Photography: Karen Asherah/Courtesy Return to Freedom Horse Sanctuary

This Palomino stallion is Horse of the Year and one for the ages.

Christmas came early last year for the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation and its founder Neda DeMayo when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recognized the sanctuary’s 31-year-old Palomino stallion, Sutter, as its 2016 Horse of the Year, on November 17 in New York City. The annual Humane Awards luncheon recognizes animal heroes who have demonstrated extraordinary effort as well as individuals who have shown great commitment to animal welfare.

Born in northwestern Nevada, Sutter was captured from public lands when he was barely 2 years old. He was adopted by a private party through the Bureau of Land Management, but he didn’t find a happy home. He endured ongoing abuse, including being whipped, left tied under a hot tarp, and deprived of food and water in an effort to break his spirit.

Deemed “dangerous,” Sutter was returned to the BLM and marked to be destroyed. Fortunately, Return to Freedom’s colleagues at the Heritage Discovery Center in central California rescued him. “For months, Sutter remained so traumatized that if anyone even walked nearby his enclosure, he would slam himself into walls, attempting to free himself,” DeMayo says. “However, with patience and time he began to build a bond with humans who treated him with loving care.”

During the next few years, Sutter learned to trust people and became a very social and curious horse. He was soon appearing in documentaries, educational films, historical reenactments, and at various venues including two walks in the Rose Parade, where he safely carried a novice rider along the parade route.

When the Heritage Discovery Center was forced to move in 2002, DeMayo adopted Sutter, and he became an ambassador for wild horses at clinics and other events. Early last year, Sutter became the first horse born wild on the range to be inducted into the Equus Foundation Horse Stars Hall of Fame. The foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life for America’s horses in transition by keeping them safe, working, and loved.

“Sutter’s story is emblematic of the suffering so many of America’s wild horses have endured as a result of the struggle over the use of our shared public lands, water, and grazing resources,” DeMayo says. “It’s also a tribute to the resilience of these amazing horses and what’s possible when they’re treated with patience and respect and are allowed to live in the right environment.”

In honoring Sutter, the ASPCA had this to say: “To this day, Sutter continues to not only thrive, but inspire equine awareness, rescue, and advocacy through his own story and by representing the dwindling number of horses who deserve our promised protection on public lands. A true people-lover, Sutter also reminds us that when we extend love to animals, we receive it back, multiplied. For these reasons, Sutter is the 2016 ASPCA Horse of the Year.”

From the January 2018 issue - available now on newsstands (or click here to order the magazine).

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