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Among Utah’s wild horses roam a “genetic treasure”

A Sulphur horse with a bi-color mane is seen in La Sal, Utah, in August, 2022.
Justin Higginbottom
A Sulphur horse with a bi-color mane is seen in La Sal, Utah, in August, 2022.

Among Utah’s wild horses roam a special breed with a history stretching back to Spanish colonialists.

They've remained isolated in a mountain range near the Nevada border for hundreds of years which helped keep their bloodline intact.

As the Bureau of Land Management rounds up the herd to protect rangeland health, some say this breed shouldn't be treated like your average mustang.

There’s nearly 100,000 wild horses and burros in the West, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Utah alone has 19 herd management areas, covering nearly 2.5 million acres across the state.

But the formally wild horse that’s now nuzzling Naomi Wilson is special.

“One of the first things you’d notice is the black-tipped ears and that they’re a little curved,” said Wilson.

This horse is from the Sulphur herd. She and her husband have three from that group now. They’ve become somewhat experts on the breed.

“He’s got the dorsal stripe down the back and the zebra stripes on the leg. And that’s required for [a] dun,” said Wilson.

A Sulphur horse with Zebra-striped legs is seen in La Sal, Utah, in August, 2022.
Justin Higginbottom
A Sulphur horse with Zebra-striped legs is seen in La Sal, Utah, in August, 2022.

The horses look different than your typical mustang.

Their mane is bi-colored, black mixed with a stylish blonde.

And they have one less vertebrae than other Western horses so their backs are shorter.

The horse looks somehow more ancient.

But their unique physical features, what horse experts call ‘primitive markings,’ isn’t the only thing that makes this breed so interesting to Wilson and her husband.

“So the Sulphur herd is unique for several reasons. One, because of their bloodlines, two, because of their primitive markings, and lastly, because of their story, what I call their creation story,” said Wilson’s husband Stephen Schultz, president of the Canyonlands Back Country Horsemen.

The still-wild Sulphur live on around 265,000 acres in a mountain range near the Utah and Nevada border. But, as Shultz tells quite cinematically, they’re a long way from home.

“The way they got there is an amazing story,” said Schultz.

Namoi Wilson has embraced more natural horsemanship methods in taming her Sulphur horses.
Justin Higginbottom
Namoi Wilson has embraced more natural horsemanship methods in taming her Sulphur horses.

The horses come from the Iberian Peninsula, where they roamed for tens of thousands of years until the Spanish brought some to California in the 1500s as they colonized North America.

It wasn’t long before the Native Americans took notice of the animal.

“So in walks a very charismatic historic figure. His name was Wakara. I call him Utah’s greatest horse thief,” said Schultz.

Chief Wakara was an important leader of Utah Native Americans.

He would later be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have a falling out with Mormon settlers and lead fighters in what historians call the Walker War.

But before all that he wanted horses.

Around 1840 Wakara enlisted his half-brother, a one-legged mountain man named “Pegleg” Smith, and a band of warriors to steal horses from the Spanish.

According to historical accounts, they were wildly successful.

Wakara made off with around 3,000 horses before the Spanish sent soldiers to recover their stock.

They fought a running battle with the colonizers, ending near the Utah and Nevada border. At that site in the high desert some horses were lost in the fray.

“That left a group of horses scattered to the four winds in that location. That was the historic beginning of the Sulphur herd,” said Schultz.

The breed became infamous for being fiercely independent and difficult to tame.

There was even a cowboy poem written about them called “Zebra Dun.”

“So from that point on, the horses basically ran free. The reason they eluded notice and round-up was because they lived in a pinyon and juniper-choked mountain range between six and 9,000 feet,” said Schultz.

That was until the invention of the helicopter.

To protect rangeland health the Bureau of Land Management is trying to bring down the Sulphur herd to around 200 horses, maybe a fifth of what their herd once was.

With help from helicopters, the agency rounds up the horses and sends them to facilities where they can be adopted by the public.

That’s how Shultz and Wilson got their Sulphur-herd horses. Wilson calls them ‘high dignity.’

“They’re very sensitive, very smart. And being high dignity means they don’t like being told what to do. Some of the traditional methods, people kind of push horses around, with Sulphur horses, that does not work. They have to feel like they have a say in the matter. They have a choice,” said Wilson.

Stephen Schultz describes the Sulphur herd as “genetic treasures.”
Justin Higginbottom
Stephen Schultz describes the Sulphur herd as “genetic treasures.”

She says she argued for years with her first Sulphur before embracing more natural horsemanship methods.

And that changed the whole relationship, you can tell by the way the horses trot over to greet her.

While range managers are trying to reduce the number of Sulphurs in Utah, in Europe they’re trying to protect them.

Genetic tests show Schultz’s Sulphur is a Garrano.

Only a few hundred of that breed are left at a national park in Portugal.

“Maybe I’m a bit of a romantic at heart. But these horses are a genetic treasure. Here they are in Utah. I mean, in Europe they’re just about extinct. But I guess these guys didn’t get the memo,” said Schultz.

Ron Roubidoux has researched the Sulphur herd for over 30 years.

He even wrote a book on their history, Trail of the Line Backed Horse: An Odyssey.

He doesn’t agree with how the BLM manages them.

“These horses are a historical herd. They’re not, you know, just the common mustang that ranchers or pioneers or whoever let out or lost over the years,” said Roubidoux.

He’d like to see the Sulphur Herd Management Area designated as a Wild Horse and Burro Range, designed to protect the horses.

But until then he says there is a dedicated group of Sulphur enthusiasts helping to get the word out and arrange adoptions.

“I think there will be more interest as time goes on in the Sulphur horses and they’ll probably get more popularity with more publicity, and that’s kind of what I have I’ve tried to do for 30 years now, is try to get the word out about the horses,” said Roubidoux.

The issue of wild horse management is contentious in the West and Schultz cautions that he’s no expert on rangeland health.

But he does agree with Roubidoux that the Sulphurs should be treated differently than your average mustang.

“When I look at these horses, I see history running through their veins with every beat of their heart,” said Schultz.

That history includes tens of thousands of years roaming Western Europe, traveling in the dark holds of sailing ships before being turned out on green pastures in Southern California.

After a few hundred years of captivity by Native Americans and Europeans, they were free again in the high deserts of Utah.

“These aren’t feral horses. They are horses that were wild by nature,” said Schultz.

This story from KZMUwas shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Justin Higginbottom works for KZMU in Moab, Utah. Justin joined KZMU News in 2021 as a reporter. His first journalism gig was at a newspaper in Salt Lake City. After that he moved to Cambodia to work for an English-language daily. He lived across Asia and the Middle East, writing features on culture and conflict, before coming back home to Utah.