Searching for the elusive New Mexicans in the southern Rockies – Wild Mustangs. Pure heart and defiant soul of the old Wild West. Their name evokes images of the rearing stallion, wild-eyed and cunning, mane ragged as the desert wind.
Even John Wayne needed all his gumption and a tall horse to capture one. Clark Gable was a bit luckier. For the Mustang roundup in the 1961 film, “The Misfits,” he used a strong truck and a hefty heap of rope. Nowadays they use helicopters most of the time, sweeping down behind the fleeing herds until the corral gate swings shut.
One man has a different way of rounding up wild Mustangs. He walks toward them. One step at a time. “It’s the newest approach, but it’s the oldest approach,” says the man who walks the mustangs. “It works beautifully.”
With a boot on the rail and a paper coffee cup in hand, Carlos LoPopolo seems unaware of the chiseled red bluffs and limitless blue sky that surround him. Smack in the middle of the landscape that inspired artist Georgia O’Keeffe, LoPopolo has an eye for only one thing: Horses.
“You can mess with me, but if you mess with my horses, that’s where you cross the line.”
On this cool, clear morning at Ghost Ranch, just north of Abiquiu, LoPopolo is joined by two friends who feel much the same way. Sandi Claypool and partner Fred Trujillo are the Protectors of Monero Mustangs, a wild horse sanctuary in Lumberton. Like LoPopolo,they’ve come to see the wild horses rounded up by the U.S Forest Service for adoption. The government takes such action when drought conditions or other conflicts threaten the horses’ survival.
As the nine wild horses skitter between the high fences of their corral, LoPopolo pushes up the brim of his black Stetson and points out the delicate features of a roan mare near the gate. Hearing the tenderness in his voice, you’d never guess that he was out for blood. But, in a manner of speaking, he is.
LoPopolo’s quest for horse blood actually began with a lot of talk. For more than 50 years, ranchers throughout New Mexico have spotted what they believed to be bands of pureblooded Spanish horses on their lands. Though LoPopolo remained skeptical, an inqury from a local photographer spurred his interest.
Along with being a cowboy, LoPopolo also happens to be a Spanish Colonial historian, genealogist, master cartographer and writer. Through research, he hoped to prove or disprove once and for all whether the ranchers’ claims were true: some of these wild horses are direct descendants of the horses brought to the New World by early Conquistadors in the 1500s.
LoPopolo soon discovered an interesting fact. Don Juan Oñate, the founder of one of the first permanent settlements of Europeans in the western U.S., lost a band of horses in the same area where sightings have recently occurred. Excited by the possibilities, LoPopolo contacted Dr. Gus Cothran, Director of the Equine Blood Typing Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky. The men decided to round up a number of the horses and draw a small amount of blood for DNA analysis to determine the ancestry of the animals.
Cothran’s findings were astonishing: for over 400 years, the direct descendants of the first horses to arrive in the New World were still surviving.
In LoPopolo’s words, he and his wife, Cindy Rodgers-LoPopolo, realized what they had to do. By creating a new registry for those horses with the highest purity of Old Spanish bloodlines in America, these stolid survivors officially became known as “New Mexicans.” The couple then founded the non-profit organization, The New Mexican Horse Project (NMHP) in 1999, establishing a 10,000 acre preserve in Los Lunas.
When NMHP gets word of a band of wild horses that are potentially New Mexicans, LoPopolo calls project volunteers to a “walking roundup.” Resting his coffee cup on the hood of his truck, he described how the wranglers walk down the Mustangs.
“After we spot the horses, we do something called a ‘soft push,’” he said. “You take a step. The horses take two steps back. You stop. And they go back to eating. You take another step. And so on. That’s how we work this out. We don’t bring the horses in. They bring themselves.”
In just this way, LoPopolo added, his wife managed to “push” five horses more than a quarter of a mile with nothing but her outstretched hands.
When asked if the walking roundup was dangerous, Lopopolo just shook his head.
“They’re flat not mean,” he said. “If that horse is mean it’s because you turned him into something mean. Roped him or whatever. That’s not how you round up horses. We use the oldest method in the world. Heck, the Mongols used it and so did the Native Americans when they first saw a horse. We don’t hassle them. We don’t scare them. We just walk them down.”
Claypool, who has worked with horses throughout her life, agreed.
“There’s a lot of difference between wild horses and domesticated ones,” she said. “But I like these guys because they don’t have any bad habits, as long as they are captured in a nice way. So you’re going on them with a fresh mind.”
Claypool spoke with pride about her stallion, Katzman Dancer.
“We decided to see what it would take to break him safely for riding,” she said. “He was in the Santa Fe Fiesta parade within two months and acted better than the domestic horses.”
Trujillo noted his own preference for the breed.
“I know that it’s each to his own taste,” he said. “But I think these horses have more intelligence than any other.”
A sense of smarts is one of the qualities that allowed the New Mexicans to survive. The other, common to most Mustangs, is their capacity for endurance. Currently, Mustangs hold numerous records for sustained long-distance trail rides.
Trujillo reflected on the heritage that made Mustangs what they are today.
“Their ancestors had to be easy keepers to make the ocean crossing in the ships,” he said. “And they came from stock strong enough to carry men in armor.”
Currently, 15 New Mexicans roam free on the fenced acres of the NMHP preserve. LoPopolo noted that the number is intentionally low in order to ensure enough food and water during the hard seasons. He explained that volunteers only help the horses when they meeet up with a man-made problem, like getting tangled in a fence. Occurrences like the mountain lion attack two years ago, however, are recognized as natural and better left alone. He added that NMHP neither breeds nor sells New Mexicans.
“We’re not about breeding horses,” he said. “We don’t break them and we don’t sell them. Our whole idea is to establish ten preserves throughout the U.S. so that people can come out to a place like this and see the horses. Just see them. And never do anything more than that.”
So far, the LoPopolos have funded a large part of NMHP out of their own pocket. Yet LoPopolo hopes that through the combined efforts of local government, tribal agencies, and project volunteers like Claypool and Trujillo, their vision of NMHP will one day be realized.
Climbing into the cab of his truck to make the drive back to Los Lunas, LoPopolo laid his hat on the seat beside him.
“Our job is to make sure our New Mexicans have plenty of food, plenty of water and plenty of land,” he said. “Their job is to survive. And they know how to do that better than we do.”
To learn more about The New Mexican Horse Project, call 575-865-8992 or visit them on the web at: www.nmhp.org.
[Editor’s note: The domain www.nmhp.org is defunct as of March 2016. Read more about Carlos LoPopolo at
and http://alibi.com/news/30407/All-the-Wild-Horses.html and http://www.lrgaf.org/voa/polechla.htm and on Facebook at
https://www.facebook.com/clopopolo as well as more on Dr. Gus Cothran at
Denise Spranger is a freelance writer living in Taos. Her work has appeared in numerous publications.
From HighCountry 2003.