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A home on the range

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The group Placitas WILD has forged a rare relationship with San Felipe Pueblo leaders, who are allowing 400 acres of tribal land to be used for the Wild Horse Preserve, a donation-funded, mostly fenced space for about 100 horses that organizers worry would otherwise end up at a Mexican horse slaughterhouse or starving in the desert.

Those involved in Placitas WILD hope their effort will offer inspiration to others in their community, state and country struggling over whether unowned horses roaming free are deserving of protection as symbols of the American West or are unmanaged livestock that need population control to prevent environmental destruction and herd starvation.

The expensive and time-consuming project eases a tiny bit of the tension in one “wild” horse pocket of the state, the village of Placitas.

At the same time, a Lincoln County woman, Caroline McCoy, herself the catalyst for a lawsuit about horses she had removed from her property near Ruidoso, has launched a project to DNA test the Placitas horses to determine if this particular controversial band of equines might be true descendents of horses used by Spanish conquerors, as many wild horse advocates claim.

If so, she hopes there could be enough incentive for the marketplace of breeders to save them, though she said initial indications show otherwise.

Virginia-based horse geneticist Philip Sponenberg has for years worked to get an official classification for Colonial Spanish horses, a feat not entirely accepted in the larger horse world.

In his work, he reports that there are “pockets of ‘more pure’ Iberian blood horses from that Spanish colonization period. These seem to be centered around Native American colonies in the more spacious and less humanly occupied western states such as Oklahoma, and New Mexico.”

The Placitas horses indeed look distinctive, with scooped ears and barrel-chested bodies with short legs suited to running fast over rocky desert terrain.

But DNA tests don’t help prove purity. The tests can show a Spanish heritage, but that heritage is shared by many modern horses. And most of the remaining descendants of the horses used by Spanish conquistadors have been crossbred, Sponenberg writes.

Because of the crossbreeding, McCoy said horse and livestock preservation groups have not shown interest in the Placitas horses.

That leaves Sandy Johnson hustling to keep the Placitas WILD preserve afloat.

Last year, she and her husband, both retired software engineers, spent $25,000 of their own money for hay. They solicit donations for the $40,000 yearly cost of feed and upkeep of fences and water wells on the preserve, which they and other wild horse advocates launched in 2015.

She and horse colleague Lina Sosa visit the horses every day to feed and check on water, though they also employ a San Felipe ranch hand at a substantial labor wage.

She is working with San Felipe land manager and tribal historic preservation officer Ricardo Ortiz to move the pueblo toward setting up a wild horse tourism operation, which Ortiz said could also help the pueblo, the public and the horses, especially since birth-control measures are used on the horses.

“We don’t want to bother those horses. They have been there hundreds of years. And who are we to say that any living creature does not have a right to walk on this land?” Ortiz said. “The preserve is a possible solution to the issue.”

Ortiz was unable make the preserve available for a Journal visit.

Sosa says that leaving the horses free to roam on private land unchecked isn’t a solution because they can be a road hazard and neighbors don’t always like it, leading to calls to the state’s Livestock Board and then possibly to an auction house.

“If you really want to protect the animals, you have to think of the consequences,” she said.

So she and Johnson also try to intervene if a wild or feral horse wanders into town, a fairly common occasion that necessitated them working together to build miles of fencing along the Placitas and Bureau of Land Management boundary.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this,” Johnson said. “We don’t get as much help as we need. But it’s love. What are you going to do?”

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