When Carlos LoPopolo watches wild horses gallop across the desert, he sees more than their freedom and beauty. The historian sees the hope of saving a living legacy left by Spanish conquistadors a little more than 400 years ago.
The odyssey began when Spanish explorer Don Juan des Onate lost some of his 900 horses while searching for the mythical Golden City of El Dorado in the 1500s in what would eventually become New Mexico.
“Those 30 horses that des Onate lost in the 1500s became wild and survived in small herds in the wide open spaces of the Southwest for centuries,” LoPopolo says. “But the descendants of those lost horses are not just any herd of wild horses. They are the closest thing we have to a Native American horse, a horse upon which this country was built.”
Now LoPopolo, his wife, Cindy, and other volunteers from the New Mexico Horse Project in Valencia, N.M., (pop. 4,500) are using DNA tests to search for the wild equine descendants of those Spanish horses.
LoPopolo got involved when Charles Perry, a local photographer, wanted him to write a story about claims that the area’s wild horses were actual descendants of the horses lost by des Onate and other Spanish explorers and settlers who were with him. LoPopolo was skeptical, but Perry kept pressing.
“As a primary source historian, I need information from three reliable, authentic sources before I will declare something as a true historical fact for the record,” LoPopolo says.
Meticulous records kept by the Spanish explorers and settlers of the 16th century showed that horses were indeed lost by des Onate and others, but those ancient words could not pinpoint the living descendants of those horses.
“A modern-day New Mexican horse descended from des Onate’s lost horses stands about 14 hands (56 inches) high and is extremely muscular,” LoPopolo says. “A New Mexican horse also has a Romanesque nose and big nostrils. New Mexican horses also have long manes, tails, and forelocks that never seem to be knotted, matted, or ratty.”
LoPopolo and his volunteers turned to 21st century DNA science for further proof.
“The Spanish Colonial horse breed (that existed in the 16th century) no longer exists today, so a direct genetic comparison of it and the New Mexican horse is quite impossible,” says Dr. E. Gus Cothran, director of the Equine Blood Typing Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky.
But DNA samples collected by LoPopolo and his volunteers from the 300 wild New Mexican horses they’ve rounded up show that 20 of them are descended from equine lines with strong Spanish heritage and can be classified as distinctly New Mexican, Cothran says. He cautioned that a formal genetic analysis must still be completed.
LoPopolo wants to do more than identify additional descendants of the lost Spanish horses. He and the volunteers of the New Mexico Horse Project—a nonprofit foundation he helped to create—want to ensure future generations of these uniquely American horses.
So he’s looking for land where small bands of the horses can roam freely once he and his volunteers round them up from the wild or buy them from area ranchers.
Already, a stallion, two mares, and two foals now roam a 10,000-acre fenced land preserve in Valencia owned by the Campbell Farming Corp.
“Valencia is rich in history, and those horses are a part of the region’s and nation’s history,” says Gene Rodriquez, a spokesman for the Campbell Farming Corp.
Those horses, the first rounded up by the project, were released in July 2001.
“It was our important first step, yet the clock still ticks against us,” LoPopolo says. “Those horses daily face threats from natural predators such as mountain lions and bears that prey on weak and young horses and from ranchers who consider them a nuisance.”