Riding Wild: Documenting 4,000 Miles to the Sacred Headwaters

Riding Wild: Documenting 4,000 Miles to the Sacred Headwaters

Meet Aniela Gottwald

Interview by Hailey Hirst

Aniela Gottwald has a big dream: to ride wild horses from California to Northwestern British Columbia’s Sacred Headwaters, and document it in a film, Riding Wild.

It’s an ambitious goal – the journey is over 4,000 miles. But with hardy wild mustangs and her own fiery spirit (seriously, it’s contagious) Aniela makes it seem doable, necessary even. The purpose of the ride and documentary is to bring awareness to wild places that need protecting.

Aniela nearing the end of her first training ride, a 500-mile expedition along the Colorado Trail. Near Durango, Colorado, 2017 – photo by Dylan Harris

With Canadian roots, Aniela felt a strong pull to the Sacred Headwaters – a vital wild salmon ecosystem and sacred land for the Tahltan and Gitxsan people, that’s under threat of industrial development.

But the journey is about the places along the way too, the public lands in the West and the wild horses that will be her guide through them. 

For Aniela, it’s all connected.

After losing her father to cancer and losing her Ojai, California home to wildfire, she knows what it’s like to feel things slip away and to hold tight to what’s still here.

I caught up with Aniela a few weeks ago to learn more about her, the horses, and the journey. She was in California and I was in British Columbia – where the journey begins and ends, coincidentally. I hope you enjoy meeting Aniela as much as I did.

Note: This interview has been condensed from an hour-long phone conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Meet Aniela:

On her background in the outdoors

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Massachusetts in a town of only 167 people. At a really young age my father would take me out into the mountains and show me how magical it was out there, instilling a sense of strength and awe at what happens when you’re present in nature.

I’ve been riding since I was around 2 years old. My mom spent her life with horses, and my draw to them has been through her passion handed down to me.

While my love for horses comes from my mom, my excitement for nature comes from my dad. As a young girl, if I wasn’t riding horses, I was taking long hikes with my dad.

“Sharing love, my first mustang, Jax, and my mother moments before our first day on the Colorado Trail. Near Denver, Colorado, 2017 – photo by Oliver Rogers

On how the Riding Wild project came to be

It was a combination of a few things. I was coming into myself at 19 after my first expedition to Australia, when my dad suddenly passed away.

My dad was the most important person in my life, and after he was gone, nature filled his absence. I went out to the wilderness to find healing. Through that, I began to consider what I wanted to do with myself in this life.

Rising from the ashes, Ojai, California, 2018 – photo by Mariana Schulze

Mountains merging with the spine of the mustang. Newbury Park, California, 2018 – photo by Zach Allia

For as long as I can remember, my values have been to treat the Earth as I feel we should treat ourselves, with kindness and respect. There is no disconnection between us and nature, we are nature. I think if people could see that, feel that, there would be more respect for the environment and the different species we share the planet with.

It was the natural evolution of healing and finding the spirit of my dad in the wilderness, that allowed me to dream up a journey in which I could share my love and the inspiration I found there. This was my answer.

On why the Sacred Headwaters

Around the same time I’d been researching long-distance trail rides with horses, I was fascinated with anthropology and serving the larger community. Specifically I volunteered in small communities during some of my travels, including indigenous people in Peru. Their cultural connection and reverence for nature spoke to me.

I came across Wade Davis’s TED talk about the Sacred Headwaters in Northwestern British Columbia, and I felt this mysterious invitation. The way he articulated his work, his words about the tribes – it all felt very inviting to me. I felt like so drawn to this place.

As I began to research more, I became so passionate about it that one day I packed up my car and drove 1,000 miles to meet all the remarkable women – the elders and chiefs that have been protecting this, their land. They’ve blockaded the roads and resisted coal mining and pipeline development for generations. I saw them as heroes and felt an immense sense of gratitude to be welcomed into their community. I remember showing them my map under a dimly lit lantern. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, having them rally for me and give me the time of day, you know?

To me the Sacred Headwaters symbolize one of the most wild and untouched landscapes in the world. The journey ends here to celebrate the accomplishment of what ordinary people can achieve with extraordinary vision and love for the Earth.  


Lili Moyer, a Tahltan leader, prays at a ceremony celebrating the Sacred Headwaters, birthplace of three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers, the Stikine, the Skeena, and Nass, British Colombia, Canada. – photo by Wade Davis

On why this matters now

I think it all comes together, and the different movements that are springing up for the environment globally are all connected.

We’re at a remarkable place in history where we have an incredible choice. We can focus on our devastating reality of polluting the Earth, or on the remarkable opportunity to stimulate a new and exciting era of environmental stewardship.

I choose to ride for what I believe in.  

I choose to ride for what I believe in.  


