FOUR CORNERS

Documentary about Jicarilla mustangs premiers this weekend

Filmmaker Laura Harper chronicles story of Carracas Mesa herd

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON − Even by northwest New Mexico standards, the Carracas Mesa near the Colorado border and east of Navajo Lake is rugged and challenging. Its elevation ranges between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, with its pinon-juniper- and sagebrush-studded terrain frequented by black bears, mountain lions, elk and mule deer that manage to scratch out a living despite its frigid winters and scorching summers.

Laura Harper, president of the San Juan County Historical Society, knows the area well, having spent summers on the mesa when she was a young girl. That's when she first got to know about the mesa's other residents − a herd of several hundred wild horses that, later in life, would become her passion.

In 2014, Harper adopted a formerly wild horse from that herd after he had been captured a year earlier during a roundup she had witnessed. The bond she developed with that animal, Rambo, set Harper on a journey of discovery that has culminated in her making a documentary film about his herd that will be shown during a historical society fundraiser this weekend in Farmington.

"RAMBO of the Carracas Mesa: A History of the Jicarilla Mustangs and Mustangers" is a 78-minute film made by Harper that chronicles the story of Rambo and the other members of his herd, with the filmmaker presenting a case for why the horses are special and exploring their long relationship with the people of Northern New Mexico.

Harper said she didn't know much about the issue of wild horses in the American West before she started working on the project three years ago. But by the time she finished, she had become an enormous advocate for them, especially the Jicarilla mustang herd.

The story of the Jicarilla mustang herd will be chronicled when the film "RAMBO of the Carracas Mesa: A History of the Jicarilla Mustangs and Mustangers" is presented this weekend in Farmington.

"It was a tremendous learning experience," she said. "I didn't understand what people were talking about when they said feral horses or what they meant when they said wild horses. … There's a lot of misinformation out there."

Harper's interest in the subject was sparked when she adopted Rambo and decided to have his DNA tested by E. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M, widely regarded as the world's foremost equine geneticist. Cothran's genetic analysis of hair from Rambo's tail and mane revealed that he carried genetic markers that tied him to the Old World Iberian breed of northern Spain, a trait shared by other horses in the herd.

Genetic analysis has revealed that many of the Jicarilla mustangs are descended from the famed Spanish Jennet horses that were bred for and ridden by nobility in the Middle Ages.

"He confirms the Jicarilla herd is unique and should be preserved because of its strong ties to the Spanish Jennet horses," Harper said, referring to a distinct, smooth-gaited type of horse bred for Spanish nobility during the Middle Ages.

The film also explores the behavior and social structure of the Jicarilla herd, which has varied in size over the years, depending on efforts by federal officials to manage the herd. Harper said the herd has grown to as many as 700 horses at times, although a 2019 estimate placed the number at approximately 300. Wild horse advocates in recent years have placed the number at between 130 and 160.

The herd is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service on a total of approximately 85,000 acres, according to the BLM's Carracas Mesa Horse Management Area website. Federal officials say the appropriate management level for the area is between 73 and 128 horses.

Walters refers to the herd as a living museum that needs to be protected and archived, and she hopes her film helps raise awareness about the value of the horses. She has helped write a proposal that would establish and create a San Juan Basin wild horse sanctuary and tourism center that would be dedicated to the preservation of the herd.

A 2019 federal estimate placed the size of the Jicarilla mustang herd at 300 horses, but a recent count by wild horse advocates came up with a much smaller number.

Without such a move, the herd and its genetic distinctiveness could become a thing of the past, she said.

"My fear is the bloodline is going to be decimated," she said. " … If we don't start testing some of these horses and preserving their bloodline, that can be lost."

The Jicarilla mustang herd is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service on Carracas Mesa east of Navajo Lake.

The work of more than 30 New Mexico families, artists, actors and photographers is featured in the film, many of whom will be present at the premiere, including acclaimed outdoors photographer Laurie Ford.

"RAMBO of the Carracas Mesa: A History of the Jicarilla Mustangs and Mustangers" will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16 at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, and $18 for seniors, students and members of the military. They can be purchased at the Civic Center box office or online at fmtn.org/shows.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.