Kareem: the horse that would not be

November 26, 2011

He became known as The Horse with No Name. He died, almost certainly alone, and still wearing his full tack, on a heavily wooded California hillside around 30 years ago.

The discovery of his remains sparked wide speculation. Whose horse went missing all those years ago and how did it get there?

Mystery still surrounds the Horse with No Name.
The case piqued the interest of California state parks senior archaeologist Breck Parkman, who set off on a personal odyssey to uncover the truth. He reports on that journey.

While watching TV tonight, I saw the preview for the soon-to-be-released Steven Spielberg movie, War Horse. I think I'd like to see it when it comes out. Thinking about the horse in that movie caused me to remember another horse from my own not so distant past.

Two years ago, as some of my friends will recall, I investigated what proved to be the relatively intact skeleton of a fully tacked horse, found by chance on a heavily forested hillside in western Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Originally, I was called in to determine whether the discovery was of any historical importance. I'm occasionally given forensics "cases" involving the discovery of human bones, but never before had I investigated the skeleton of a horse. Upon visiting the site and viewing the skeletal remains in situ, it was clear to me that the horse was of no historical significance. It seemed much too recent for that. However, I wondered about the fate of the rider and so I began a survey of the immediate area to ensure that there were no other remains that had gone previously undiscovered on that same hillside. Finding no evidence of a rider, I concluded that the horse had been a runaway. After giving it some thought, I decided to see if I could determine the identity of the horse in order to better understand how it had come to die on this remote hillside years earlier.

Breck Parkman
For lack of a better name, I called this mystery horse, the "Horse with No Name," after the popular song from the 1970s.

In 1961, my parents took my sisters and me to Washington, D.C. to visit relatives and see the sights. One day, after we had visited the Kennedy White House, we stopped at Arlington National Cemetery and paid homage at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The military honor guard was just changing when we arrived, and it was an impressive thing for a young boy to witness. The memory stayed with me and over the years, I found myself often wondering about the anonymity of those interred in the tomb, as well as their affinity with the nation as a whole. Indeed, those nameless veterans represented each and every one of us and were thus all members of our family.

I suppose for me, the Horse with No Name resonated in a similar fashion.

After analyzing the saddle and other tack, and looking at the condition of the skeletal remains, I concluded that the Horse with No Name had died around 1975-1985. And working with the teeth, I could see that the animal had been a male, about 8 to 9 years old. It seemed obvious to me that I was looking for an approximately 8-year old male horse that had gone missing 25-35 years earlier. I began talking to local horse people and asking if they had recollections of such a horse.

Not long into the project, I heard about a horse named Kareem. Kareem was an 8-year old Arabian male that had gone missing in the mid-1970s. At the time of Kareem's disappearance, he was boarded at a private stable, at the old Chada Ranch, just ¾ mile from where the Horse with No Name was found. Today, evidence of the former stable is gone, the land having been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

That an 8-year-old male horse had gone missing in the mid-1970s, and from a stable just ¾ mile away from where the Horse with No Name was found, suggested to me that I had found my man. I continued to check out other leads, but none of the others panned out. I kept coming back to Kareem.

Kareem had been owned by a woman who lived in Marin County. She had stabled him at a private ranch and rode him every time she had the opportunity. One day, she went to ride Kareem and discovered that he was missing from his stall. Apparently, there were three gates that would have had to be left open for Kareem to escape on his own. It seemed obvious to the woman that her horse had been stolen. For the next few years, she searched all over the San Francisco Bay area, hoping to find her horse. She died of cancer not long after, having never learned the fate of Kareem.

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.

Fortunately, I was able to track down the woman's ex-husband and her brother, both of whom I interviewed. They helped me to better understand the events leading up to Kareem's disappearance and the efforts that the woman had made to locate him. They both told me that she had been heartbroken at losing her horse.

I thought that I could bring some closure, by showing that the Horse with No Name was Kareem. By now, the story of the Horse with No Name had hit the local press, with stories appearing in both the Marin Independent-Journal and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The stories elicited further leads, all of which I looked into, but none of which panned out. I talked to several horse owners who had lost their beloved animals years earlier, each wondering if this was theirs. One woman broke down and cried when she spoke of her missing horse from so long ago. But each time the new horses proved to be either the wrong age or gender and thus not the Horse with No Name. I knew that it had to be Kareem.

Within a day of the local papers writing about the Horse with No Name, his story was picked up by Horsetalk, an international online horse forum based in New Zealand. Horsetalk wound up doing four stories about the Horse with No Name. Thousands of people around the world read about him and a good number of these people contacted me with suggestions and encouragement. The encouragement was admittedly well-received by me. The newspaper articles had elicited all kinds of anonymous reader comments, many of them supportive, but some were quite ugly and demeaning. More than a few said that I should be fired for squandering public funds conducting such useless research. And a few were downright threatening. Of course, what they didn't realize was that most of the time that I spent investigating this was my own time. I felt an affinity for this forgotten horse and I thought that with the grace of my scientific skills, I could help bring closure to someone. I suppose I began to think of the Horse with No Name as "my" horse.

