Santa Fe & The Ghost Horses
We drove into Santa Fe in the rain, wrapped in dark clouds and the earthy aroma of sage. At 6995 feet the air is paper thin. At the farmer’s market Kurt and I bought our eggs and learned many breeds of chickens cannot take the altitude. I’ve been told to drink water to acclimate. I don’t ever acclimate. Above 5,000 ft I move slowly and gasp for air like a fresh caught fish. It isn’t flattering. I reminisce fondly about my invincible breathing days in Death Valley.
Smashed between the land fill and the Santa Fe National Forest was the only public land for camping. In mid-March only a handful of us were braving the temperamental weather. Some days we woke to a fresh covering of snow, other days it was seventy.
Santa Fe is an exquisite city of rustic textures. I was so excited to dive in and see her, but it is never the places that I’m told to go that I end up valuing the most. There was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Plaza. The galleries and venders and artists. What I enjoyed was the details of place, iron work, painted wood and adobe.
I dived in on our first trip. Bean stuffed in his bag. He tolerated the experience of walking the streets… ok. He preferred the quiet of the galleries. Santa Fe is pet friendly. They didn’t blink when I had a bewildered fuzzy black cat climbing my shoulder. Bean and I viewed a $10,000 painting, heavy with globs of paint rich in sunset colors. An impressionist painting gone mad. Without the Bean, on another day, I dragged Kurt into a gallery excitedly exclaiming “you must see this!” In the window was a book and I realized that the gallery represented David Yarrow, an artist I admire for his black and white wildlife photography.
Santa Fe, I was told again and again, is one of the top three art markets in the United States. Some of it wonderful, some of it terrifyingly blandly, heartlessly, commercial.
Then there was the Caja del Rio Plateau of the Santa Fe National Forest and it reportedly had a little known wild horse herd despite their proximity to a city. From the Plateau the valley Santa Fe is built on appears to float between it and the mountains. You can watch the storms cells roll in over the mountains all day. The Rio Grand and the Santa Fe River vistas are viewable from the Plateau. There are old and ancient ruins tucked away like special treats.
We explored the Plateau for a week. The clay trails were abused and hardly maintained. Pinyon Pines and juniper grew squat, twisted and thick across the Caja del Rio. The easier the roads were to access the more we saw signs of abuse to the land, trails, dumping, bottles tossed along the route, trashed ”shooting” ranges and graffiti.
My first impressions were not good, that changed.
I’m invested in the idea of wild horses now. They are us. They came here with us, they’re invasive, and somehow they are also of here. (I still have my fear of horses). In my new interest I am attempting to photograph wild horses when I find myself near a herd. In the days exploring the Caja del Rio Plateau we saw the Rio Grand and the Santa Fe River. We drove to the cliff edges. Up onto mesas. Explored watering tanks. The further from people the more signs we saw that there really were wild horses there despite the lack of local interest and information.
I was looking for fresh unshod tracks, horse created trails (narrow, sometimes groove-like) being used, fresh manure, and stud piles. Stud piles are part of natural horse behavior. They are found where horses cross paths with each other and the stallions defecate on top of the other’s manure. A sure sign there are bands of wild horses in the area.
I’ve found little solid information about this particular herd. There could be anywhere from 10 to 70 individuals and they have not been managed by fertility control or roundups (internet sources). The Forest Service states they do not know what accounts for the steady population numbers:
Santa Fe National Forest Service
In 1975, 1978, and 1988, studies were conducted to obtain information on the herd. The 1975 study estimated a population of 55 horses; the 1978 study estimated a population of 37 horses; and the 1988 study estimated a population of 45 horses. From the date of herd designation, there have been neither herd reductions nor herd supplementation. There is only speculation to account for the relatively stable herd numbers: lion predation, illegal shooting and capture, or disease.
These horses may have an access point to the nearby reservation horses, which I understand also are considered feral. There are a lot of sectioned off cattle grazing allotments and we noted signs of horses inside and outside of some of the sections, the caveat here is I have no idea what these lots are or how they connect. Even if they are all in good repair and use. Are populations separated by livestock fencing? Another question: do the horses have any access to the river or other fresh water, the watering tanks we checked were dry. But the cattle must get watered.
I had exactly one encounter with Caja del Rio Wild Horses. Kurt found them. They left their hasty prints kicked up in the road, the sound of the truck must have startled them into the low thick junipers. We stopped, Kurt tracked them and motioned to me wildly, frantically to come up the incline overlooking a cliff. He saw a dark rump. When I picked my way into the trees and over the low growing cacti the stallion poked his head around a tree and snorted at me. Twice. He was enormous and wild. A rich chocolate brown lit with tan highlights and the slightest blaze. I eased around to another angle. I thought I lost him and started out, but there he was in my line of sight again. This time I could see there was two of them. A mare huge with her foal. Even though I kept my distance, and kept a nice big cholla between us, he was wary. He defensive postured and kicked at the ground. Snorting. Shaking his mane.
He stood his ground.
Other times I thought I heard them. Or smelled them. Or saw them moving in the trees. I followed fresh looking tracks that disappeared. They are the ghost horses. They were never where I went looking. I feel lucky to have seen them at all. No one I spoke to in Santa Fe knew about them. The internet lacked information and images. The Santa Fe Forest Service and the Espanola Office could add little more than was offered on their website. Here you can read more about their history from a blogger.
Horses, I’ve found so far, are somewhat curious even the Heber Horses that are being shot and killed by unknown person(s). At the same time they are cautious and ready to gallop away. If you keep your distance they relax and are indifferent to your human presence, grass is more important. The Caja del Rio horses were dark shadows hinted at in the trees. I am going to conjecture that the Caja del Rio horses are not getting many photographer or fans visiting, when the people who frequent the Plateau do see them it must be negative for the horses. Why else would they make themselves into Ghosts▪️
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