Bold, majestic, and free, the wild Mustang is one of the most enduring symbols of the American West. There aren't many places you can experience the magic of wild horses any longer. But if you're in Park City, you may catch a glimpse of that indelible wild horse spirit at Wild Heart Sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to eight wild horses, a.k.a. the "Infinity Herd," who were rescued from BLM roundups and are now cared for by Sonya Richins, the sanctuary's founder. Richins, who grew up with two horses, barrel raced, and became a rodeo queen, doesn't do any riding these days. Her mission is to love the horses and help educate people about the abuse wild horses suffer.
Technically, wild horses are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, a law passed by Congress (unanimously, if you can believe it!) after a grassroots movement petitioned for the rights of these iconic creatures. So why the BLM roundups? Although wild horses do much to create diversity, preserve history, and enrich our spirits, they do little when it comes to lining the coffers of wealthy ranchers and their powerful lobbies, says Richins. In 2004, Senator Conrad Burns of Montana surreptitiously slipped a few last-minute lines into an omnibus bill, providing useful loopholes and opening up a horrific new chapter for wild horses, allowing them to be put up for sale, subjecting them to terrifying helicopter roundups (horses are sometimes run up to 20 miles), and inhumane treatment while they await, more often than not, a grisly fate. "That's when I caught my 'wild horse fever.' I saw at the Humane Society that wild horses were being rounded up into holding pens and many of them being sent to slaughter," recalls Richins. "I told myself, I have to do something about this." Since the omnipresent social media machine didn't exist at the time, Richins opted for spreading the word via documentary, raising the funds herself and putting together a motley crew of first time filmmakers to capture the truth of what was happening. After three years of work, the 26-minute documentary Mestengo (request a copy of the film here) premiered at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City and even screened at Sundance. As Richins hoped, the documentary garnered a great deal of attention, but press wasn't the only thing she picked up along the way.
While filming in Price, UT, Richins spotted a six month-old filly and its mother, who suffered a broken jaw as a consequence of a roundup. When Richins saw the mother being marked for slaughter, she stepped in and offered to buy the pair. "I was living in the Avenues (downtown Salt Lake City) at the time," says Richins. "And here I was buying two wild horses with no place to keep them." Fortunately, Richins had a contact in the area and was able to conjure up a place within 5 miles (the maximum distance the cowboys at the roundup allowed) that the horses could be transported to and, thus, spared. This fateful event planted the seed for Wild Heart Sanctuary where the rescues, a.k.a. the mare Wind Walker and her daughter Noble Moon, would become the first members of the Infinity Herd. To make Wild Heart Sanctuary a reality, Richins immediately cashed in some savings when she saw the property in Park City for sale, fulfilling her dream and opening the door for lead stallion Kokopelli, Durango, Cinder, Vashti, Shakira, and Brawnson to join their ranks, each after enduring tremendous trauma, cruel captivity, and even near-death experiences (Read all the horses' stories here).
Wandering amongst these now curious, compassionate, and carefree horses at their home in the rolling hills with Park City's snow-tipped peaks behind them, it's hard to imagine they've overcome the worst of what humans have to offer and can still rush up to greet us. Wild Heart Sanctuary regularly brings in visitors, from cancer survivors to suicide-risk youths, who find immense personal transformations and heart connection with the horses. Although she doesn't claim they do any specific curing of ailments, Richins is full of stories about Noble Moon, the wisest healer of the bunch, and the other horses, breathing onto tumors or pain centers and subsequent miraculous recoveries. During the warmer months, Richins also hosts Horse Journey Yoga sessions at the sanctuary with guest teachers. Participants flow on cloth blankets (horses don't like rubber mats) with the horses stepping in, helping center and ground the group with the earth. It's truly something you have to experience for yourself, just like with the horses. Richins is planning on hosting another yoga event on Thanksgiving morning; if you're interested in joining you can sign-up via Wild Heart Sanctuary's website to receive an invite. In order to keep the horses safe and happy, the sanctuary is not generally open to the public, but those interested in visiting are welcome to set up an appointment.
You can support the amazing work and help care for the wild horses of the Infinity Herd by donating to Wild Heart Sanctuary, which is a registered 501(c) 3 non-profit (all their donations are tax deductible. Though they accept volunteers and donations year-round, their largest fundraiser every year is Live PC, Give PC (donate here). Protecting our remaining wild horses from brutal roundups is best done by contacting legislators. Stay up-to-date with actions you can take by visiting https://www.wild-heart-sanctuary.com/save-wild-mustangs.