Horse lovers young and old turned out in droves to watch Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron when it hit movie theatres back in 2002. The film tells the story of Spirit, a Kiger Mustang stallion (voiced by Matt Damon through inner dialogue) who is captured by the United States Calvary during the American Indian wars and goes on a harrowing and dangerous journey to return to his herd in Oregon.

When Dreamwork’s animators sought inspiration and a model to base their work on, a colt was purchased for this purpose. This real Spirit, originally called Donner, was born to a wild stallion and mare that were rounded up in Oregon. Like his fictional counterpart, the real Spirit is a Kiger Mustang, known for their unique coloring and DNA connection to the original Spanish horses that arrived in North America in the 17th Century. The animators observed Spirit for years, learning everything they could about horse movement and behavior so that they could bring life to their creation.

Spirit (originally named Donner) in 2019. (Ondrea Hidley photo)

Today, Spirit is still alive and well – at the age of 25 – and living on a wild horse reserve that Dreamworks selected following completion of the film. Spirit is one of several wild horse ambassadors at Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary . America’s wild horses are under constant threat from ranchers and other political interests and are disappearing from the plains and mountain vistas that the film captured so beautifully. The mission of Return to Freedom is a multi-faceted approach that includes conservation, sanctuary, education and advocacy for the wild horses. The organization is also raising awareness and funds to create a first of its kind wild horse and burro conservancy and wilderness preserve.

If you love the film or just love wild horses, you can help by sponsoring a herd or a specific horse at Return to Freedom.