íHola Cowboys y Vaqueros! This is Research Associate Professor Paul Polechla from the UNM Biology Department. Recently I took a reconnaissance horse trip to Mexico. Here's how it all went down. Gerardo Suzán had earned a veterinarian degree prior to his graduate work at the University of New Mexico. Here he then earned his Ph.D. in Biology in 2005 studying Hantavirus and rodents in Panama. I was fortunate to meet him and we shared an interest in mammalian ecology especially of carnivores and horses. He had worked with the Ruramari people and their horses in Barranca del Cobre.

In the past I had invited him to the preserve of the New Mexican Horse Project and he viewed our horses, those we had gathered from all of the American West and qualified with their DNA markers to be the "Colonial horse of the Iberian peninsula" or the "Spanish-barb" or old "Spanish horse". He commented that they had reminded him of horses he had seen in the northern part of his country.

A friendship developed.

Being ecologically-minded, horse-friendly, and a multi-cultural Renaissance man: he was one of my natural choices for an international team to conserve the old Spanish horse. More recently I invited him to present an oral paper on the "History of the Spanish horse in Mexico" at our National Science Foundation-funded "Wild Mustang Meeting" in April 2010 held on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. Gerardo's paper was so well received that even the Spanish Colonial historian and C.E.O. of the New Mexican Horse Project, Carlos LoPopolo, said it was "well-done."

A few years later he got a chance to view our wild horses at our second preserve of the New Mexican Horse Project called the Cindy Rodgers-LoPopolo Wild Horse Preserve near Socorro, N.M. Before parting, we vowed to get together in Mexico next time at Mexico's premier institution, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico in Mexico City. Here he serves as an Associate Professor at the Departamento de Etología y Fauna Silvestre and Facultad de Medicina Veterinaria y Zootecnia. As well as wildlife diseases he specializes in the interface between wild and domestic mammals.

This time he invited me to give a presentation on the behavioral, ecological, and historical notes on the New Mexican wild horse to their vet school. I emphasized unique aspects of wild horse behavior under adverse weather conditions such as snow storms and drought…things not described by scientists in their behavioral repertoire. It was well attended by about 200 people in the immediate audience and was electronically simulcasted to about 15 satellite campuses. The nature and quality of the questions indicated that the audience knew their horse flesh. Another outcome of the presentation was that the endeavor Gerardo and I and our colleagues had embarked on was unique…a first of its kind.

Even casual dining and sightseeing was significant because Coyoacán where we partook was where Hernán Cortes, the Conquistador who brought horses from the Caribbean Islands to present-day Vera Cruz and to Mexico City, built a home of volcanic rock here. Then it was a seat of government, but now it is a bustling quaint artist's suburb still retaining the cobble-stones, tree-lined parkways and village "feel". The horse connection heightened my interest but still I was anxious to see Mexican horses themselves.

Since I was curious about the current relationship between man and horse in Mexico, a country with a fine tradition of quality horses and horsemanship, I was yearning to learn more. Gerardo arranged a trip with him, his colleagues, and me to places around the rim of the Valley of Mexico and Mexico City and its suburbs. First we went near the mountain village Santo Tomar Ajusco at Rancho de Caprichio west of Mexico City. Here we were treated to viewing a stable full of Andalusian horses. Although the ranch kept a variety of colors of horses, one of the most interesting color patterns I saw was this one stallion with a "Tordillo Rodado," a kind of a dappled grey with grey coin-shaped circles.

At this ranch, the males were bred for use in the bull-fighting ring and the females or "yeguas" were bred for dressage…the kind of natural horse movements first taught as cavalry moves and know taught as sort of a horse ballet marrying the cues and movements of animal and rider. (I read bullfighting in Mexico and parts of the Spanish empire is a traditional way in which bulls are honored by showing bravery in giving their lives to have their flesh harvested.)

One of the biggest differences between horse owners in the United States and Mexico is that horse owners in the U.S. generally geld or remove the testes of stallions. Here the word "castrado" or castrated is rarely spoken and the word "entero" or entire is taken for granted. The reason U.S. horse owners cite for castration and making geldings is that this procedure makes them "manageable" rather than "difficult" to deal with. Out of the many hundred head of fine macho horse flesh that I saw, nary a stallion or "garañon" (or simply "caballo") was gelded. Again U.S. horseman would claim wild unruly behavior from the stallions but that actually seemed to be the farthest from the truth.

