Bones specialist inspects remains of mystery horse

March 3, 2010

by Neil Clarkson

The remains where they were found.

A. Distal end of the lead rope (this is the end that would be tied to a hitching post); B. Lead rope threaded beneath right fender; C. Knotted rope (the rope was probably tied around the saddle horn); D. Proximal end of the lead rope with bull snap hook (this is the end that would have been hooked to a halter if the lead rope had been engaged). This appears to suggest that the lead rope was stored away on the saddle when the accident occurred. If this is true, then it seems obvious that the horse hadn't been tied up, freed itself, and ran off without a rider, Parkman says.

The bit, which is a Trammell.

Here, Breck Parkman has assembled all the horse bones he could find including the skull. The saddle is seen in the foreground, in a relocated position.

The horse's jaw. The upper teeth appear to be in good condition.

A fully tacked-up horse, the remains of which were found in a California state park, may have died more recently than originally thought.

Dr Deb Bennett, an authority on the classification, evolution, anatomy, and biomechanics of fossil and living horses, has inspected the mysterious remains of the so-called Horse with No Name.

Dr Bennett, who founded the Equine Studies Institute, provided Horsetalk with some of her observations before she prepared a written report on the remains.

The skeleton and tack, found in late November by a mushroom hunter in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, on California's north coast, drew the interest of Breck Parkman, the state parks senior archaeologist.

He hopes to identify the remains and how they came to be there. The story has attracted international interest.

Parkman gathered what bones he could find from the site - a heavily wooded steep slope about 80 metres beneath a highway, and took them to Dr Bennett in the hope she could cast more light on the remains.

She said the remains were those of a male. It was eight or nine years old at the time of death, based on the condition of its teeth.

The animal stood under 15 hands.

It was not an Arabian horse, she said. It had a plain head and was of the commonest sort of breeding.

"It could have been a graded quarter horse or a quarter horse with a little bit of thoroughbred. But it could also have been an appy, or a small thoroughbred."

She said the horse had been injected in the hocks, indicating it may have been used for roping at some time. Injecting hocks was a common activity in that part of California, she said.

Dr Bennett said the whole skeleton had not been recovered, which limited the extent of her findings.

Bone experts, she noted, always complained that they wanted more bones and she had encouraged Parkman to return to the site in the hunt for more of the skeleton.

"Unfortunately, I have only one set of leg bones. I would love to have another three legs."

She also had only one neck bone.

Predators had chewed at the remains and it was possible some of the bones had rolled well down the steep hillside.

She said there was no evidence on the bones she had studied that the animal had been tangled in wire or shot.

It was possible that the horse had ultimately starved to death, as the introduced golden wild oats that were common in the area had virtually no nutritional value.

"There is nothing for a horse to eat in Samuel P. Taylor Park," she said.

"I can't specify a case of death. But, however it occurred ... the poor horse.

"He managed to be loose up there. If he starved to death, it would have taken a couple of weeks. How come nobody saw him?"

Why, she asked, did it appear that local authorities were not notified?

Horses, she noted, would not have tried to hide, as a deer would.

However, it is her findings over the age of the bones that open up more options for their origins.

Parkman was of the view that the remains and gear could have gone back as far as the 70s.

However, Dr Bennett said the bones, in her view, were more likely 10 years old, and may even be only five years old.

"The major feature of the bones is how much they have been chewed. Coyotes had a pretty good go, and local rodents for their calcium supply.

"I am sure they are missing him. He had a lot of gnaw marks from mice."

She said the local climate, which included a reasonably high rainfall, and the significant moss and root growth affecting the skeleton, meant it may well have disappeared altogether in a year or so had it not been found.

Dr Bennett's findings as to age add intrigue over the tack, which would have been very old at the time of the animal's death.

A saddler expressed the view that the saddle was an old Simco. It was a child's size and the stirrups were set at a child's height.

Dr Bennett said the bit was in very poor condition. One branch of the bit was bent outward, which is something that could not have occurred with the horse wearing it. It was shaped like a weymouth with square branches and average shank length.

The horse had also been wearing an old bashed-up bridle and the evidence suggested the halter had been cut with a knife.

The horse was wearing size zero to zero and a half shoes - too small for the size of the horse. It should have been in size two shoes, she said, although fitting undersized shoes was a not uncommon problem in shoeing.

Dr Bennett will provide Parkman with a written report of her findings.

They will discuss their findings, based on their respective areas of expertise, in the hopes they can come to some conclusions or scenarios as to how the horse came to be in the park with its full tack.

There are two other aspects to the find that add intrigue: there was no sign of a saddle blanket and the halter appeared to have been put on incorrectly.