to protect them, and Wind Walker suffered a broken jaw. As a result of her injury, Wind Walker was destined to never see her filly, Noble Moon, again. Even though she lived in Salt Lake City and had no land to open a sanctuary, Richins swiftly adopted them to keep mother and daughter together forever. In time, Richins found the land she needed and welcomed 6 more into the herd, each with a unique story. The number 8 became a symbol that gives the Infinity Herd its name. You can read the story of each horse on the Wild Heart website.
The Infinity Herd continues to touch the lives of visitors at Wild Heart Sanctuary. From tours to more significant equine therapy sessions, Richins has amazing stories of the healing power of the Wild Heart residents. Adding to the current herd would be difficult due to the roles and bonds of the horses, but another adopted herd at a second Wild Heart location is not out of the question if the opportunity is right.
With the Infinity Herd in harmony, the main focus of Wild Heart right now is information and outreach. Although the Infinity herd is safe, tens of thousands of wild horses are still in captivity, with others enduring and ongoing roundups. There has never been more urgency to act. A study done by the American Wild Horse Campaign showed that 75% of Americans are against the cruel round ups of wild horses and 80% of Americans oppose killing or slaughtering wild horses. The key now is making more people aware of the issue and moving them to act by contacting their lawmakers.
Donate: Wild Heart Sanctuary relies on donations, which you can make here. The sanctuary also has a wish list, which details specific donation amounts and what those donations will fund.
Volunteer: Wild Heart Sanctuary offers volunteer opportunities for individuals looking to volunteer weekly, and for groups looking to take on a one time project. Use their Contact Form to inquire about opportunities.
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