The wild horses that live on Wild Horse Mesa just north of Costilla still run free, in part, due to the efforts of one woman who has made it her mission to protect them and ensure they don't die out in New Mexico's ongoing drought.

"They need a pond up here - to keep them off the highway," said Judy Barnes, a horse lover and amateur photographer who started having water trucked-in to fill a pond so the horses and other wildlife could survive. "It's for their own protection," she said.

In 2007, Barnes started a nonprofit organization called Spirit of the Wild Horse to preserve and protect the horses. But not everyone on the mesa thinks her plan is a good one.

Wild horses

Barnes has investigated the horses' bloodlines through DNA testing. "I'm getting very high percentage - in the 90s - of Spanish blood," she said. "Many of them are descendants of the Spanish horses that came through with the Conquistadores."

The Spaniards brought their horses to the American Southwest in the 1500s. Spanish horses were later bred by the U.S. military with Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, resulting in what are commonly known as Mustangs.

Barnes said she's even seen traits of Przewalski's horses, which live on the steppes in central Asia. Przewalski's horses are actually the only 'wild' breed of horse. The others are feral, meaning they came from once-domesticated animals.

"There's a lot of different bloodlines in what is called a Mustang," said Barnes.

Feral horses and ponies are found in France, Sweden, Iceland and the British Isles, according to the American Museum of Natural History. There are also herds in 10 western states, and on barrier islands off the mid-Atlantic. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management counted more than 86,000 feral horses and burros in 2021. Nevada accounted for more than half of them.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which aimed to protect and manage "unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States."

The law sets limits on horse populations, "which is the number of wild horses and burros that can thrive in balance with other public land resources and uses." The limit is called the Appropriate Management Level, and that number today is 26,785.

To lower populations, the BLM rounds up and auctions horses to private owners. In 2020, the agency reported more than 10,000 animals were removed from federal land, and more than 6,000 were placed into private care.

Feral horses live in bands, which include one or two stallions, multiple mares, and their young offspring. Bands travel together in herds.

Mares choose whether or not to stay with a particular stallion. And when male horses grow to around 4 years old, they are pushed out to form "bachelor bands." They'll roam this way for a year or two until they are ready to begin a family of their own.

Most of the horses on the mesa are smaller than average, because they have less available food and water. Their coloring includes 50 shades of brown along with black and grey. Many of them have white markings on their face, making them easy to identify.

"These horses have been here forever. Many, many generations," said Barnes.

Horse whisperer

Wild Horse Mesa is around 60 miles north of Taos near the Colorado border, and includes the Sanchez Reservoir and a section of the Old Spanish Trail.

The Melby Ranch, which owns a good portion of the mesa, has been selling land to housing developers and using the wild horses as a selling point. They used to fill a pond at the south end of the mesa near Spirit Mountain to help wild horses and other wildlife, like deer, elk and bear.

The pond was dug in the 1930s to water sheep. It's about 30 by 20 feet in size, and 2 feet deep.

"The last three or four years, they would not put any water out for the wildlife and the horses," said Barnes. "So I decided -- I was going to fill it."

Barnes has lived on 40 acres of land near the pond for 17 years. She was born in Newport Beach, California, and once lived in Taos. Standing around 5 feet tall, she has short, white hair and knows how to protect herself. Her house is off-grid.

Barnes bought water from local sources, and had it trucked up the mesa to fill the pond. She said a 3,000-gallon truckload costs her $500.

"When we went with the second load of water, there's 50 horses there," she said. "They found the pond already. They're coming from every direction to get water." She plans to keep it topped off through the summer, despite the high price tag.

There are around 125 horses that live on Wild Horse Mesa, according to Barnes. "And about 75 down on Dos Hermanos Ranch, which I'm trying to lure back up on top of the mesa," she said.

She has given names to her stallions; Tank, Irish, Rocky and Napoleon, and to her mares; Allegra, Chloe, Sugar and Star. In addition to the water, she provides them with hay, salt and alfalfa cubes. When a horse gets sick or abandoned, Barnes rescues them.

Her nonprofit runs an Orphaned Foal Project that takes in abandoned baby horses and nurses them until they are able to return to the herd.

Last week, Barnes found an orphaned foal she named Leah in an alfalfa field near the mesa, and is providing her with electrolytes and rescue medicine. She said that 1-day-old foal would have been coyote dinner otherwise.

Competing for resources

Three years ago, Barnes began looking at drilling a well. "I've got water on my property," she said. "The thermography surveyor is coming to see what the depth is. I've got somebody to finance a good portion of it." The well water would be stored in a tank on her property, and tapped regularly to refill the pond.

Earl Valdez, the manager of the nearby Dos Hermanos Ranch where cattle and goats graze, said the horses had lived just fine on the mesa for decades. He said Barnes was "messing up the ecosystem by bringing in so many new horses."

"We are overrun by horses as they continue to multiply," said Valdez. "It's irresponsible."

Valdez, who has been working on the ranch since he was 7 years old and took over its management from his father, said the growing number of horses is now competing with his cattle grazing business.

Permanent protection

Barnes said what she really wants is to provide permanent protections for the feral horses. She wanted to buy the land on the mesa where the pond sits, but the owner won't sell it.

"There are no federal protections, unless they are on federal land," said Barnes. "I'm their only protection."

Her nonprofit organization has purchased and released feral horses back into the wild, added signs warning motorists of crossing horses with the CDOT and led native grass restoration projects.

Barnes said she has also reached out to her elected representatives to try and get the region declared a wildlife preserve. She's also reached out to other conservation nonprofits, like The Nature Conservancy, and angel investors who support wildlife causes.

Barnes said the horses are part of our history, and should be protected. "They deserve to live free and wild."

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