“First day ever all packed up with my two mustangs, Jax and Sunna, and dog Nodin.” Near Ainsworth, Nebraska, 2016 – photo by Bryan Campbell

On her intentions for the film project

I think the most truthful way to share this dream is by having a community of powerful voices come together. It’s not just about me, but every person and place along the way, and really, the sacred in every moment outdoors.

Beyond my vision of cultivating a deeper connection to nature, the film will be about sharing the transformational relationships that women have with the Earth.  

“Sunna has taught me to recognize the duality of softness and strength, to love what is and accept what must be let go. She’s taught me that it’s okay to be vulnerable and trust the unknown. She is a mirror and gateway into my soul.” – photo by Mariana Schulze

On why she works with wild horses

I knew from the beginning that because the journey is so extreme and so long the horses would have to be wild. Mustangs are used to walking 25 miles a day. This is how they live. They’re intelligent, deeply connected to their instincts, extremely agile and strong, and they have remarkable hearts more than anything else. The story of each of my horses is truly inspiring to me, and symbolizes exactly what I am riding for.

Aniela watching her mentor Lanny Leach ride her mustang, Nipomo. “Lanny helped train him for less than two months. This was the day I would take over training and had nerves coursing through my veins!” Tucson, Arizona, 2017 – photo by Keenan Newman

The Colorado Trail, Colorado, 2017

The problem we face with the Sacred Headwaters and the public land of America being threatened by development – it’s the same problem facing wild horses. Due to the bill that was just passed by our president 60,000 wild horses are on the verge of being euthanized. And just like that, a living symbol of America’s history will be lost forever.   

Public opinion is that wild horses are unmaintained and overpopulated, but the fact is that corporate America cares more about investing space in factory farming and industrial development than it cares about protecting the wild. It’s a complicated issue, but I’m dedicated to learning more so I can be an advocate for wild horses along for advocating threatened land.

The fact is that corporate America cares more about investing space in factory farming and industrial development than it cares about protecting the wild.

On her next training ride

I’m really excited for my next ride on the Arizona Trail. The trail spans 800 miles from the Mexico border through beautiful desert landscapes, including the Grand Canyon, to the state of Utah.

Devin Whetstone, the Emmy award winning cinematographer of the documentary film Given will be joining me. It will be a great opportunity to begin filming to rally the kind of support I need to bring Riding Wild to life. 

On the logistics of planning, and burnout

I’ve been a one woman show for a long time. I have managed my social media growth, marketing, creative design, sponsorship outreach, singlehandedly, all while embracing the immense challenge of training wild horses.  

It mostly feels like there is an unbelievable amount of work and that I’m teetering on the edge of total overwhelm.

And then there’s the part of me that’s like, okay, let’s just keep going. You know you’re doing this because it’s what you love, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. I’ve really had to surrender myself to that, and trust that if it takes another year then it’s going to be more successful because of that extra time spent preparing.

On unexpected challenges and wildfire

My wolf dog had certain health issues so he won’t join the journey [as originally planned]. As of now the final team will consist of my two current mustangs, Sunna and Nipomo, and another mustang I will adopt and train within the next year.

When I took my first mustang Jax on a 500 mile Colorado trail training ride, it became pretty clear about halfway through that he was just not happy with any of it. I only want horses with me who are really made for this kind of journey, so I made the decision to not bring him along.

Along with those things – my house just burned down and we had to evacuate my horses. We were affected by the Thomas Fire in December [the largest wildfire in California history]. We had moved to Ojai to train and bring this project to life, so it was traumatizing to have this happen here.

Having to evacuate my horses in the early morning, seeing the fire and smoke encroaching the property in front of my very eyes, was terrifying. My horses could have died in the fire, as many other horses did.

“Nipomo, come.” Beckoning to her mustang in a cloud of ash, Ojai, California, 2018 – photo by Mariana Schulze

On rising from the ashes

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this loss is gratitude. Gratitude for my life, for my family and horses lives, and for the knowledge gained through experience. Life is still here even though the fire took so much away.

If anything, this has made me more passionate about protecting nature because, while these fires are natural, the rate and impact they are having is unnatural. It shows us how vulnerable and out of balance things are, and how badly we need to wake up and make changes.

The wildfire made me feel more of an urgency to continue on this journey and share how vital it is to explore our own connection to the wild.  


Final note: Aniela will embark on her second long-distance training ride on the Arizona Trail on March 12, 2018. She will make the 4,000-mile journey from Campo, California to the Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia over 7-8 months, tentatively planned for 2019.

Much of Aniela’s riding gear was lost when the Thomas fire burned her home and training ground in Ojai, California. You can support her journey through her campaign, find out more on her website ridingwild.com, and follow along on Facebook and @riding.wild on Instagram.

Hailey Hirst is the Content Editor for She Explores and a multi-passionate creative who thrives on the often-overlooked details. She lives in Kelowna, British Columbia. Find her on Instagram

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