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Judy Barnes stops to visit a group of wild horses on Wild Horse Mesa last month in San Luis, Colo.

TAOS — 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,” Barnes said.

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 Bureau of Land Management 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 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 gray. Many of them have white markings on their face, making them easy to identify.

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

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,” Barnes said. “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, Calif., 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 it.

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 day-old foal would have been a coyote’s meal 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,” Valdez said. “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,” Barnes said. “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 Colorado Department of Transportation 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.”

This story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister publication of The Santa Fe New Mexican.

(11) comments

Penelope Melko

The only homo sapians that are indiginous in North America are Indians. The rest of you people posting, me and the rest of humans are interlopers that have decimated the entire planet. And you complain that horses are too large? Get real.

Here is a little something to munch on. Keep your mouths shut from now on.

https://timeline.com/american-settlers-climate-change-5b7b68bd9064

stewart lands

It is funny how some Americans judge themselves by the length of time their family has spent on this continent (as in "My great-great-ever-so-great grandfather came across on the Mayflower). Yet one never hears the French or South Africans compliment themselves on the length of time their families spent on their own continents (as in, my family has evolved in South Africa since the Precambrian). That said, every human in North America came here from somewhere else--the only difference is in timing. Those we call "indigenous" migrated here thousands of years ago; others mere hundreds, decades, or perhaps even yesterday.

The point you are making, that those who arrived first have the greatest stake in deciding the future of our continent and its wildlife is an interesting one. By that principle, the votes of recent immigrants should count for less than those who have lived here longer. Though provoking, perhaps, but un-American, unrealistic, and not helpful in resolving this issue.

The fact is, human overpopulation is a huge problem. Wherever you live. Whenever you arrived. And one of our biggest faults is introducing our favored species to places they do not belong. Pigs destroy the nests of Pacific sea turtles. Cats destroy Hawaiian birds. Rats destroy arctic birds. Horses and cattle destroy the native wildlife of the American West. No one who is aware of this problem would argue that humans are not the cause of the problem, but only those who have no interest in resolving it will suggest that we ignore it until it goes away.

D. Stark

It would be much preferred to reduce the cattle industry and transition to a healthier, more ethical and humane lifestyle. Let the wild reclaim itself - let mankind rethink its role.

stewart lands

The problem with horses is that they are much larger, stronger and mobile than the wildlife species with which they compete for resources. Well-meaning horse advocates seem unaware of the damage they inflict on the native species living in those areas to which they are introduced. The National Academy of Sciences has recognized the harm they cause, and has encouraged wildlife management agencies to control their numbers, but there are few willing to subject themselves to the negative politics associated with responsible management of this invasive, yet popular, species. Advocates for horses have resisted every means of population control, suggesting that horse populations should be allowed to grow unmolested, allowing nature to take its course in controlling their numbers. That is, until nature is prepared to do so by subjecting them to drought, etc. at which point advocates complain that land managers do not provide them with the food, water, etc, needed to survive lean times!

Mesa Verde National Park has documented horses driving even such large species as elk away from the water sources upon which they depend. By the time that horses become stressed, it is often too late for the smaller, less mobile species. While population correction is tragic, it is nature's way of protecting the land. Rather than focus entirely on one single and exotic species, perhaps we should take a greater interest in the ecosystem as a whole. It is time to reduce the number of horses, along with cattle and other livestock grazing public lands. Horse advocates would have us believe that we must choose between more of one, or the other, but it does no good to remove cattle only to see them replaced by equally voracious horses. Why choose between a kick to the shin or a blow to the head when we may refuse either? As it stands today, American taxpayers are on the hook for billions of dollars in management costs already, and the destruction to our sensitive public lands is incalculable. It is time to say "enough is enough." If you want a horse, adopt one and pay to maintain it on your own land.

John Cook

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Cheryl Meyer

" If you want a horse, adopt one and pay to maintain it on your own land."

But don't put a horse into a small pen and think that's okay. I see far too many sad horses in small enclosures with only dirt and no vegetation. The horses have eaten every blade of greenery and get no exercise. I have owned a horse and just can't believe horses are kept this way.

Erika Wanenmacher

Replying to Stewart Lands:

Wild horse advocates have long pushed for more humane herd management that is based in science. The Marr plan is such a plan. In fact, there are volunteers who raise the funds and spend may hours on the range documenting and administering PZP, a birth control drug, to many herds mares. The 2020 BLM budget for wild horse herd management was 91 million dollars, with only 1% allotted to fertility control. It cost approximately $5 a day to hold a horse. The vast majority of our tax dollars for this "management" goes to the contracts for inhumane helicopter roundups and long-term holding pens, as well as off-site pastures. Who benefits? Ranchers, who pay in the single digits for their leases of our public lands per cow. They reap the rewards for the roundups as well as the holding pens and pastures. Less than 2% of the beef sold in the US is raised on public lands. The rest is shipped overseas, as are the horses who are sold to kill buyers who truck them across the borders to slaughter.

