CONTRIBUTOR - Dinah Cotton writes about a transformative weekend with wild horses at a sanctuary run by a Los Gatan. (Photo by Linda Bruce)

Along a Highway 101 frontage road near San Juan Bautista there’s a discrete wrought iron sign proclaiming, “FREEDOM REIGNS.” You may have driven by many times and never noticed it, or the keypad located just below to the left. We slowed down to enter the passcode and to follow the one-lane gravel road.

I left what troubles I could at this gate. I’d signed up to a weekend retreat at this horse sanctuary run by a Los Gatan called, “Whispers from the Herd,” offered through an Illinois-based organization called Soulful Prairies.

In the distance, between the gentle rolling hills of this former cattle ranch, sat zippered tipis. We were warned the birds living at the top, in the poles, might drop various “gifts,” and to just deal with it. Also inside were: two cozy faux fur-covered queen-sized cots, an end table, two flashlights, a battery powered lamp, water and snacks. We were informed a propane heater was available if necessary.

CARETAKERS – Carrie and Laureano Echezarreta. (Dinah Cotton / Los Gatan)

We were “glamping,” not quite camping. Sort of an adult Scouts adventure, with catered meals. There were picnic tables beneath an ancient oak tree, with swings attached to low-lying limbs. The main gathering tipi held an indoor fire pit. At the far end was the generator-powered port-a-potty.

This area is fenced in, keeping us safe, and the horses out roaming free. (There’ve been reports of the horses breaking into this enclosure on occasion.) We were allowed out only with a guide. Carrie Echezarreta or Linda Bruce would escort us.

Linda, a certified equine gestalt practitioner, began offering this retreat last year, under the watchful eyes of Alicia Goetz, from Los Gatos, the founder of Freedom Reigns. Carrie, along with her husband Laureano along with the son Cipriano. They protect the herds that live at the sanctuary. These caretakers served as our guides.

“Before I knew what was going on with horses, my dream was to open a dog and cat rescue,” Alicia told me. “Once I learned what was going on with horses, I decided to try to rescue them.” It was about giving horses lives with real options, she explained. “For me, allowing a horse the freedom to choose who they socialize with and which herd they can join to feel safe and protected, is a beautiful thing,” she said. That’s not too far off from the reasons that I attended this retreat. People have an innate desire to feel safe and free, and I was hoping the equine sanctuary would have lessons about how to pursue these.

How to approach a wild horse? And how to let one of these creatures approach me? I have no idea, I was thinking when I got there. But eventually, my herd would find me. And I, in turn, refound my heart. And the amazing impact of working with horses at Freedom Reigns will stay with me for a very long time. “Saving one horse will not change the world,” Alicia said. “But it will change the world for that one horse.”

horses on hillside
VERDANT – Herd on a hillside. (Dinah Cotton / Los Gatan)

This weekend was evidence of how each one of those horses can go on to change the world for the humans close to them. I understand that a horse will even match your heartbeat from four feet away. Yours will listen for its calming pulse.

The first morning dawned as a mostly-perfect spring day, with a bit of fog, some sun and a passing chill in the air. As we were late leaving the enclosure our group of eight retreaters from all over, along with Bruce, Cassie and Cipriano, headed out in the “mules,” an golf cart-type vehicle. At the meditation platform, the two large lockers located on the large deck, opened and the yoga mats emerged. Could this get much better?

rolling hills
SANCTUARY – Rescued horses can, in turn, help humans. (Dinah Coton / Los Gatan)

During guided sound therapy, featuring Tibetan singing bowls and transcendental electronic music, stress transformed into serenity. We walked down to breakfast. After an exotic vegetarian meal, we walked to the nearest paddock where several of the “less wild” horses were corralled and waiting for us. We sat in a circle of chairs within and were shown how to approach a horse and how to react when one approaches us.

Horses are present and connected to surrounding energies. Here is where the gestalt magic began to reveal itself. And in the interest of confidentiality we will stop there. Let’s just say a circle of trust and healing was formed, guided by Linda. Then, as a group, we walked back to our camp—and another delicious veggie meal.

The next day we went on a mule ride out to the open range to spend time near a herd. The 500+ horses form 37 fluid herds, and a horse may move freely between them. About half are truly wild. When Alicia rescues, her goal is to keep families together. The pregnant mares are allowed to foal. The mothers can stay, and the stallions are gelded. All newcomers are quarantined to check that they’re in good health and disease-free. Off to an early tipi bedtime as the next day we were expecting to time near the horses—or maybe actually within a herd?

Meditation and more sound work, again before our breakfast. The meal does not disappoint. Our transportation arrives and off we go to locate a “less” wild herd. It is impossible to describe the overwhelming beauty of this area. Add-in the hundreds of majestic four-legged animals and it becomes breathtaking. My photos do not do it justice!

As we approach a herd from the side—always slowly from the side—they begin to arrive. Carrie tells us that “Frosty,” “Duke” and “Daisy” are their names. Carrie, as the horse observer. knows most all by their names, and their histories. Mares will arrive pregnant and foal here. These are the “less” wild ones, generally. Some horses are surrendered as owners die or may no longer be able to care for them, for one reason or another.

We are in “horse luck” today, as the herd is curious. We spread blankets down on the hillside, sit calmly and wait as these huge peaceful animals head our direction. Soon, they’re surrounding us. If they spook a bit, we were told to back off. I must remain calm, my head is telling me. My heart is going out to get in rhythm with this creature. What a magical experience this is. I am full of gratitude to all who helped to make this happen.

Now it’s lunchtime. I do not want to leave. Frosty is raiding the mule, taking blankets and water bottles out and flashing them around. Mischief-making is ramping-up. Time to climb back onboard and head in for lunch. And then, it will be time to rejoin society.

My re-entry will be slow. But I’m taking this all with me.

To learn more about Freedom Reigns, visit their website:

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