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Dr. Paul Polechla

Professor of biology who is teaching a course on "Horses of the American West" at the University of New Mexico.

1 -    What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the equestrian world during your life time?

The loss of the ownerless mustangs on the rangelands of the American West is now happening at the rate of 1 per hour.  At this pace the New Mexican Horse Project estimates within 5 years they will all be gone,  including the 10% that are of descended from the Iberian peninsula!!!  We have registered some of these so-called Spanish mustangs as the “New Mexican” breed if they qualify after DNA testing.  We place these genetic qualifiers on our wild horse preserves.


2 -    Do you ride?

Yes, I ride every chance I get for enjoyment and to track our wild Spanish mustangs on our wild horse preserves.  My favorite equines to ride are horses of Spanish descent and mules.  I also hike to track the wild horses. All horse breeds are good for different reasons however. Friends often request me to exercise their horses and provide them with new positive experiences.  I have been riding a generic mustang, named “Bailey” (pictured). a pretty sorrel mare owned by Carlos and now maintained by New Mexican Horse Project’s Joe Dixon.  She is currently our “ambassador horse”.


3 -    Do you own a horse?

Technically no, but I serve as the project biologist for the New Mexican Horse Project (and Research Associate Professor at University of New Mexico).  I check on the wild horses, their rangeland, and the fence-line integrity on foot and on horse and mule back on two of our preserves.


4 -    Who is your favourite horse in history?

My favorite historical horses are the ones Don Juan Onate brought up the route now know as the Camino Real.  They are similar to the Indian ponies of the Comanches, who on horseback were considered by many historians to be one of the best light cavalry in the world.  About half of the Pony Express horses were gray mares from Santa Fe.  These trusty steeds and their mail carriers kept the western states in the loop during a pivotal time in the 1800’s.  My favorite recent modern horse was “Trigger” since he was so well-trained by Roy Rogers both for riding and trick performance.  As a palomino quarter horse, Trigger was only part Spanish. One of my favorite living horse is a wild “New Mexican” horse called  “El Sombrillo”, or “The Shadow”.  He went from a dejected quarantined horse when we got him to a proud lead stallion protecting a trembling young foal and his band within 15 minutes after his release!


5 -    Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?

The Spanish explorers’ reintroduction of equines into the New World starting with Columbus’ second voyage across the horse latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean culminating in Don Juan Onate’s entrance or “entrada” into present-day New Mexico, U.S.A. via the Rio Grande valley.  The influence of the Spanish horse is legendary.  Over half of the popular breeds of today tout the Spanish horse as a “primary influence”.


6 -    What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?

The later days of “The Roy Rogers Show” and “The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show” influenced me when I was young.  He and his horse Trigger (“the smartest horse in the movies”) could ride like the wind and Roy became an excellent horseman.  Dale Evans was his trusted companion and was an excellent cowgirl in her own right.

However, my parents Paul Sr. and Virginia B. Polechla had the greatest influence on me and they always encouraged my early fascination with animals in general…domestic and wild.  As a kid, during family vacations from Illinois to the American West to visit Arizona relatives, they would plop my sisters and me upon the back of horses, much to my delight!  In my earlier college days, I tried an American rodeo and Mexican charreada riding some of the “outlaws” and lived to tell about it!  And oh, how I dreamed of wild mustangs!


7 -    What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?

For worldwide general book of breeds of the world and general history I would recommend the” New Encyclopedia of the Horse” by Elwyn Hartley Edwards, and for popular American breeds I would recommend “96 Breeds of North America” by Judith Dutson.  For paleontology I feel Bruce MacFadden’s “Fossil Horses” is a neo-classic.  Even though there are thousands of books published on horses, there is really no treatise of the horses of the American West from stem to stern.  We are working on this.  I enjoy reading many articles and booklets of Spanish colonial history and Spanish livestock brands by Carlos LoPopolo. These works provided a suitable departure point for genetic analysis of horses.  He also authored a couple of coloring/activity books about horses for children.


8 -    How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian specialty?

Carlos LoPopolo, the co-founder and executive director of the New Mexican Horse Project, called our shop asking for horse bones predating 1821, the date of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail and the great mixing of cold-blooded horses of Northern Europe that were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the East Coast of North America with the hot-blooded horses of the Iberian Peninsula that were routed through the Horse Latitudes to the Caribbean Islands and then onto the Mexican peninsula and up the Rio Grande valley (Rio Bravo del Norte) into present-day New Mexico, USA.  He informed me of his up-coming National Geographic Explorer documentary, “America’s Lost Mustangs”.  I viewed it and joined the Project.  I was invited to a wild horse-friendly round-up and I was hooked!  I’ve been involved volunteering my time since 2001.


9 -    What prompted you to enter that field?

Initially it was Mr. LoPopolo’s description and the National Geographic Explorer special.  Ultimately, the reason for entering the field was seeing these “living legends”, the Spanish mustangs, for the first time.  After a while, I realized their dire plight on governmental and non-governmental lands.  I had found my calling.


10 -    Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?

Yes, Carlos has been my mentor for eight years teaching me about wild horses, domestic horses, and the human history related to horses.  Then of course, the horses themselves have inspired me immensely. 


