In the Hoofprints of Wild Horses

Mesa Verde National Park covers over 81 square miles of rugged land in the Four Corners area of Colorado, most of which is off-limits to the public. Wildlife thrives there–elk, mule deer, black bear, mountain lions, bobcats, golden eagles, to name a few species. From Cachuma Ranch across Montezuma Valley, the rimrocks of the Mesa Verde mountains offer spectacular views all day long, and especially at twilight, when the lowering sun highlights the pale Dakota sandstone and turns it pink, matching the sky.

Between the park and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribal lands, which border the park to the south, there is a lot of room for wildness, but who knew that within those mysterious and intriguing mountain folds roamed another wild species? I did not, until I got to tag along with the Colorado chapter of the National Mustang Association to tour some of the terrain within the park boundaries.

We weren’t long on the bumpy, well-rutted road when a bay stallion raced across the valley floor to hide amongst the piñon pines on the opposite flank. A band of horses clustered together on a small rise to the east; through fieldglasses I could see legs and bellies, but that was all, until in wild liquid motion they swept down and across the valley, stopping and snorting and milling in herd fashion, foals behind mares, a trim cremello clearly the band stallion, a stoic dark buckskin backing him, their chests out, necks up and slightly back so their notstrils were aimed right at us as they sucked in air that might explain who we were, and blew it out in sound waves that brought chicken skin to my arms.

The band.  Photo by TJ Holmes

The band. Photo by TJ Holmes

The initial lone stallion hidden behind a hill, the remaining horses comprised the two stallions, several mares clearly heavy with foal, three mares with foals at their sides, and two younger fillies, both cremello, each possibly pregnant. A total of 15 horses, counting the lone bachelor, all of them fat and sleek except the band stallion, whose taut muscles and lack of fat decried the hard work of maintaining his position in this band of horses–leader, breeder, protector, perpetuator of genes and wildness.

Young cremellos.  Photo by TJ Holmes

Young cremellos. Photo by TJ Holmes

What this stallion is powerless to do, however, is create water for his band. While still watching the buckskin, bay, and cremello horses watching us, we ventured to the one water source–a spring, or seep from a clayey wall–the place where the horses had been gathered before we startled them. I have seen many seeps in canyon country–often they host what we call hanging gardens: maidenhair ferns hanging from red canyon walls, green moss on rocks above and below, maybe a blade of grass or two, the sweet pungent smell of life drifting down. Yet in this spring, which feeds a herd of 15 with more on the way–plus elk and mule deer and the occasional roaming bear or lion–water was not initially apparent, just a muddy tromped-upon circle within the wall of clay. As we talked with our guides, two park biologists, I watched the slowest trickle appear out of the wall. Not much more liquid than spit, in the half hour we stood there it collected in the hoofprints of horses until several were half full. Enough for a tea party of five…humans, that is.

Water source.  Photo by TJ Holmes

Water source. Photo by TJ Holmes


How much of each day do these horses stand in wait for water? What happens in the dry weeks to come, between spring rains and the monsoon storms of summer? The biologists told us that last year these horses were thin and poor, the feed gone along with the water, until the first monsoon hit in late July. Across Montezuma Valley my own horses had also reflected the dry conditions, irrigation water shut off before the end of June, but they subsisted on the hay and city water I provided until the fields greened up again with the rain.

The spring and the folks on tour.  Photo by TJ Holmes

The spring and the folks on tour. Photo by TJ Holmes

This group of people was there because of this. Together with the biologists, NMA/CO hopes to create a plan that provides for the welfare of these horses. This will require the removal of the horses from the park, as that seep, and hillsides far and wide, denote a huge archaeological site.

In order to survive, these horses will be forced to give up their wild ways, though the beauty of their wild natures will remain intact. But they cannot go to the holding facilities at Canon City–they are in a national park, not on BLM lands, and are not officially mustangs. So they will need homes. They may need your home.

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