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January 31, 2012

Johnson Center Rescues Rare Historic Horse Breed

IMG_0649A horse is a horse, of course, of course — unless that horse happens to be a rare breed called the Colonial Spanish. In that case, says horse enthusiast Stephanie Lockhart, don’t mistake the hardy little steed for just any old pony.

These were the mounts first introduced to the then-New World by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The horses were later adopted by some American Indian tribes, and raced across the West carrying Pony Express mail carriers.

“These were the first horses in America,” says Lockhart of the horses, also called Spanish mustangs. “They’re like old souls. You look into their eyes, and you can just see the history involved.”

For the five newest horses at Lockhart’s nonprofit Center for America’s First Horse in Johnson, more recent history was a hard-knocks affair: Until earlier this month, the horses were living in New Mexico, where record-breaking drought conditions meant hay, grazing and water were expensive and hard to come by. The horses were thin, and their aging owners — who had been raising the Colonial Spanish for 60 years to keep the historic breed alive — knew they couldn’t keep them any longer.

That’s where Lockhart entered the picture. She’s been visiting the ranch for the last eight years, slowly acquiring her own collection of Colonial Spanish horses. She got a phone call in November asking if she could take on a few more horses. Her response? “I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know how I could make this happen.’” 

Now, two months and a massive fundraising effort later, happened it has. Last week the Center for America’s First Horse welcomed a stallion, a mare and her young filly, an 11-year-old broodmare, and a 3-year-old filly to the herd, bringing the total number of Colonial Spanish horses tucked away in Johnson to 21.

Lockhart says the relocation was only possible because of a tremendous outpouring of support from horse lovers across the country. Transport fees for the five horses clocked in at around $4500 dollars. To cobble together the funding, Lockhart’s center started a “cards for colts” campaign in December, asking supporters to send along a dollar tucked into a Christmas card. For three weeks the cards poured in, each with a donation big or small and a note of encouragement. 

“These were people that I didn’t know,” says Lockhart, who likely heard about the relocation effort through the center’s outreach on social-media sites. “There’s some really great things about humanity, when people can send something to people they don’t know. It just felt like it brought out the best in people.”

In three weeks’ time, the center raised exactly the amount of money they needed — within $50 — to ship the horses from New Mexico to Vermont. Lockhart had seen photographs that indicated the horses were quite thin, and she worried about the stress that travel might have on the animals.

“Even for a healthy horse that’s in perfect shape, it’s a very stressful situation for them,” Lockhart says. In response, a New Mexico woman donated more than a month’s worth of food to help the horses prepare for the journey.

Lockhart stumbled into her calling to preserve the Colonial Spanish horse. Though she’s long been a “horse person,” eight years ago she owned just one horse. That’s when her daughter, Eliza, decided to donate the money she received for her seventh birthday to a conservancy protecting heritage horse breeds. In return, she received a thick stack of raffle tickets for an upcoming drawing to give away a Colonial Spanish colt.

Eliza didn’t win the raffle — but when the winning teenager heard about Eliza’s generosity, she decided to give the colt to the seven-year-old instead.

Eight years later, after after establishing a fast friendship with the New Mexico family who raised the animals, Lockhart now cares for 21 horses. After a stint in New Mexico in 2008 to start a horse conservancy, she returned to Vermont determined to find a way to protect the Colonial Spanish, and set up the Center for America’s First Horse. (The center welcomes visitors curious about the horses, and is also home to Oscar, one of horses who played the title role in the 2004 movie Hidalgo.)

“I’m trying to save something from the past,” says Lockhart, who likens the horses to the American buffalo. Once number in the millions, there are now fewer than 3000 Spanish Colonial horses alive today. Lockhart says she’s trying to demonstrate the horses’ athleticism, endurance, perseverance and spirit.

“They’re not going to survive on their history, I’m certain of that,” says Lockhart. “But they can survive when people start recognizing what these horses can do.”

Photo courtesy the Center for America's First Horse. The center's founder and executive director Stephanie Lockhart gets acquainted with one of the mares relocated from a New Mexico ranch.

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