Like flecks of gold in a stream, hidden within the vast herds
on the Navajo rangeland is something distinct, once highly-prized,
and a significant source of Diné teachings - the indigenous
Missing from the discussion about whether feral horses should
be rounded up, sent to slaughter, left alone or placed in a sanctuary
is a concern that a precious Navajo treasure with unique genetic
and historical roots is also being unknowingly and systematically
removed. Like pawning grandma's jewelry, tribal and chapter roundups
may have an unintended consequence - the permanent loss of a rare
Horses are not an endangered species. But the Navajo horse,
recognizably different from other breeds, is endangered by human
activity - and human neglect. As the Navajo Nation continues feral
horse roundups, it is decreasing not just domestic horse breeds
but this uncommonly special Navajo horse from the only home it has
known and adapted to over hundreds of years.
DNA genetic typing using mane or tail hair as a source sample
could determine which of these horses may be descended from colonial
Spanish horses and could be saved as a uniquely Navajo breed distinct
from others that have been increasingly introduced to the Navajo
Nation since the 1960s and 70s.
What is at stake? To answer, let's consider what is the Navajo
History tells us that Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza
de Vaca shipwrecked on the coast of Texas in 1535 and traveled west.
Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado set out from northern
Mexico in 1540 and traveled north into what is now the American
Southwest. They rode horses of Iberian and Andalusian bloodlines.
The Iberian is the source of the Spanish Barb. Spain's long occupation
of northern Africa resulted in the agile desert-bred African Barb
horse being crossed with these existing stocks.
Although Native people were the first American vaqueros, or
cowboys, Spanish colonial law and the threat of death prohibited
them from owning horses or using certain bits reserved only for
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 changed Southwestern history not just
for humans but for the horse. The Spanish fled for their lives,
abandoning their livestock. In the 14 years before they returned
and long afterward, Native people throughout the Southwest raised
large herds and further mastered horsemanship, revolutionizing their
cultures in terms of trade, wealth and warfare.
Some of the excellent horses Native people acquired, including
Navajos, are what they captured and what the Spanish left behind.
Already adapted to the Southwest, these are the bloodlines that
continue in many of today's Navajo horses.
Their conformation is often short-backed and deep bodied. They
appear narrower in the chest so that the fore legs join the chest
in an A-shape rather than the U-shape as seen in stock breeds like
the broad-chested, muscular American Quarter Horse.
Some of these Navajo horses have broad foreheads and wide-set
eyes. They may have thicker necks. Often they have large, well-shaped
hooves, good teeth, heavy manes and tails, solid bone density, thick
hides and efficient immune systems. While they may not have the
attributes of size and speed bred into racehorse or rodeo breeds
brought in from outside regions to compete for human sport, the
Navajo horse tends to have high intelligence, gentle disposition,
smooth riding gaits, excellent endurance, and superb stamina and
Why? In animal genetics, allele frequency dynamics refers to
the natural selective processes through which different variations
in a gene are maintained in a gene pool at frequencies above that
of gene mutation. It is affected by many factors such as animal
migration, genetic mutation, genetic drift, population size and
success in mating.
Natural selection provides a way to ensure a unique genetic
makeup of an animal that is better suited to a specific environment
and has greater survival and reproductive success so quality traits
essential to that population continue. That is why the bloodline
of the original Navajo horse continues to exist today.
Before pickup trucks replaced horses for transportation, every
Navajo family embraced a passion about horses that came down through
grandparents. Some families became known as fine horsemen and were
revered for their knowledge and skill with them. Some among us still
Many Navajos older than 50 remember how their parents and grandparents
were able to quickly evaluate a horse - the size and shape of its
feet, the appearance of its legs, the smell of its mane and mouth,
the thickness of its hide, the softness of its eye, and the feel
of every bone from poll to the end of its tail.
The geographic isolation of Navajoland that helped preserve
the Navajo language, culture, ceremonies and way of life through
time is the same that also protected the existence of the Navajo
horse. But as that isolation has gradually lessened, resulting in
the erosion of Navajo language and culture, similarly cross-breeding,
whether intentional or not, and the wholesale removal of horses
from Navajo rangeland now threaten the Navajo horse.
To many, the horse - and especially this distinct Navajo horse
that has withstood and endured so much - is a sacred living phenomenon,
a source and repository of power, strength, incomparable beauty
and genetic ingenuity. It remains our responsibility to protect
the Navajo horse from mistreatment, preserve its purpose for being,
give it a use, appreciate its value and save its genetic vitality
for its own future - and ours.
(Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. The
second part, "Creating
A Program That Honors Horses And Navajo Horsemen" is also