The same day that my first interview with Horsetalk went online, an international horse forum located in the Netherlands picked it up, translated it into Dutch, and made it available online. From there, the story went viral and I was inundated with e-mails and calls from around the world. With so many horse owners watching, I now felt compelled to solve the mystery of the Horse with No Name. I felt confident that I could do so as I knew that this animal had to be Kareem.

A friend suggested that I contact Dr Deb Bennett, Director of the Equine Studies Institute. Dr Deb is a renowned paleontologist and horse authority, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution. Upon contacting her, Dr Deb, who lives in central California, invited me to bring her the remains of the Horse with No Name. She volunteered her time, free of charge, to conduct an analysis to help me determine if the remains belonged to the missing Arabian. I was thrilled. I knew that with Dr Deb's help, I'd soon be able to tell the world about Kareem.

I loaded my horse and drove him to Dr Deb's equine research lab, located a five-hour drive away. Arriving at the lab, I found Dr Deb to be a gracious and obviously knowledgeable scholar. Her lab was filled with horse bones and her library was overflowing with their scientific literature, including various publications that she had authored herself, including her classic, Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship (Solvang, California: Amigo Publications, 1998). I was duly impressed and knew that the Horse with No Name was now in very good hands.

The first box that I unloaded from the truck contained the skull of the Horse with No Name. I brought it into the lab and carefully placed it on a table as instructed by Dr. Deb. Excitedly, she opened the box and removed the horse skull. Placing it on the table in front os us, she carefully examined it from various angles. After about ½ minute, she turned toward me and announced: "Well, you're right about it being an 8-year-old male, but it's definitely not an Arabian." My heart sank. If this horse wasn't an Arabian, then it couldn't be Kareem. I had wanted for it to be Kareem. For one thing, it would have made me look like a talented scientist, and someone who could figure out such things. More importantly, I knew that it would bring closure for what was left of Kareem's human family and for those many people around the world who were now interested in him.

I questioned Dr Deb and pushed her to convince me that my horse wasn't an Arabian. Fortunately, she was forgiving, and she good naturedly gave me a crash course in Horse Anatomy 101. I could see that she was right. This was not Kareem.

After a much more thorough inspection, Dr Deb called to inform me that the Horse with No Name was a Thoroughbred, or perhaps a Quarter Horse with a lot of Thoroughbred in it. She said that she saw some evidence suggesting that this had once been a racehorse, and later sold for commercial trail riding. She was especially interested in the tack, which was mostly on the inexpensive side and quite worn out.

Interestingly, the halter had been placed on the horse inside out and one of its straps had been cut by a knife. I wondered aloud if this might suggest the horse had been stolen in the dark of night, perhaps by a novice. Dr Deb agreed that it was possible, but she reminded me once again that this was not Kareem. The position of the stirrups suggested that the last rider had been rather petite and most likely a child. The 14" Simco saddle seemed to attest to the last rider being on the small size as well.

Of course, if someone had stolen this horse under the cover of darkness, they could have thrown the wrong saddle on by mistake. We'll probably never know for sure.

The Simco saddle found on the Horse with No Name.

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

At this point, I assume that the Horse with No Name was a commercial trail-ride horse that threw its rider and ran off. From talking to horse people, I understand that such a horse could travel a considerable distance in a day, meaning that this horse could have run off from anywhere in a considerably large area of western Marin County and ended up where we found him.

After going through all the information I amassed, I can find no horse other than Kareem that comes close to being the Horse with No Name. Given that this is not Kareem, the Horse with No Name will probably always remain just that, a nameless horse. The only closure that is possible comes in the knowledge that, through the wonders of the Internet and what Marshall McLuhan envisioned to be the "Global Village" (in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962), many thousands of people read about the Horse with No Name and, in their own way, perhaps adopted him as their own, just as those faceless veterans in the Tomb of the Unknowns belong to all of us. In attempting to find this sense of closure, I have discovered what truly magnificent creatures horses are and what warm and caring people horse people are all over the world.

Although he was forgotten for many years, the Horse with No Name eventually experienced his 15 minutes of fame, not to mention the love that any Equus inspires and deserves. Today, this nameless horse lives among a herd of similar horse spirits, in a place where he can do the most good for his kind.

As for me, I've finally come to the realization that "my" horse will never be Kareem, nor does he have to be. It's enough that he is who he is, the Horse with No Name.

You know, I'm really looking forward to seeing Spielberg's War Horse when it comes out next month.