This Christmas we were going to Florida for a family vacation, and I am always looking for an opportunity to include some horse-related activities. The purpose of this vacation, however, was not to spend a lot of time on horseback, so I had to look for something we could do as a day excursion from our base in Orlando. Through some previous searches on the internet, I had a special place in mind; Wild Horse Rescue Center. It turned out that this was only around 1 ½ hour drive from where we stayed, so we booked a day visit.
Rehabilitation of wild horses
Wild Horse Rescue Center is a nonprofit organization founded by Diane Delano in 2000. The goal of this organization is to contribute to the welfare, rescue and preservation of the American wild horses – the Mustangs. The horses come in for rehabilitation, so they can be put up for adoption as healthy and safe horses to loving and permanent homes. Most of the horses who come to the center have already been through one or more adoptive homes after being rounded up from the wild. Many of them are so traumatized after the roundup and handling by humans that they can never be tamed. Some of them have been abused and neglected to such an extent that they are barely alive when they arrive at the center. This project is very important, and Diane has dedicated her life to rescue as many of them as possible.
When we pass through the main gate to the center we are met by several enthusiastic and curious dogs in all sizes. We meet Diane as we go further into the property, and she tells us about each of the dogs’ stories – most of them are adopted and have arrived at the center due to various causes. It turns out that the dogs who run around freely on the property are not the only dogs she has – there is also a group of smaller dogs but due to predatory birds, they must be kept inside of a smaller, roofed area. As she explains this we can see for ourselves several large birds flying over the area. She is not joking.
The vision of creating a unique sanctuary
Diane tells us that they moved to this area around 4 years ago, and at that time it was completely overgrown by forest. They have invested a lot of hard work in clearing large areas of the property to make it suitable for keeping and training horses. It turns out that the ground on the property, however, isn’t absorbing the water as well as desired for this purpose, and it doesn’t take much rain before they struggle with excess water and mud. Due to the large number of horses that keep coming in, there is also a problem with space and she has been forced to rent pastures elsewhere to make room for them all.
She is now looking for a larger property, so she can move the center and build the place of her dreams! To be able to realize this project she is relying on donations as well as selling the current property. The plans sound amazing, and there is already a specific property in sight. This property will have enough space to create a large sanctuary for the horses who are too damaged to be put up for adoption. There will also be pastures for all of the horses which will enable them to graze and live as natural as possible and will cut the current cost of buying hay. Future plans also include a retirement home for elderly mustangs.
The center will have facilities to welcome guests; an educational center where visitors can learn about the history of the wild horses, trail rides, cabin rental for overnight stays, museum and café, tack store, hiking trails and various workshops and clinics.
This will be a unique opportunity for visitors who want to observe wild mustangs in freedom. She talks about trail rides out in the pastures among the wild herd as well as photography workshops. We are keeping our fingers crossed for this project and that it will become a reality!
The center is relying on volunteer labour to survive, and they get individual travellers and groups from all over the world. Most of them are between 18-25 years old and the length of their stay varies from 2 weeks to 6 months. In addition to the volunteers that come and go, there is one person on site which manages and coordinates them all. Currently, this is Alicia from Sweden who lives and works at the center while she is studying. Diane points out that this isn’t the first time this position is held by a Swedish girl. Her experience is that these girls are tough and hard-working, which are important qualities to have to be able to work here. The care of the animals is the number one priority, and not only do they drive a tractor, build fences, shovel muck and look out for predatory birds and snakes, they will also have to be able to handle the horses with respect and sensitivity.
Diane herself lives in a trailer at the property and has given the main house to the volunteers. This house has several bedrooms, a kitchen, living room and a large terrace with pool. They take turns on cooking and cleaning, and everyone must take responsibility for these tasks. With so many people coming and going it is necessary to follow a strict system to keep everything neat and tidy – which clearly is successful both inside and outside.
Training and gentling the horses
Only the long-term volunteers are allowed to work with the new horses who come in for rehabilitation. The reason for this is that the horses need to bond with one person in the beginning to establish trust and a good foundation. We observe a couple of girls working with the horses. The new horses are kept in paddocks until they can be handled, and the strategy is patience. The girls sit quietly inside their horses’ paddocks with a little feed on their laps. They are not allowed to touch the horses or move towards them. It is up to the horses to make the first contact, and this may take a long time. This is really a test of patience and self-discipline and there is no shortcut or quick-fix.
There is a new horse coming into the center during our visit and Diane tells us that this is a typical example of what they get. A lady has adopted a wild mustang directly from a round-up with the best intentions, but it turned out that the task of taming this horse was too much to handle. She got injured and ended up in hospital. This is where Diane steps in. She has many years of experience with these horses and takes the necessary precautions – both for herself and the volunteers. So far this has kept them away from any serious incidents.
She demonstrates one of the safety precautions to me when we are grooming the horses we are taking out for a ride. When moving behind the horses, they are always positioned sideways. Never let the front of your body face the hindquarters. She says;
“If I am positioned like this with the front of my body facing the horse, I am going to get hurt if he kicks me. If I am turned sideways like this and he kicks me, he is just going to piss me off!»
Trail ride in the Orlando Wetlands
Diane loads a couple of horses on the trailer and asks us to follow her in our own car. She wants to take us to the Orlando Wetlands for a trail ride. The horses she is taking along are her own which she has had from they were very young. I can tell that they have been trained with sensitive aids as the horse I am riding responds to the subtlest signals. We ride through the lush and beautiful wetlands and during the hour-long ride we have experienced sunshine, rain, heavy winds, a rainbow, beautiful birdlife and last but not least an alligator dipping in the water surface. This was a very nice trail ride! Diane says she loves to ride out here and this is a place where she quite often brings her guests.
An important job for both humans and horses
I am amazed at how many impressions you can take in after only one day visit. I got a good look into the everyday life at the center, what their challenges are, future visions and dreams, and how much they are needed. This is a place I’d want to work as a volunteer myself and send my kids once they are old enough! The young volunteers who come here are not only contributing to an important cause, they are also learning a great deal about themselves and others. Sometimes people come here with their own personal struggles, and to them, this work and the connection with the horses may be just what they need to get past it.
The need for donations
I truly hope that Diane can realize the plans of the new and beautiful property she dreams about. It really looked amazing! This year she has found new homes for around 30 horses, and the number of horses coming into the center is even higher. Due to the high demand, there is a crucial need for more space. She points out that a private funding campaign for the Mexican wall has generated over 3 MUSD, and she would only need a small fraction of that to be able to secure the future of a large number of horses that humans have damaged for life.
I encourage everyone to take a look at the WHRC funding campaign and give a contribution here;
Go Fund Me – Wild Horse Rescue Center
The picture below gives a view of the dream property. This will offer plenty of space for the horses.
I want to give a big thank you to Diane who let us visit the center.
We will be happy to come back – hopefully, by then, this will be at the new location