Perhaps it was because Mexican caballeros and vaqueros are superior trainers or horsemen in general. Perhaps they have removed those only those individual males those are unruly out of the gene pool. Perhaps Mexican riders are taught at a young age to be firm yet gentle with caballos and to expect the unexpected behavior of all horses. Or perhaps the idea of a stallion being unruly is just a myth. For whatever the reason one thing is for sure, Mexican vaqueros take great pride in riding stallions.

Having some family business to attend to, Gerardo suggested I attend the annual "Expo Caballos" in Toluca, a fine display of Mexican horseflesh and equestrian talents. Near Toluca in the Aztec Valley de Mexicalzimgo was the area where Cortes experimented with cattle raising on the back of this Spanish horse of course. Gerardo's colleague at the U.N.A.M., specializing in equine and animal behavior, Doctor Lucia Perez, agreed to serve as my guide.

In addition to her position at U.N.A.M. she has a private practice of about 500 equine clients in central Mexico. In order to demonstrate effective equine training methods she demonstrated with "Bikina" a young three and a half year old sorrel (or "alanzo") mare that she had rescued. For almost one and a half years, she not only rehabilitated the filly physically with plenty of grass hay and turn-out opportunities, but she also rehabilitated the horse's behavior from timid and defensive to becoming very trusting.

Milling around the convention center there were nearly 300 horses on display each in their stall carpeted with fresh wood chips. Each owner provided a ready supply of hay and water and the inevitable horse scat was quickly swept away. The preparations for showing each horse involved extensive primping…including grooming, curry combing and brushing their body, forelock, mane, and tail…spritzing with spray and water, and even polishing their hooves. The ritual of preparing the horse for show or demonstration was more intensive than a princess on her wedding day or a debutante to a society ball! Absolutely nothing is spared for the horse to look good.

Every horse breed under the sun was on parade…Hannoverian, Tinker Gypsy Vanner, Frisón, Falabella (the miniature horse from Argentina via the Shetlands) , Warmblood, PSI, and KPWN, and the breeds with a fair amount of Spanish horse: Azteca (a Mexican hybrid breed of the American Quarter Horse, Andalusian and Mexican Crillolo), Español, Lucitano, Pura Sangre Argentino (Pure Blood Argentinian), Pura Sangre Mexicáno, American Quarter Horse (or in Spanish the "Curarto de Milla"), and the color breeds: the Pinto, Pintura or "Paint", Palomino, and Appaloosa.

All of these horses were shown and the best were awarded ribbons. The names of the individual horses were equally as interesting…names which rolled off the tongue: Bandolero, Bohemio, Campeón, China Cora, Elena, El Rey, Lucero, Muñeco, Noble, Rancho, Tequíla, Tonito, Ximena, and Zorro. They came from Distrito Federal and the Estado de Mexico and other neighboring states from ranches like Rancho El Titito, Rancho Los Galves, Rancho Los Ganañes, and Rancho de Caprichio. The brands on the horses traced family heraldy passed from father to son done the generations. Broken bone, peace sign (or circle turkey track), SVG connected, T Lazy C, Espuelas, Sun Over the Mountain, and one Texan Anglo cowboy would call ¿Quien Sabe?

Then it was time for the demonstrations. I saw a jumping exhibition by a military officer on a regal Crillolo Miltano, a Warmblood crossed with Crillolo Mexicano. Next their was an Equine Psychotherapy session in which audience members could observe group horse behavior and interact with the horses. Olympic dressage was demonstrated by Jose Luiz Padilla.

Carlos Garcia did some fine equitation by "Roman Riding" or riding on the back of two horses. The twist that made it more difficult was riding two horses of different heights. One of the crowd favorites was the "Danza Originale" in which riders with fine Mexican saddles (the precursor to the "Western saddle" without fenders or side guards) "danced" or trotted in place on wooden platforms. This was kind of an equine tap dancing to Mariachi music which also originated as a part of the culture of the "Charreria Tradicíon". This culture grew into the rodeo in U.S. put had identical beginnings.

