Providing safety and sanctuary for Colorado’s wild mustangs
By Kate Myers
The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary and Training Center (GEMS) is an hour and a half and a world away from Boulder County. Nestled in a high desert pine forest on a country road near Deer Trail (east of Denver), the 900-acre sanctuary is currently home to a band of 29 wild horses. There are also six friendly ambassador horses and some ambassador burros (donkeys) that greet visitors.
“We offer education and awareness about mustangs and burros, collaborate to support wild horses on the range, and provide training, adoption and sanctuary to those in need,” says Michelle Sander, CEO of the nonprofit. Its overarching goal is to tell the story of the American mustang, both good and bad. “My dad taught me that our responsibility is to care for animals,” Sander says, looking out over the horses on her ranch. “These are magical beings. The question is, how can we give back to them a bit of what they have given to us?”
A Dream Come True
Michelle Sander’s father, Gerhard K. Sander, was passionate about mustangs and wanted to create a sanctuary for wild horses. “GEMS would not exist without my dad’s dream,” says Sander. Gerhard died in 2010 and never got to see the sanctuary open, but his daughter vowed to carry on his work. In 2012, she succeeded in procuring the land upon which GEMS now operates.
An enduring symbol of the American West, the mustang has been subject to lack of federal protection, inhumane roundups to sell the animals for commercial purposes including slaughter, and potentially lethal mass spaying. Sander quickly realized that just providing sanctuary would not be a long-term solution to the plight of these animals. “We’d bring in horses and fill up and not be able to help any others,” she says. “Bringing a training component into the mission was really important so that we could move horses to off-site training facilities and, ultimately, into adopters’ homes.”
Sander partnered with the Bureau of Land Management in the Sand Wash Basin, an area in the northwest corner of Colorado where wild horses are kept by the federal government. GEMS takes horses from the range and places them with foster homes and trainers throughout the U.S., and the program is expanding rapidly. Last year alone, the sanctuary transferred 138 horses to trainers who will get them ready for adoption. This frees up space for GEMS to take in, care for and retrain horses that have not been successful in previous adoptions. “These are horses that have been adopted, but due to the unique training needs of mustangs, have been relinquished,” Sander says. “These horses really need us. I feel this is where we should expend our efforts.”
As part of the education effort, the sanctuary encourages people to get up close and personal with the horses. There are photographic safaris coordinated with Mike’s Camera in Boulder, plus hiking tours, yoga retreats and riding lessons. Last year, the sanctuary worked with 4-H members to teach them about mustangs. The children took trainable horses to work with them at their own homes, which was a transformative experience, according to Sander. “These kids learned patience and how to communicate with another species,” she says.
What makes the sanctuary unique is the ability for visitors to stay on the ranch. Horse owners have an opportunity to ride the 900 acres of beautiful pine forest, and they can dry camp with their motorhome and horse trailers. Many people bring their own horses to ride on the property for “play days.” The ranch also holds clinics for horse owners, with an obstacle course and jump course available for practice.
The most popular event at the sanctuary for horse owners is the annual GEMS Poker Ride Fundraiser, which features a scenic ride through the ranch. Along the way, riders encounter checkpoints where they must answer trivia questions about mustangs. If they answer correctly, they get a playing card. At the end of the ride, the best poker hand wins.
Those without their own horses have plenty of incentive to visit and stay on the property as well. There are 10 cabins at the sanctuary, along with showers, a rustic cookhouse with barbecues, and a large yurt that accommodates classes and retreats or serves as a place of rest and contemplation. Visitors are able to truly immerse themselves in the world of the mustang, and I had an opportunity to do exactly that.
A Walk On the Wild Side: A Personal Experience
I have always loved horses, so my initial tour of The Great Escape was a magical experience—even though it was from inside the sanctuary’s ancient Land Rover. I then spent a night in one of the cabins, listening to the peaceful murmur of the wind. The next morning, heading away from my cabin for a walk, I saw the band of mustangs ambling in my direction, on their way to get some water. I quickly realized that they were actually coming to investigate me. I experienced a thrill of excitement and—I admit—trepidation. After all, these were wild, unpredictable animals.
They moved close to me carefully. A chestnut mare sniffed me very gently from head to toe. Then she allowed me to scratch her neck. She leaned on me as another two sniffed and let me pet them. A roan mare bumped my back. I found out later she was asking for treats. I had passed the inspection. Being careful not to surprise them, I slowly began walking toward the water. The horses moved along too, and as I walked with them, there were tears in my eyes. Walking with wild mustangs. My childhood dream come true.
— Kate Myers
The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary