The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary

The Great Escape | By Mariah Rose Velasco

Last Updated: March 23, 2022By

The dirt country road leading into The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary had a comforting familiarity to it. I felt like I was driving home, which was strange, as I had never in my life been to Deer Trail, Colorado. I watched antelope bound through the tall grass and sage until they disappeared in the dust that billowed out from my car’s tires.

Upon arrival I was warmly welcomed by Stephanie Linsley, the equine manager and trainer at The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary, known as GEMS for short, along with Carson and Preston — sons of founder Michelle Sander. We struck up conversation like old friends and they took me on a tour of the facilities.They told tell me stories, introduced me to the horses and burros, and made me feel welcome. Even though everyone was busy preparing for the upcoming clinic, the energy was laid back, a patient country pace that felt restorative and comforting.

When it comes to horses, rushing never helps. Horses, and especially mustangs, require of us a type of patience and acceptance that I liken to waiting for sprouts to pop up, or waiting for a baby to be born. Everything happens in its own timing, and it is perfect. Trying to rush only causes unnecessary stress, and gets you nowhere faster. So it was no surprise to me as I watched the staff check off the last of the tasks to complete before the weekend’s festivities — everything was done with the same calmness, patience and purposeful attention I have come to expect from people who live and breathe horses.

Trying to rush only causes unnecessary stress, and gets you nowhere faster.

After we were treated to a delicious and hearty family-style meal, gathered together around a long farm table, we made our way through the pasture out to the cabins where the other clinic attendees and I would be staying for the weekend. Michelle and her staff helped me feel right at home, extending energy that felt like being with family I hadn’t seen in awhile.

The cabins are charming and bright. Each cozy oasis has a comfortable bed, dresser and chair to sit in while you pull your boots off after a long day in the saddle. The cabins are brand new, with attached decks where you can sit and enjoy the crisp evening air, and cozy propane heaters to keep you toasty in the winter months. But it’s what’s beyond those walls that really got my heart beating.

Just over the little hill behind the cabins, you look out across acres and acres of rolling grassland, sage, rabbit brush, pine trees and arroyos. Those same acres are the permanent home to the wild herd of mustangs that GEMS has rescued over the years.

That evening, a classic Colorado rain storm and blown through and was moving out. Dark storm clouds loomed on the horizon and the swirling white clouds above us parted in the wind, allowing the golden rays from the setting sun to showcase their vibrance. I will never forget watching the mustangs trot up the ridge in the golden light, rain water dripping off their backs and long, wind-tangled manes. They carry a mysterious magic with them that invokes wonder and curiosity. I found myself breathing deeper, my senses heightened from my proximity to something so beautiful and so wild. GEMS offers Sanctuary tours to the public too, so guests can experience the magic of the mustangs just like I did.

Few have the privilege of seeing mustangs in the wild, as they are quite elusive after years of being rounded up by helicopters, and then penned for months on end in government-run holding facilities. Horses are prey animals, so their primal instinct is to run from anything that seems unusual. Horses are also social animals, and develop strong bonds to their young and to other horses in their herd. So you can imagine the fear and stress the wild mustangs endure when they are chased into metal pens with unfamiliar horses and confined to small spaces where they can’t run away.

That is exactly why the The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary exists — to provide an outlet and relieve pressure for the mustangs in holding, and to connect them with the right trainers and homes.

There are over 50,000 mustangs in tax-dollar funded holding facilities around the country, and another 50,000 or more out on the range. The Bureau of Land Management has estimated that the manageable number of mustangs should be closer to 27,000 in order to effectively manage the resources and grasslands for the grazing of wild mustangs and burros, and land leased to local ranchers for grazing livestock.

From spending decades in some of the most sparse and wild country you can imagine, mustangs have evolved to be extremely hardy, and given time in the right hands, they can turn into amazingly hard-working equine partners. Michelle and the team at GEMS believe in them, and have dedicated their lives to finding creative solutions to the problems that the wild mustangs face. GEMS and its volunteer Sand Wash Advocates Team help with mustang herd management both on and off the range by providing a storefront, adoption programs, training, clinics and education at the Sanctuary, as well as providing assistance with fertility control, herd documentation and promotion of the range land and wild horses.

One of the innovative ways to support the mustangs and relieve some financial pressure Michelle and her team have come up with is through yoga. They are collaborating with yoga teachers to offer retreats, in edition to their horsemanship clinics, adoption events, trainer incentive programs and fundraisers at the Sanctuary. They have a gorgeous yurt for yoga with a stunning deck that looks out over the acres of pastureland.

The slower, more patient pace of the mustang sanctuary, and the way you are immersed into the beauty and wildness of nature creates the perfect environment to practice yoga, meditate and connect with yourself. As I watched the sunset on my last evening at the Sanctuary, I was reminded of a quote by John Muir: “I went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

There are few places in the world that have won my heart the way The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary did, and I credit that to Michelle and her family and team, and to the mustangs that roam free there. GEMS inspires feelings of freedom, and of belonging simultaneously. Through Michelle’s dedication to her father’s vision, and her own creativity, she has succeeded in developing a sanctuary for wild beings to find themselves —and not just mustangs, but humans too. No matter what trials they have endured, or how troubled they have become, she welcomes them home and allows them to be free.

As I reluctantly drove away, I was profoundly present to how much I needed a weekend at the Sanctuary to remind me of who I am and why I am here. Going out to this piece of eastern Colorado really was more like going inward, toward my true nature and into my wild and inspired self.

If you are inspired to visit, or support GEMS or the wild mustangs, there are many ways to help. GEMS is a non-profit, and relies on donations to support the permanent sanctuary herd and the cost of providing a home, feed, veterinary and farrier services and training for the wild mustangs to prepare them for adoption. You can donate, sponsor a mustang, adopt, attend a retreat or clinic, or volunteer. The future is uncertain for so many wild mustangs, and they are in dire need of our support. Help these mustangs find a new home, and they will inspire the wild and true nature within you.

For more information on The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary, visit

Photos by Brittany Wallace and Mariah Rose.

Mariah Rose Velasco was born in the foothills of Colorado and grew up exploring the surrounding open space, aspen grooves, wildflower fields and red rocks. It’s no wonder that she has spent a majority of her lifetime outside, immersed in nature. She enjoys every moment of fresh air and sunshine, whether it be while hiking, backpacking, skiing, riding her horse Govinda, or walking her two pups Jonah and Nahko down the trails. After working in the ski industry, in studio management, retail and the service industry, she found her way back to horses. She has a knack and passion for taking care of them and guiding trail rides. She also co-founded In Your Element, a local yoga and adventure company, as a platform for her share her passion for nature, yoga, meditation and self-development. Mariah’s writings are inspired by her passions, and she is honored to share them with you. 

Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2018 issue



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