In my mind since I have become a student of wild horse behavior and have recruited domestic horses to ride to see them whenever possible. It sure beats hiking eight miles or more to see them! Often the gift horses have been green or largely untrained so by necessity I have had to learn to train or retrain horses. Therefore, my hands-down favorite two demonstrations were watching Dr. Lucia Perez give two demonstrations on Natural Horsemanship Training.

This is so old that it is new again.

The Greek equestrian Xenophon practiced these methods between 430 – 354 BC. Somehow in the U.S. in the late 1800's and early 1900's we were in such a hurry that we had to "make" a horse do something by only giving a negative stimulus if the horse did something wrong until we "broke" it. What we gained in time we lost in the horses lack of willingness to follow our commands. Natural horsemanship is based on primarily giving positive rewards for desired behavior. The only negative stimulus is being firm with the reins of tactile cue but when the desired response is exhibited by the horse there is a cessation of this stimulus which is in effect a positive reward.

Lucia's first demonstration was an obstacle course built in the arena with different types of hazards: plastic tarps, platforms, narrow passages, narrow beams, plastic drapes and banners, and the ultimate teeter totter. Many of you horse owners out there know that horses easily spook over all things plastic until they get used to them. Obstacles like logs and artificial ones like platforms and beams bother horses because a horse may be vulnerable to injury and predation if it trips over an obstacle. The teeter totter is probably the most scary obstacle since it probably gives the sensation that the surface it is walking on is unstable.

Some animals are so wary of unstable surfaces that they refuse to put even one foot on them let alone walk across one. One by one each obstacle was conquered by an introduction to the obstacle with the trainer on the ground and a twirl of the lead rope and a reward (slack on the lead rope, or a pet, rub, verbal encouragement, or food treat from the trainer) on the other side of the obstacle. This time the pair of Lucia and Bikina repeated the obstacle course with Lucia in the English saddle on her back. Finally, she trailored Bikina by riding her inside! She made it seem effortless.

Lucia's second demonstration on the following day was all in the round pen, panels arranged in a circle. She prompted Bikina to go in circles or lunge as it is called in English by pointing with one hand where she wanted the mare to go and with the other hand flicking her lunging whip behind the horse on the ground. She then directed the horse to stop by blocking the circle path with her body. She had the horse change direction and at one point she backed up quickly and the fine filly came trotting towards her like a border collie. For the grand finale, she asked for a volunteer from the crowd and a student volunteered to be a guest trainer for several minutes. The novice followed Lucia's direction and the horse performed the same routine flawlessly.

The take home messages I gathered from the demonstrations were: 1) you can even teach an abused horses new tricks, 2) natural horsemanship training methods of offering positive stimuli for desired horse behavior works very well, and 3) equitation is alive and well in ol' Mexico!

On this Mexican horse trip the food was delicious, folks were friendly, equestrian people talented and horses were very fine. My only disappointment was not seeing any Mexican mustangs or "caballos nativos" as they are called south of the border. Gerardo and my day trip to Parque Estatal on a lone mountain north of Mexico City resulted in a nice hike but no sightings of wild horses although hikers we met by chance reported a band of horses higher up the mountain. A little more time would have done the trick but my week long trip had come to an end.

The situation here seemed similar to the wild horses on the Front Range in the U.S. West. Bands of horses on a small but important island of horse habitat and native vegetation were surrounded by people in many houses and small ranches. From Gerardo and others we heard reports of mustangs in other parts of Northern, Central, and Southern Mexico. I am saving up my pesos for the next Mexican trip in search of the "nativos" in hopes of assessing their Iberian heritage. Once you have mustang fever there is no turning back.

"íHasta la vista, mi amigos!"

To view a slideshow of the trip visit: Reconnaissance Horse Trip to Central Mexico.

Story by Paul Polechla, Jr., research associate professor, UNM Biology Department

Media Contact: Steve Carr, (505) 277-1821; e-mail scarr@unm.edu