Wild horses of Sandoval County have been in the news recently, including in the Sandoval Signpost, in particular concerning the debate over a new public ordinance banning the feeding of wild horses in Placitas, a ban set to start September 1.
Advocates of the ban say wild horses have caused car accidents by wandering onto roads, while opponents say it should be the right of property owners to feed animals on their land. This debate will likely continue, but where did these horses even come from? And what is the larger history of wild horses in Sandoval County?
A Bit of Horse History
“The evolutionary lineage of the horse is among the best-documented in all paleontology,” says the most-current entry on horses in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Fossils of the earliest-known hooved horse-like animals have been discovered in both Europe and North America, dating back to the Eocene Epoch, to at-least-33.9 million years ago — to an early animal since named Eohippus — and, “Although Eohippus fossils occur in both the Old and the New World, the subsequent evolution of the horse took place chiefly in North America.” The later evolutions of horses in North America, from Mesohippus to the modern Equus, eventually migrated all over both Americas, and toward Eurasia via the Bering land bridge which connected Eurasia to North America back when ocean levels were lower due to so much seawater being frozen into glaciers.
Horses thrived in North America, eating grasses that also thrived here in New Mexico. According to an extensively researched 2012 article by Neil Clarkson on Horsetalk.co.nz, horse proteins have been found on tools used by an early indigenous people of the Southwest, the Clovis people, a people named for bones and tools found in what is now Clovis, New Mexico. “Biochemical analysis showed that some of the 13,000-year-old implements were used to butcher ice-age camels and horses,” wrote Clarkson. “... The artifacts that showed animal protein residues were each tested three times to ensure accuracy.”
For reasons still-uncertain, horses went extinct in the Southwest as recently as 7,600 years ago. They may have been hunted to extinction by humans, may have been killed by disease, or the climate of their time may have been cooled by a meteorite crashing into what’s now Canada. Or their climate and the available vegetation may have been altered by other factors. By that time, sea levels had once again risen, and the Bering land bridge had been submerged, preventing horses from walking back.
Once in Eurasia, and Africa, horses evolved toward the variety of horses and horse-like animals alive today, including zebras. And, according to genetic tests documented on April 24, 2009 in the online journal ScienceDaily, once in Eurasia, specifically western Eurasia, more-specifically the Ponto-Caspian steppe region of what’s now Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, horses were domesticated by humans, for both transport and labor, sometime in the third millennium B.C.E., a few thousand years ago.
Then, having circled the Earth over deep time, horses returned to North America, to the continent where they had first become horses, returning first on Spanish ships in 1493; and then returning to what’s now New Mexico, in military caravans from the south, from Mexico, with Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, in 1540.
Remains of some of those earliest Spanish horses arrived in New Mexico-from Coronado or a subsequent expedition,-have been found right here in Sandoval County, at the north end of the Sandia Mountains, near Placitas, in the streamside ruins of Tonque Pueblo, a pre-Columbian once-multi-story village dating back to the 1300s.
“In addition to the goat head burial, a portion of the jawbone of a horse was found in the fill,” wrote archeologist Franklin Barnett, in his book “Tonque Pueblo: A Report of Partial Excavation of an Ancient Pueblo IV Indian Ruin in New Mexico,” published in 1969 by The Albuquerque Archeological Society. “Neither the goat or the horse were native to this country, and were brought to the southwest by the Spanish (1540).” (Horse bones from this era have also been found at nearby Pa’ako Pueblo in Bernalillo County.)
One study conducted in 2015 by researchers at the University of California, Davis, on behalf of the New Mexico Livestock Board, genetically tested the hair of four wild New Mexico horses, and discovered that the four had 91, 95, 96, and 96% likelihoods of being the descendants of Spanish Mustangs.
“The four horses most closely resemble the Spanish Mustang breed,” wrote UC Davis’s Cecelia Penedo, PhD, in a September 2015 report on that study. “There was no significant, detectable contribution from any other breeds in any of the four horses. Our database does not include Colonial Spanish Horse (CSH) as a reference breed.” However, “Spanish Mustang is considered to be derived from CSH,” she added.
Coronado and the Pueblo Revolt
After Coronado’s 1541 arrival in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, others arrived in the area too — including the priests and soldiers of the Chamuscado-Rodríguez Expedition of 1581; and the colonists accompanying Juan de Oñate in 1598 — and no outside group ever ventured here without horses.
In 1680, after the Pueblo Revolt, when the Indigenous Pueblo peoples of New Mexico drove out the Spanish colonizers, according to the website for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, “Hundreds of horses — perhaps more than 1,500 — were left behind, the largest number to pass into Native hands at one time. These horses became the ancestors of many tribal herds. The Pueblo people traded horses to neighboring tribes, and the horse population expanded rapidly across North America.”
In the 1700s, horses were a prized target of bandits in New Mexico. In the 1800s, various mining booms drew prospectors and their pack animals to the region, and sometimes those animals, including horses, would run off or be abandoned. And in the 1900s and beyond, as cars have replaced horses as humans’ primary mode of conveyance; and as “wild” undeveloped land has gone away, wild horses — however they became that way — never entirely have. Even today, they can be seen running.
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