I urge people to investigate this situation for themselves. There is a huge amount of information coming to light, led by advocacy groups such as Wild Mustangs Forever. These horses are our protected inheritance. Not feral, or invasive, as ranchers would have you believe, but living icons of our history, from the Spanish, the Native Americans who claim to have horses pre-Columbus (there is indeed fossil proof of this), and as a symbol of our wild legacy, like the Bald Eagles, who are protected in the same declaration.

stewart lands

Horses evolved in North America before spreading to Asia and Europe, but paleontologists agree that they went extinct at the end of the Ice Age, along with camels, giant ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons and the other megafauna of the time. The ecosystem they inhabited no longer exists. Where horses once fell prey to saber-toothed cats as well as lions and wolves much larger than any existing anywhere on earth today, they now have no native, effective predators besides man. Advocates suggest that today's predators are capable of controlling their numbers, but this has proven false time and time again. Consider how horse populations continue to grow even in states such as California , or in million-acre Nellis Air Force base, where mountain lions are completely protected. Today's puny predators are simply not up to the task. So, while horses once inhabited North America, they are no more "native" to today's ecosystem than is Tyrannosaurus Rex, which was also inhabited this continent long ago and under a completely different set of circumstances.

It is interesting that when advocates speak of natural controls they always omit the lone, remaining native predator on horses--and that is man. It was our mistake to introduce horses into the current ecosystem, and it therefore our responsibility to protect the rest of the system from them, much as we must protect the system from our other pet species such as cattle. And, yes, horses are an "iconic" species, but that simply means that they matter to us--it does not indicate any value whatsoever to the rest of the system. And if we have become so self-centered that we believe that life revolves entirely around us, then I suppose we will invite more horses to the detriment of every truly native species on the range. But, considering that American once dedicated and entire stamp series to longhorn and Hereford cattle (also iconic, critical to the development of this nation, and symbolic of our wild legacy), we should be careful not to confuse our human preferences with environmentally sound arguments for invasive species.

If there can be no environmentally sound argument for more horses, then the sole question becomes how do we best care for (or dispose of) those already removed from the range and prevent further population growth in remaining wild herds? We could increase funding for the BLM so that it can continue to feed and care for captured horses while also providing contraceptives to a much larger numbers of wild horses. But that would require acceptance that horse populations must be limited, which is the one thing that advocacy groups appear least willing to accept. If we cannot agree to do this, then what plan would advocates suggest that accomplishes the reduction of their numbers? I have no doubt that Americans would accept any plan that costs less and protects native species--and especially one that costs much less and does a much better job of protecting habitat. The problem, for advocates, is that heading down this road will only increase interest in more of the same. If a little cheaper and healthier is good, then a lot cheaper and healthier is better.

Erika Wanenmacher

Not all scientists agree that horses went extinct in the Americas. There is large evidence that they traveled over the land bridge to Siberia, but native peoples also claim to have had horses before Cortez, as I stated before. Horses are indeed predated on by mountain lions. The environmental science relating to wild horses is as controversial as the roundups. There are indeed plans that are cost-effective AND environmentally sound. The MARR Plan is one. Wild horse advocates DO want effective range management! As I stated before, the PZP fertility control drug is very effective, and there are already VOLUNTEERS working to administer this drug, especially in contrast to the barbaric and inhumane sterilization procedures that the BLM continues to promote. We need to reduce the amount of cattle and sheep on our ranges, which have a far greater degrading effect on our rangeland. Essentially, the fight is about money, not wildlife.

Richard Vinet

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stewart lands

I agree that a very small number of scientists do not agree that horses became extinct in North America during Pre-Columbian times. But some scientists have similarly argued that smoking does not cause cancer and that human action has not accelerated climate change. Even science is corruptible, and it would be worth investigating the motives of the very few who make such claims. When it comes to horses, any claims that they did not become extinct are specious, at best, and perpetuated mostly by those forced to publish in journals that cannot meet standards of peer review. Who, exactly, are these skeptics who's professional opinions deserve even greater respect than the curators of the Smithsonian Institution or Chicago Field Museum, all of whom conclude that horses were reintroduce to North America by Europeans, following their previous extinction?

As for native peoples, individuals from one or two tribes have indeed cited oral tradition claiming that they possessed horses in the years immediately preceding the arrival of Columbus. But, for each of these there are many dozens of tribes who claim they did not. Do you believe it likely that any tribe might keep its horses a secret from it own neighbors? In any event, these same tribes claim their people were guided from their subterranean first home to the surface of the earth by a wolf, so there is only so much stock one can place in oral tradition.

And, yes, mountain lions can kill the occasional horse--mostly the sick or young--but there is not one population that is limited by such predation. Clearly, if predators cannot kill enough to keep the population in check, then other means must be considered.

For some, the fight IS only about money. Special interests such as horse advocates and cattlemen both see it that way, and demand taxpayer dollars to support their own preferences. But there are many who place environmental priorities first, and for these it only makes sense to reduce both cattle and horses. Wildlife cannot benefit from the reduction of one if the other is allowed to multiply and take the place of the first. You mention several plans, but if these do not achieve the goal of reducing horses, then they cannot achieve what Congress intended. The question remains: Are horse advocates willing to accept fewer of them? If not, then any plan you suggest is as good as another as far as I am concerned, but will not resolve the problem of environmental degradation. At that point this becomes a battle between special interests to win control of the taxpayer purse, and there is no moral high ground on either side--only personal preference.

Welcome to the discussion.

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