MUSTANGS IN NORTHERN NEW MEXICO
By Steve Tapia
Wild Horse Mesa is just 5 miles north of the New Mexico-Colorado border. Photo by Mark Schumann.
Groups of untamed horses have been roving through the sagebrush-dotted Northern New Mexico/Southern Colorado landscape for decades. Their draping manes and dust-stirring strides are a symbol of the ruggedness, deliverance and solitude of an unfenced West.
Scientists have long studied the best ways to train and treat domesticated horses, but they largely have ignored the behavior of free-ranging horses, according to Wendy Williams in “The Epic History of Our Noble Companion” in Scientific American, 2015. Observations from long-term studies of wild horses show that the conventional male-centric view of their power dynamics is wrong. In fact, females (mares) call the shots, employing tactics such as cooperation and persistence to get their way.
Horses are unusual among hoofed mammals. Many members of the Equus genus typically roam in large herds, seeking safety in numbers. Wild horses, in contrast, live year-round in small groups, or “bands” of three to 10 individuals, according to Williams. Closely allied, mares and their young (foals) form the core of the band.
Wild Horse Mesa in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado near the Northern New Mexico border is located in a sunny, fertile alpine valley that is about 150 miles long and 75 miles wide, surrounded by the San Juan, La Garita and the Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges. The San Luis Valley is named after Saint Louis, who was King Louis IX of France from 1226-1270 A.D. During his reign, he commanded the largest army and wealthiest kingdom in Europe, and it is believed that the San Luis Valley was named by Spanish Explorer Francisco de Coronado in 1540, when he discovered the valley on the Feast Day of San Luis.
Some of the domesticated horses introduced to the area by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s escaped or were let loose and became wild. Over time, they became tougher by adapting to the environment. At some point, the Spanish horses bred with the original, primitive North American wild horses.
Wild Horse Mesa (also known as San Pedro Mesa), is home to about 140 wild horses, broken into nine bands roaming on private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands. According to tribal history, the Ute Indians acquired horses from the Spanish in 1580 and subsequently, captive Utes escaped with horses from Santa Fe in 1637, making the Utes the first American Indians to introduce the horse into their culture. Only three herds, with less than 600 horses, remain in New Mexico, down from 6,000 horses in 1974. In all, an estimated 45,000 wild horses live in western North America.
Northern New Mexico’s wild horses live among mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, small game, numerous songbirds, eagles and hawks, black bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep. Vegetation is mostly sagebrush, rabbitbrush (or chamisa), piñon pine and juniper.
The wild horses we see today are also known as “mustangs,” from the Spanish word mestenos, meaning “stray animals” according to “Mustangs and Wild Horses,” by Gail B. Stewart, 1996. Wild horses are smaller than most domestic horses. A wild stallion (male) is considered large if it weighs 1,000 pounds, whereas a domestic thoroughbred stallion typically weighs 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. When people see a mustang for the first time they are usually surprised at “how thin the horse seems,” according to Stewart. Unlike domestic horses, wild horses must work hard to find enough grass to eat. A healthy mustang can weigh as little as 650 pounds.
Horses living on the Wild Horse Mesa, however, have a food safety net. Judy Barnes, founder and director of the Taos-based nonprofit Spirit of the Wild Horse, has permission from landowners to feed the mesa mustangs. Most of the wild horses in the area are living on private land and their survival is typically not a top priority for government agencies, she said.
“I feed them to keep them out of the valley,” Barnes explained, “because people come in on the back roads, load the horses up in trailers and take them to slaughter in Mexico.”
The approximately 140 Wild Horse Mesa mustangs are “not a viable breeding population,” Barnes said. Two hundred is a healthier number; with numbers less than that, inbreeding can occur. Protecting the mustangs also benefits humans.
“I want the horses to be here for future generations. I want kids to be able to see these beautiful animals,” she added.
Just an hour north of Taos near Fort Garland, Colorado, to the west of town is another area where mustangs are often seen.
In Northern New Mexico about an hour west of Taos, the El Rito herd is present in the Mesa de la Jarita territory of Carson National Forest in Río Arriba County.
Barnes also gives tours at the Wild Horse Mesa. For more information, go online to spiritofthewildhorse.com or call (719) 588-7177.
To Mesa de la Jarita from Taos (about 1 hour)
Take U.S. 64 west across the Río Grande Gorge Bridge and follow U.S. 64 west to Tres Piedras, take a left onto State Road 111.
To Fort Garland, Colorado, from Taos (about 1 hour, 20 minutes)
Take State Road 522 north to CO-159 north
Wild Horse Mesa
To San Luis Valley from Taos (about 2 hours)
Take U.S. 64 north, which becomes U.S. 285 north to CO-17 east in Alamosa, Colorado. Follow CO-17 to State Road N110