Horses in My History: Our Sulphur Mustang’s story

HN historian Lorraine Jackson reaches deep into the rich and fabled past of her family’s adopted Sulphur Mustang, Posie.

Photos by Russ Evans

From Lorraine:

My mother was sitting on the temporary metal grandstand right in front of my dad and me, and she was trying to maintain her composure.  She had gotten attached to a fuzzy black weanling in the holding pens, and had started planning her life around that one horse coming back with us to the barn. When he went to someone else in a buyer’s choice gamble, she was as stunned as Velvet Brown when her number wasn’t picked to bring home The Pie in National Velvet.

But the BLM adoption auction wasn’t over, and the horse I’d had my eye on all morning was coming up. Sure, I was 14 years old, but I was blissfully unaware that I probably had no real say in this matter.

Two rounds later, my pick came in with three other horses, whites of her eyes showing, piercing the air with her tiny weanling whinny, and dried mud hanging from the whole bottom half of her body. But I saw stripes under the mud. Good bone structure. Straight back, sloped shoulder, delicate legs.

“Dad, Dad, look at that one, #1098.  That’s the one. Dad Dad Dad Dadadadadadadadad….” I must have sounded ridiculous, desperately trying to redistribute people’s attention onto my horseflesh of choice. And apparently, unexpectedly, miraculously, my old man had one ear on his crazy daughter. He took one, long thoughtful look and started bidding. About $1,100, one of the most expensive sales of the auction, and a proud owner of a Sulphur Mustang later, my mother finally came out of her stupor. “Did you… just buy that horse?” Don’t worry, she fell in love about 23 seconds later.

The BLM hands loaded the weanling and our two newly-adopted baby burros into our horse trailer for the long ride home to a life of gentling, training, riding, and showing. Mariposa, or Posie, as we call her, may have only been ours for 10 minutes, had been in a holding pen for a month, and had lived on this planet for less than a year, but her being there with us was the product of centuries of miracles.

Posie and the burros

Contrary to popular belief, Posie’s EARLIEST equine ancestors didn’t live that far from where she was rounded up; researchers found evidence of horses indigenous to the American west to mid-west in the 1990s, and while most equines crossed out of America through the Bering Land Bridge to Asia over the course of several centuries, those that stayed behind died out in the Pleistocene Epoch between 11,000-13,000 years ago. America’s Wild Horse was not extinct, but on an extended visit to the old world. It wouldn’t be until a fateful day in the 16th century that America’s wild horses would finally come home.

The first horses to touch down on the contiguous continent as the New World were with explorer Fernando Cortez in 1519, but records show that his vast herd of more than 500 horses was likely not responsible for the Spanish Barb populating the U.S.  It’s much more plausible that the explorers who came immediatelyafter him–Ponce de Leon, Cabeza de Vaca, Hernando Desoto, and later the first New Spain (now Mexico) Governor, Antonio de Mendoza, were the first to lose horses to the rough lands of the southwest.

The Spanish Barb, upon the backs of which the west was crossed and conquered, come in bay, black, and a truly stunning dun, complete with tri-colored manes, a dark dorsal mark and dark points, and tiger stripes that would shame your favorite pair of wacky socks. This unique and once-legendary medieval horse was a product of hearty desert Moroccan Barbs crossing with the Andalusian crusade stock of central and northern Spain. The result was a strong, smart, curious, and surefooted horse that was the prime choice of Spanish explorers crossing unknown terrain.

Posie's tri-color mane and dorsal mark

Posie's stripes

Most of the early escape horses would eventually be recaptured, crossbred, and traded. Their Spanish blood would be thinned by grade stock, or crossed out with the newly imported thoroughbreds to produce taller, faster specimens.  But Posie’s ancestors were different.

They found their way in a harsh, rugged environment in Southern Utah known as Sulphur Springs. Occasionally, a salty cowboy would try to make a go of rounding up the herd that inhabited the area, but the clan was smart and agile, and could out-maneuver any cowboy in that landscape. Because of this, their blood stayed incredibly pure, even five centuries later.

Thanks to genetic testing and the tireless efforts of Dr. Gus Cothran at the University of Kentucky and Dr. Maria D’Oom of the University of Lisbon, research was done using samples from modern Iberian horses and the Sulphur Mustangs, and found to be impressively close genetics matches.  Because of this critical work, the Iberian Sporthorse & Warmblood Registry accepts adopted BLM Sulphur Mustangs as full members, and those horses receive all the same breeding privileges.

So far, our family has chosen not to breed Posie in her 12 years with us. There are so many mustangs that need homes, so many horses in general that need homes. But when I walk out to the barn and see her dark, ancient eyes staring me down for a treat or a good scratch, I’m overwhelmed with how lucky I am just to have this one amazing horse, and to know the rich and fabled secret of Posie’s past. Here in the heart of Utah, my little mare is finally home.


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