Mustangs on Wild Horse Mesa carry centuries-old genes

Hardy horses survive with help of one determined photographer and volunteers

By Celinda Reynolds Kaelin
Posted 8/1/19

Shaking his long, shaggy mane and snorting, the wild stallion watches from his rocky vantage point, his herd safely grazing nearby and out of sight. It is 1779, and Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza's …

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Mustangs on Wild Horse Mesa carry centuries-old genes

Hardy horses survive with help of one determined photographer and volunteers

Posted

Shaking his long, shaggy mane and snorting, the wild stallion watches from his rocky vantage point, his herd safely grazing nearby and out of sight. It is 1779, and Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza's Spanish army is winding its way along the valley floor below - 2,600 horses, 600 mounted soldiers and the 34 Comanche women and children captured during an epic battle with their chief, Cuerno (Tavibo Naritgant.)

The stallion's piercing call echoes down the mountain as he tries in vain to add these distant relatives to his growing herd. His ancestors escaped from these Spanish people over 140 years earlier, and he periodically raids the horse herds of nearby Ute Indians, using this same shrill whinny to entice their mares. Two hundred and forty years later, in 2019, his progeny roam over the same rocky mountain top, dangerously wandering onto black ribbons of asphalt where yellow highway signs bearing their image caution drivers. These are the wild horses of Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, representing the heritage of the Old Spanish Trail.

I was thrilled to visit these heritage horses, living ambassadors from the Spanish entrada of the late 1500s. My husband and I have come to Costilla's Wild Horse Mesa where Judy Barnes graciously gives us a tour of the dozen bands comprising the 150-horse herd that still roams free. In 2018, we sold our Colorado ranch of 30 years and relocated to Taos where we recently became involved in the Old Spanish Trail Association. We eagerly accepted Barnes' invitation to view these wild mustangs.

My heart aches for my old white quarter horse, Tess, as we encounter the aged white stallion peacefully grazing near her home. I am amazed that the young, band stallion has not driven him off. Barnes explains that his band seems to have incorporated him as "elder" and the young foals follow his every move, much as acolytes.

Even at age 32, "Papa" retains the elegant beauty of the Spanish mustang. His rippling flaxen main falls almost two feet down his arched neck, and his bushy forelock issues between well-shaped ears down a classic mustang face. His feet, unshod, are small and trim as an Arab's. Mustangs are noted for their hardy feet and were historically able to outdistance purebreds with none of their shoeing or hoof problems. They thrived on the silicon-rich grasses of the mountains, which added to the strength of their feet.

We spend a pleasant afternoon, chauffeured by Barnes across the top of Wild Horse (San Pedro) Mesa and down along the shore of Sanchez Reservoir, where we "meet" each of the dozen bands of this heritage horse herd. I am amazed at their sleek, shiny coats, well-fleshed ribs and overall good health. They appear in better condition than many domestic horse herds I've encountered. When I ask how this can be, Barnes assures me that she keeps close tabs on the bands and works with a local veterinarian who provides antibiotics when needed. When she finds any illness, Barnes mixes the medicine with molasses, and coats alfalfa pellets which the herd has come to expect from her.

I wryly note that this is the same method that the Colorado Department of Wildlife uses for the bighorn sheep to prevent heartworm. One of our ranching neighbors was hired by the department to doctor and feed the sheep, and my husband often helped him.

Now Barnes spreads similar alfalfa cubes near her pickup, whistling and calling each band stallion by name. The wild horses eagerly pick their way through the sage, and we are joined by a half dozen mares and several foals.

Barnes' passion for these wild horses is palpable, and not just a passing fancy. Over the past 20 years she has used her modest retirement income for their feed and care. She has formed a nonprofit organization, Spirit of the Wild Horse Foundation, and uses donations from wild horse tours to augment their feeding and care. Geneticists have found that a healthy herd must have 150 to 160 members to prevent inbreeding and ensure genetic viability. Currently, there are about 150 head in the dozen different bands that make up the Wild Horse Mesa herd. In contrast, fewer than one-third of the herds managed by BLM have the required numbers to ensure their future.

Water is currently Barnes' greatest challenge for their survival. Several bands have staked out the reservoir, driving off rival bands, and the drought has dried up the alternate watering holes. Barnes is now trying to raise the $35,000 needed to drill a well (with solar pump) to provide year-round watering tanks. The area is open range, and the water will also help the elk, deer and antelope and other wild animals in the area.

The Spanish lineage of this heritage herd of mustang descendants is similar to the famous Chincoteague ponies on the East Coast (also a heritage herd) who are carefully protected. Unfortunately, the Wild Horse Mesa herd lacks any protection other than that offered by Barnes and her volunteers.

Several years ago, she followed the trail of horse thieves all the way to the Mexican border (Taos News, "Wild Horse Mesa," Feb. 29, 2016) where they probably sold the two dozen horses from this herd for slaughter. As I hear her poignant story, I can only wonder how we transformed from a nation that hanged horse thieves to a nation that kills horses. I don't condone either solution, but there must be a better way.

The spirit of these wild horses touches something deep in the human psyche. On the faraway Asian steppes, the Mongols considered horses to be the most sacred of animals. Genghis Khan carried a spirit banner (sulde) made from his favorite stallions' manes and tails tied along the shaft of a spear, as he led his warriors in conquest of the known world.

Deep blue-gray storm clouds gather over the Sangre de Cristo range as Barnes shepherds us to meet the last of the bands. Three new foals race toward us with the herd, carefully balancing on their spindly, giraffelike legs, tails arched high and noses in the air. They are the future of these heritage horses, and I can only hope that the gathering storm doesn't portend their future.

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