Three horses in frame in mystery skeleton probe

January 9, 2010


The Simco saddle which is to be inspected by a saddler.


An overview of the steep area where the remains were found.


The tooled floral decoration on the saddle's seat.


A rosette decoration can be seen on the saddle's horse.


The remains of the horse and gear where they were found.

» More pictures, earlier story

by Neil Clarkson

Three horses are in the frame as an archaeologist in California continues his efforts to identify the fully tacked-up skeletal remains of a horse.

The remains were found by a mushroom hunter in California's Samuel P. Taylor State Park last November. It piqued the interest of state parks senior archaeologist Breck Parkman, who hopes his inquiries will lead to the identification of the animal.

The remains were found only 80 metres from a highway, but in steep, heavily forested terrain which had kept them hidden for what Parkman believes was 30 to 40 years.

He has recovered 80 per cent of the skeleton and tack which includes a saddle, bridle and bit, lead rope, halter, and three shoes. The shoes had hardly any wear.

The horse, probably a male, appeared to have collapsed and died while trying to make its way up the hill. Parkman believes it most likely died in the 1970s.

He told Horsetalk that he was hoping for progress in the next two weeks, with plans afoot to show the saddle and tack to an expert saddler and have a specialist in equine anatomy look over the bones.

He said he would show the riding gear to local saddler Jay Palm, who runs Jay Palm's Saddle Shop, in Penngrove, northern Petaluma, in the next few days.

Palm has already viewed pictures of the western-style trail saddle and believes it may be a Simco, a common production saddle dating from the 1950s and 60s.

However, he believes the owner may have had the seat remade and he recognises a pattern to the stitching which makes him think it may have been done by his father Jim, also a saddle maker, who passed away in 1982.

"The pattern that it is, how it was stitched, everybody has a unique signature in how they do things. I have seen that pattern before in leather. That stitching in the seat, I think my Dad did it."

He said he would know more once he inspected the saddle, but if it was indeed a production Simco, it may prove to have little more than a model number stamped under the skirt.

If it was something more special, it could conceivably have a unique serial number stamped on it.

"With leather that old, saddle stamps can be barely a shadow. If you don't know where to look you can skim right over it."

Parkman said he hoped to have the bones inspected by Dr Deb Bennett, whom he hoped would be able to provide more information about the horse, such as its sex, size and age at time of death.

He said there were three horses that had been drawn to his attention that could conceivably be the missing horse, all of which had gone missing in Marin County.

He hopes any information gleaned from Bennett and Palm might help single out which horse it is. However, others may still come to light.

"If it happens to be a horse where the owner is still living, we have the opportunity to offer some closure."

Of the three horses, there is one he feels shows the most promise.

The male horse went missing from a ranch where it was boarded in the 1970s.

The owner, a woman, has since died, but her husband and brother still remember the disappearance. The owner had been sure the horse could not have escaped on its own, given that it was secured behind several gates.

The animal had a history of throwing its rider, he said. The husband and brother also recalled that she did business with the saddle shop founded by Jim Palm.

Parkman said it was not known if any tack had been stolen, but the owner had always been of the view that the horse had been ridden from the property.

The second case involves a mare stolen from a pasture in 1974. That same night tack was stolen from sheds on the property. However, Parkman has received advice that the remains appeared to be that of a male.

The third is a horse that escaped 5-10 years ago on a steep coastal trail. It was never found and was assumed to have fallen in the ocean. However, Parkman believes the remains pre-date this disappearance.

Local police still had records to search for any clues that might cast light on the mystery.

Parkman said he had received emails from across the US and even from Europe about the case and was impressed by the passion shown by horse people.

There were two unusual aspects to the skeleton which have yet to be explained.

There was no saddle blanket and the halter had been put on backwards.