By Willis Jacobson, Lompoc Record
Fifteen-year-old Jade Adams often spent weekends during her childhood in New Cuyama, and had a lot of interactions with horses.
Even she hadn’t seen them like this, though.
Adams was among a group of eight middle and high school students who took part in a “Teen Trek Earth Day Adventure” on Tuesday at the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc. The trip, which was organized by the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department, allowed the children — along with their two chaperones — to hike through the 300-acre sanctuary and observe the wild horses in a natural setting.
“It’s nice how they’re all nice to each other even though they didn’t grow up around each other,” Adams said of the animals, many of whom were rescued from other areas. “They kind of took each other in.”
Her observation was the type of reaction that the sanctuary volunteers and staff hope to elicit with the wild horse tours.
The children who participated Tuesday sat on the hillsides for stretches of the tour and were encouraged to watch the way the horses behaved with each other and interacted within their social circles.
“Humans are the only species that don’t see nature as their home,” said Neda DeMayo, the sanctuary’s founder and president. “So, we’re trying to instill that in the guests who come here, that we’re part of it and that what we do affects all of us.”
Tuesday’s tour was led by Samantha Lovett, who answered questions during the hike and also briefly interacted with some of the horses. Lovett, who is from Scotland and used to ride horses competitively in Europe, said her own perceptions of horses have greatly changed in the two and a half years that she has been at the sanctuary.
“I think this is the best learning experience, and part of what Neda wants to do is teach people through the horses,” she said of the tours. “It’s a really interesting experience to watch kids learn and they come away with a really different understanding of horses.”
During the tour, Lovett shared the history of some of the horses who had been rescued from black-market slaughter operations or other abusive situations.
“I enjoyed looking at the horses and seeing what they’ve been through and how they’re dealing with it nowadays,” said Jared Rohleder, a 15-year-old freshman at Righetti High School. “It’s really cool that they’re in a habitat like where they’re supposed to live.”
Lovett said she was hopeful that some of the horses’ tragic back-stories would really hit home with the kids on the tour.
“There’s a very thin line between human behavior and animal behavior, and the way that these animals were treated on public lands compares to things in the past that have happened to humans,” she said. “These horses need voices and the children who are the next generation are the horses’ best bet. So educating children on what’s an appropriate way to treat wild animals and care for them is a big part of our mission.”
On that front, the sanctuary, which is a nonprofit organization, has several programs for children and adults to learn more about horses and ways to protect and save them.
The establishment will kick off its summer season with a “Wild Horses and Wildflowers” event May 3. The celebration will feature music, food, auctions and activities for kids.
DeMayo said she is also planning an Advocacy in Action program for this summer, through which kids can visit Return to Freedom and also travel to Washington, D.C., to join other organizations to try to influence governmental change.
“Even though the sanctuary is a wonderful place for the horses and it’s a great venue to educate the public, when the horses get here they’ve given up so much,” DeMayo said. “When the kids get to see that, it builds respect for, and an interest in our wild horses and our public land.”