Photography: Courtesy Katharine Ross
Photography: Courtesy Katharine Ross

The lifelong equestrian (and lifelong love of Sam Elliott) paints her passion with a life-size statue to benefit Return to Freedom mustang sanctuary.

Katharine Ross may be married to our July cover man, Sam Elliott, but there’s another love in her life: Jack, the life-size mustang sculpture that she and acclaimed artist Melinda Littlejohn have crafted into the likeness of a Kiger Mountain mustang.

Jack is part of Horse of a Different Color, an Art on the Streets project to benefit the American Mustang. Though his particular strain of mustang, the Kiger, hails from southeastern Oregon, Jack is destined for California. It’s there that he’ll be auctioned off to benefit the Santa Barbara County-based Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary, which rescues wild horses and burros and gives them refuge on the Central Coast of California.

The Horse of a Different Color campaign kicked off with celebrities, artists, and notables in the horse world hand painting one dozen fiberglass equine statues.

“When this full-size white fiberglass mustang statue was dropped off in my living room a year ago June, I was thrilled but also asked myself, ‘Oh, dear God, what did I get myself into?’” Ross says. “My daughter, Cleo, and I bought a small amount of paint, and we started on the mane and tail with a coat of paint and wanted to do the horse in a realistic way.”

Photography: Courtesy Katharine Ross
Photography: Courtesy Katharine Ross

Mother and daughter soon realized they needed a lot more paint to cover and design Jack, who is named after Katharine’s and Sam’s friend Jack Swanson, a wonderful cowboy artist who passed away several years ago. Serendipitously, Ross had reconnected recently with Littlejohn, whom she’s known for years: “We drove car pool together when our kids were growing up,” Ross says. “She came over to the house, was both startled and intrigued by Jack’s size, and said, ‘Let’s do it.’

“This project became one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was my vision, but Melinda, a horse lover and perfectionist, knew how to craft that vision and we got it done. It was an incredible journey that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Ross has been a supporter of the sanctuary for more than a decade, ever since being featured with Cleo in The New York Times bestselling book People We Know, Horses They Love, which also profiled Return to Freedom.

Return to Freedom was founded in 1997 with the goal of preserving America’s free-ranging wild horses. With the numbers of the country’s remaining wild horses rapidly dwindling, the organization’s work — providing sanctuary, conservation, and education — becomes ever more important.

Married to Sam Elliott since 1984, Ross had her big screen breakthrough as Elaine Robinson in The Graduate. Few knew the fresh-faced star — and even fewer that she was passionate about horses.

A 1968 Life magazine article titled “The Sudden Stardom of the ‘Graduate Girl’” explained that Ross never really wanted to be a movie star but instead had trained in repertory theater and yearned for serious roles in plays. Her career path might have changed, but her love of horses hasn’t. Among the article’s images of the “it” girl, the then 25-year-old Ross was shown cantering on her pinto KC, one of three horses she owned, rode almost every afternoon, and stabled near her one-time home in Pacific Palisades.

An equestrian since childhood, Ross explains her lifelong love of horses: “I first fell in love with horses at the age of 7 on a pony ride, going around in circles, grinning from ear to ear as I was jumping about on this very uncomfortable ride. I rode in the films Rodeo Girl, The Legacy, and Shadow Riders. My own horse was the first thing I bought after I did my first movie, Shenandoah.

“[Being horseback] kind of takes you away from your problems or whatever is bothering you. I feel very fortunate that I can get away into nature and take a great ride, and always come back feeling much better than when I started out.”

For more about Return to Freedom, including visiting the sanctuary to see and learn about the horses, visit the organization’s website.