Steven Latham will never forget the sight of mustangs running free.
“We were in places in Wyoming and Colorado, and there were no phone lines, no buildings. There was absolute openness and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres,” Mr. Latham told the News-Press recently by phone from his Los Angeles home.
“You’re driving on these dirt roads. You come around the corner, and you see a band of wild horses standing there,” Mr. Latham said. “It absolutely takes your breath away. You just want to cry. It’s so beautiful.
“And when you see them running, it is majestic,’ he said.
Mr. Latham also saw the animals in the Return to Freedom sanctuaries in Lompoc and San Luis Obispo as he produced “The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses.” He and Conrad Stanley co-directed the documentary.
The movie will screen during its world premiere at 6 p.m. Thursday at Metro 4, 618 E. State St. It’s part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
A second screening will take place there at 11:40 a.m. Saturday.
“We’re happy that Steven decided to feature Return to Freedom as one of the groups in his film,” Neda DeMayo, president and founder of Return to Freedom, told the News-Press by phone from the nonprofit’s Lompoc headquarters.
She founded Return to Freedom in the late 1990s and said its focus is on sanctuary and conservation.
“I thought he did a good job of telling the broad story of the American mustangs and what they’re going through today and what different people are doing to help them,” Ms. DeMayo said.
Return to Freedom provides refuge to 465 mustangs and 41 burros on its sites in Lompoc, San Luis Obispo and on leased pastures in Northern California, Ms. DeMayo said.
She said efforts by groups to help horses include fertility control to reduce populations without the need for roundups that horses find frightening.
Fertility control is one of the topics covered in Mr. Latham’s film.
“We were the fourth project in the world to work with the Science and Conservation Center on fertility control for large populations of wild equines,” Ms. Latham said. “We’ve been utilizing fertility control data for 20 years.”
As Mr. Latham interviewed Ms. DeMayo during the filming, one of the horses came up behind the director and tugged on his backpack. He chuckled about the moment and praised Return to Freedom for its work in educating people about wild horses.
“Most people have never seen a horse in the wild,” Mr. Latham said. “You can go to Lompoc and see them on these big pieces of land in the wild and get pretty close to them. Again, they’re wild. They’re not being ridden.”
Mr. Latham said his documentary started as a smaller story about another organization using wild horses for therapy for veterans with PTSD. His research led him to the larger topic of wild horses.
“It just exploded into this universe of a story that I thought had to be told,” he said.
“It turned out to be a story that most people don’t know about,” Mr. Latham said. “We had a deep responsibility to tell a big, beautiful story that I think is going to make people fall in love with America all over again.
“It’s an experience that cuts straight to the soul,” Mr. Latham said. “What’s really powerful is you’re looking at these beings that connect us with our past.”
Mr. Latham said mustangs demonstrate sophistication in their communication with each other and their social structure. He explained he saw how a stallion could easily lead mares in a particular direction.
The horses have been celebrated in American culture with Ford Mustangs and the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, a U.S. fighter plane during World War II and the Korean War. But despite the celebrity of Mustangs, they have been mismanaged, Mr. Latham said.
“I think this is going to be a lot of shock to a lot of people, but the wild horse has been used and abused and basically taken to the point of literally extinction,” he said.
Mr. Latham said the horses were rounded up in the 1940s and ’50s and turned into dog food. He said the killing was banned by a 1971 federal act protecting the horses.
Signed by President Richard Nixon, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act put the animals under federal protection.
Today, more than 80,000 mustangs and burros live in Herd Management Areas in California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
But Mr. Latham said the wild horses are being marginalized today on federal land that’s also used by ranchers, farmers, hunters, oil and gas companies, and people for recreation use.
The horses also face limited water and foiliage because of climate change, Mr. Latham said. “Some of these horses are starving.”
Mr. Latham said advocates want to help the horses by limiting their population humanely through vaccinations of the mares.
He noted that’s a positive alternative to using helicopters to round-up horses in overpopulated areas for redistribution in corrals throughout the West. The horses find the round-ups traumatic.
He said the vaccinations are a kinder method. “You go out with a gun, dart the mare in the hip area, and it prevents pregnancy.
“It’s not surgical. It’s not dangerous. It doesn’t have side effects,” he said. “It doesn’t affect their hormones so they still maintain their social structure.
“To be honest, that would solve over 90 precent of the issues,” Mr. Latham said, but added, “Right now, less than 2 percent of the Bureau of Land Management budget for wild horses and burros is dedicated to fertility control.”
The filmmaker, who was born in Amherst, Mass., started making films about 20 years ago. His recent productions include “Shelter Me,” a PBS series on animals who need homes.
He will be at the State Street screenings for “The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses,” where the audience will include Ms. DeMayo of Return to Freedom.
Ms. DeMayo noted her Lompoc sanctuary will celebrate the 25th birthday on May 9 of Spirit, the Return to Freedom horse who inspired “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” the 2002 animated Dreamworks movie.