Study reveals 32 distinct breeds among Navajo Nation horses

Horses in the Eastern Navajo Agency of Northwestern New Mexico.
Horses in the Eastern Navajo Agency of Northwestern New Mexico. © Kevin Kunkel / BLM

A report on horses on Navajo Nation land in the US has revealed 32 genetically distinct horse breeds, with ancestral lineages from East Asia and South America.

Genetic tests were run on 100 feral horses in 15 chapters by Texas A&M University and Navajo Technical University. A chapter is the most local form of government in the Navajo Nation. The Nation is broken into five agencies. Each agency contains chapters; currently, there are 110 local chapters, each with their own chapter house.

The report was requested by Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mark Freeland, who had “expressed concern for the overabundance of feral horses on the Navajo Nation that appear sick or starving”, the council said.

Ed Miles Harvey, programmer and project specialist with the Navajo Horse Genetic Program, outlined the results of the study and recent efforts to genetically identify the “Navajo Horse” to the Resources and Development Committee (RDC) of the Navajo Nation Council.

Harvey reported the initial sample study will be expanded by gathering at least four horses from each of the 110 chapters on the reservation. The larger sample will help determine the diversity of feral horses on the Navajo Nation, which may help improve management efforts.

Removal program halted

Lacey Salabye, an extension agent for the department, and Principal Planner Roxie June also reported to the RDC on the Equine Reward Program (ERP) and their Horse Removal Report.

Salabye said the program’s operations were discontinued on June 23 by order of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources (DNR). Participants received $50 for each horse they turned over to the program, but the program began turning people away after being overloaded.

Before the discontinuation, the ERP had received 158 unbranded feral horses and horses surrendered by owners that could no longer care for them. ERP reached its capacity to both take care of the horses and respond effectively to roundup requests.

Salabye indicated that the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic had profoundly impacted the market for horses and residents often cannot afford to keep livestock.

A wild foal near Farmington, New Mexico. © Kevin Kunkel, BLM New Mexico

“Despite what people say, we love and respect all of our animals, but have to do the removal to ensure we have a manageable number,” June said.

June expressed that the program wants to avoid drastic incidents, such as the 2014 severe drought that killed 200 feral horses in Grey Mountain, Arizona. Addressing additional challenges, such as the Navajo Nation’s ongoing drought and broken windmills, have pushed the department’s workers and volunteers to their full capacity.

The program reported captured horses went from 3000 in 2018 to 1500 in 2019 and this year 600 have been captured so far.

Dr Rudy Shebala, executive director of the DNR, later indicated that the ERP would resume in autumn when foals are less dependent on their mothers for food and protection.

RDC followed the reports with questions regarding any solutions the department is putting in place during the Covid-19 pandemic to address the needs of horses on the Navajo Nation.

They sought details on how land overgrazing, lack of water and feral horse inbreeding were going to be handled.

“We want to ensure we move forward reducing the numbers [of feral horses on the Navajo Nation] in a scientifically and culturally appropriate manner where we are not slaughtering horses,” Shebala said.

Shebala provided an extensive history of horses on the Navajo Nation and described how understanding their genetic identities will help integrate more durable long-term solutions to the current problems. He described a horse farm in Oregon that produces purebred Kiger Mustangs and envisions developing a similar operation on the Navajo Nation.

Horses with specific genetics could be scientifically adapted to the 21 microclimates across the region and staff could be hired to train them.

The Navajo Indian Reservation covers an area that extends into the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, an estimated land base of 25,351 square miles. There are currently, 253,124 enrolled tribal members with 168,000 individuals residing on the Navajo Nation.

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3 thoughts on “Study reveals 32 distinct breeds among Navajo Nation horses

  • July 3, 2020 at 6:41 am

    This proves the Navajo wild horses have a rich heritage. I just hope they get their fair of the forage and water and other habitat requirements vis-a-vis livestock and other resource users. So glad they are not being slaughtered. I still say that “Reserve Design” is the answer.

  • December 16, 2020 at 7:39 am

    How does the Navajo Nation insure the horses they remove will not end up being slaughtered?

  • April 5, 2021 at 1:03 am

    You should let the horses be if you’re worried about grass. Take a look at holistic farming. Killing/capturing horses will result in less grass. You need big herdes to trample the soil. The weak/sick will be food for the coyotes, foxes and soil.


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