By Neala Schwartzberg
The image of wild horses running free has long fascinated us. They seem the icon of unfettered living and of America’s Wild West. In reality, these Mustangs (the word comes from the Spanish mesteno, meaning stray, or ownerless) are perhaps the most endangered horses in the country. However, there is one man with a vision who is working with volunteers to save them.
Carlos LoPopolo is the relentless force behind the New Mexico Horse Project. It started, as do many big quests, with something quite small: the desire to write an article on Spanish Colonial horses.
A Bit of Horse History
Experts estimate the possible origin of the genus Equus (which includes modern horses) at about 3.4 to 3.9 million years ago here in North America. But these horses didn’t stay local. They migrated across land bridges to Asia, Europe, and Africa, making the journey back to North America as well.
Many experts assert that these horses faced local extinction in what is now the United States and that it was the Spanish who reintroduced them to New Mexico via the Caribbean up into Mexico and then on into the Rio Grande valley. Of course, the Spanish weren’t the only ones who showed up in the New World with horses. The French and English explorers and colonists also brought their own animals from home.
The Native American Question
The question of whether local horses had disappeared is more a debate than a slam-dunk. The Dakota/Lakota people, as well as other Indian nations, assert that the original North American horse did not become extinct and has in fact been part of their culture pre-dating any contact with Europeans. In other words, they already had horses. That is until the 19th century, when the United States government ordered the horses killed to prevent the reluctant inhabitants of the newly created reservations from leaving.
Whichever theory is the actuality, one thing is for certain: “Native peoples adapted quickly to this new form of transportation,” says Dr. Paul Polechla, an equine biologist. “By the 19th century they came to be so skilled at riding them that they were known as ‘Lords of the Plains’.”
Either way, there was soon a mélange of horses, both wild and domestic, across the United States, and over time their genetic heritage became shuffled more thoroughly than cards in a poker game. As development surged across the nation, however, horses became less and less valued. These wild herds became a nuisance and started to disappear from the landscape.
Some people became concerned over their destruction. The Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act of 1971 outlawed the capture for slaughter of wild horses (and burros) and made the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) responsible for protecting and managing the wild herds.
That concern didn’t last long. Ranchers didn’t like wild horses, open land became housing developments, and wild horses became less and less an issue of public concern and more and more a “nuisance.”
Preserving the Herds
In 1999 Carlos LoPopolo embarked on a project to answer the question: Are Spanish Colonial horses still roaming the lands of New Mexico? He began working with Dr. Gus Cothran, director of the Equine Blood Typing Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky, to run the analyses. “We did a roundup of 40 wild horses and drew blood samples,” LoPopolo explains. At the time, this was the best technique available.
Only two horses qualified as being descendants of the Spanish horses, based on the DNA. Undeterred, LoPopolo received permission from one of the pueblos to analyze their horses. Only 7 of the 150 qualified.
Patiently he rounded up more and more horses to determine their heritage. At last count he’d found 167 wild horses of Spanish Colonial origin. Despite the fact that his search still continues, and that the horses are reproducing on preserve land, there are distressingly few remaining.
“We’re losing so many horses, particularly Mustangs,” LoPopolo laments. “People are selling our wild horses for meat, and it won’t take long before they’re eradicated.”
Thus the New Mexico Horse Project (NMHP) not only documents, but also attempts to save, these Spanish-descended Mustangs and preserve the bloodline of a horse that goes back thousands of years.
Keeping the Mustang Wild
Describing the Mustang as “one of the most honest, kindest horses,” LoPopolo also wants to preserve their wild and free life. To that end, he and his volunteers also seek to educate the public, ranchers in particular, about the importance of the Mustang to pasture land. “When you’re growing new pastures, you need these horses to produce waste that can turn into fertilizer, and horse manure actually fosters growth of new shoots,” says LoPopolo.
Dr. Polechla explains further: “One of the most common behaviors of both cows and horses is grazing. But horses have a different digestive system, mixing seeds with a rich humus. The grass seeds they ingest become a fertilized seed packet, making the horses a long distance seed gardener of grasses.”
When the NMHP finds a wild Spanish Mustang, it does not tame and breed it in the service of creating a larger, but domesticated, herd. Instead, the Mustang is relocated to a preserve where it is allowed to roam free with others of its kind.
There are several places in New Mexico where the Mustangs can do this, including Campbell Ranch here in the East Mountains. The Campbell Ranch preserve came about in 2001 through an agreement between the NMHP and Robert Gately, president of the Campbell Corporation.
While visitors are not allowed onto Campbell Ranch to directly view the horses, those traveling the Turquoise Trail might spot a glimpse of them. According to Dr. Polechla, the best places to do so are alongside the highway through clearings between Tijeras and Golden.
There may be opportunities for future up close sightings as well: LoPopolo is planning to purchase a ranch in Magdalena and another in Socorro, both of which will be open to the public.
To learn more about the New Mexico Wild Horse Project, log onto wildhorsesofthewestartgallery.com. Donations toward fencing and other expenses may also be made through the website, or by visiting the Wild Horses of the West Art Gallery & Socorro Leather at 705-C N California St. in Socorro. All profits go to support the preserves.
“Mustang means a horse without an owner,” says LoPopolo. “Once a Mustang is owned by somebody it’s no longer a Mustang. Technically, it’s just a horse.”
New Mexico Wild Horse Project