Saving the indigenous Navajo horse

By George Hardeen
Special to the Times

TUBA CITY, July 3, 2014

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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 Navajo horse.

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 family heirloom.

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 horse?

History tells us that Spanish explorer Alvar Nu–ez 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 noblemen.

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 hardiness.

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 are.

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.

Next week: Creating a program that honors horses and Navajo horsemen.

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