11 - When did you begin your research, investigation, work?

I began my research into wild horse behavior, ecology, natural history, conservation, and human-horse history (especially Mexican and American periods of territorial days of New Mexico and southwestern U.S.) related to horses in 2001. 


12 -    What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?

I’m relating conservation of wild Spanish mustangs to ethnological, ecological, bio-geographical, and sociological concepts.


13 -    What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?

DNA analysis is probably the most enlightening technique to elucidate the horse descendants of the Iberian Peninsula.  We work closely with Dr. E. Gus Cothran on this subject.  If DNA analysis is good enough for assisting in deciding such topics as paternity  and investigating crime scenes for humans it is equally as valuable in determining lineages for horses. 

We are using multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary approaches to produce an entire educational package concerning the entire 58 million year history of the horses of the American West especially the Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico.  It will cover events from the appearance of the dawn horse to the evolutionary radiation and dispersal into Asia-Europe and Africa through the North American Pleistocene extinction, and the Spanish reintroduction of equines back into North and South America.  We will conclude the program with the current threats of breed extinction and the methods and efforts of the New Mexican Horse Project and other parties to conserve this rare breed. We are planning a PBS documentary film series, interactive website, companion book, and traveling museum exhibition.  We’ll incorporate some newer technology such as I-pods and E-books too.  We will be seeking input from people on which part(s) of the educational package they would prefer to use. Of course, we will provide opportunities for people to come to our preserves and view our horses if they contribute to our effort. This can be either a part of an informal afternoon outing or a formal university course. 

Nothing replaces the experience of tracking them and seeing them in person and nothing takes the place of the Spanish mustangs themselves.  Not only were Latin America, New Mexico, the West, and America built on the backs of these horses; they also changed the course of human history with all of its beauty marks and warts.  They are good unto themselves.


14 -    What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?

Helping build a new wild horse preserve and capturing wild mustangs that qualify as Spanish horses (through DNA analysis) and releasing them onto the land.  To know that you provided assistance to one of the most endangered breeds of horses is a whole body experience!  It is part of the American experience to root and work for the “underdog” (or “dark horse”).  It doesn’t get any better than this to see wild Spanish mustangs grazing and running across the prairies with manes and tails flying!  With ample amounts of native, nutritious grama grass for food and springs for water they get to choose how they live their life, if and with whom they mate, when and where they graze, etc.  It is our job in the New Mexican Horse Project to provide them with ample habitat…they will do the rest if we allow them. We manage our preserve horses as wildlife.  I am in complete agreement on this with the New Mexican Horse Project.  After all, I have been a wildlife biologist my entire career.


15 -    What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?

Seeing the mustangs and their rangeland vanish from the landscape of the American West before our very eyes.  We must reverse this trend; there is still time to act if we act now!  We need people’s minds, heart, souls, funds, and especially their sweat!  Join us on this journey!  It is tremendously rewarding and a lot of fun.


16 -    How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?

Sometimes in Academia we get so specialized in our research that we are unable (or unwilling) to speak and write in more generalized terms to include the public at large.  Those who are able to are very gifted.  We now have collected a consortium of people to help bridge this gap and not only inform people what our research/education group is doing as well as to get input from the public on what they know about horses and how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can assist us in our everyday lives.  It is imperative that we bridge this gap.


17 -    What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?

Equine genetic tests like DNA analysis could be used to test various equine lineages using primary source historical research as a point of departure.


18 -    Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?

The lengths that breeders have gone to breed two equine partners seems contrived and artificial. In many instances it has lead to inbreeding depression, deleterious homozygous recessive pairings, and avoidable diseases.  I feel that Mother Nature and natural selection are healthier influences than artificial selection by humans.  You can learn a lot from these wild Spanish mustangs about primeval equine ecology and behavior if you are a good observer.  Carlos says they will “talk” to you if you will only “listen”.


19 -    How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?

The project we are working on with our latest grant uses multi-media technology to reach the widest possible audience in educating them how the fields of science can be used to answer questions in equid evolution.


20 -    What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?

I would like to see the welfare of horses in general, rare breeds, and equine species regarded as a higher priority than money, human egos and foolish pride.


21 -    Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?

Inbreeding diseases might be a major difficulty in the near future.  Currently the present economy has stressed people financially and this has come to bear unfairly on the horses they own.  We are supposed to be stewards of the animals we own.


22 -    What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?

One of the major problems in owning horses is acquiring and keeping an adequate tract of pasturage for grazing, exercise, and space.  This is especially true in areas of increasingly dense human populations.  For the Spanish mustangs it is adequate rangeland habitat.


23 -     What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?

Currently people can view the website of the New Mexican Horse Project, maintained by Carlos LoPopolo  In the future we will link to that site and others and post a pilot website for our National Science Foundation funded program with the New Mexican Horse Project and University of New Mexico as major players.


24 -    Any final thoughts?

Come join the “Wild Horse Posse”!  Stay tuned to our progress by conducting a Google search on “Natural History of the Horses of the American West”.  We are seeking input from partners like you.

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