HERITAGE HORSES OF SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
Conserved In California
When the island of Santa Cruz is mentioned, many people think of the famous sheep originating from that island. What few people know is that there were also Spanish horses that came with the ranchers in the 1800s to herd cattle and sheep on the island's 60,000 acres of land. These horses were used for everything from herding to plowing, and in maintaining vineyards and pulling buggies for the families who lived on the island. They were even used as stunt animals in the silent films of the early 1900s by the famous American Film Manufacturing Company's "Flying A" movie studio. Santa Cruz Island was a favorite production site for this company that produced many of the early Westerns that were popular during the "nickelodeon era" of the American cinema.
Historically the horses on Santa Cruz were managed in a semi-feral system that allowed the herds to self select for hardiness and adaptability to the rugged island habitat. Archive photographs of horses from the early 1900s substantiate that the horses have changed little during their time on the island. Today they are still very much Spanish in type and predominantly cremello, palomino, sorrel or buckskin in color.
When ranching on Santa Cruz Island was discontinued in the 1980s, the horses were left to fend for themselves until the 1990s when the island was sold and came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It was at this time that the horses came to the attention of Dr. Karen Blumenshine of the Santa Barbara Equine Practice. She believed the horses were unique and distinct from the many types of horses she had seen in her practice. She felt they warranted serious scientific study and conservation.
The herd, referred to as the "Heritage Herd" by Blumenshine, was supported by a non-profit group called the Foundation for Horses and Other Animals (FHOA), which hired a lawyer to fight for the horses to remain on the island. At the same time, Dr. Blumenshine, with the assistance of fellow veterinarians Dr. Joe Cannon and Dr. David Jensen, began a scientific study with the collection of DNA samples from the horses. Dr. Ann Bowling, of the University of California at Davis, conducted the initial genetic testing and found that the herd did have a unique set of genetic charecteristics and that there was sufficient genetic diversity to sustain a breeding herd.
Despite extraordinary effort, continued pressure led to the removal of the horses from the island. The last of the Santa Cruz horses left their historic home in 1998 and came into the care of Dianne Nelson of the Wild Horse Sanctaury (WHS) in Northern California's Shingletown. From this foundation herd, purebred foals have added to the population since 1998 and have been adopted by Christina Nooner, the founder of the non-profit Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses in Tehama County's Los Molinos. Beginning with the adoption of an orphaned foal named Sunshine (the namesake of the sanctuary) the herd now numbers more than 25 individuals, with more foals expected in the spring. Christina, like Drs. Blumenshine and Bowling, recognized something special in the horses from the island. With their gentle disposition and ease of training, the horses fit perfectly into Christina's plans to use them as therapy horses for troubled children.
El Campeon Farms provides breed stewardship which has successfully foaled 5 fillies and 2 colts to our 6 breeding mares and 3 stallions between 2015-2016. We continue to offer this breeding program as a conservation effort, striving toward rising this breeds population numbers.