March 2020 - The Gallop: Rare Breed Resurgence
El Campeon Farms steps up as a steward of the Santa Cruz Island Horses.
by Kim F. Miller
Many good developments had a generous boost from the Gonda family’s El Campeon Farms. Star junior rider Eva Gonda brought the family into the equestrian world as a passionate and talented hunter/jumper rider. Eva’s coach, Will Simpson, helped the US Equestrian Team earn a gold show jumping medal at the 2008 Olympics with their horse Carsson vom Dach.
The center in South Ventura County’s Thousand Oaks is a longtime USET Training facility. Its beautiful white-fenced pastures, big red barns and perfectly footed arenas are now home to a handful of fortunate professional horsemen -- Sabine Schut-Kery, Abigail Followwill and Katrina Karazissis. It’s a popular film location where seven Super Bowl commercials with the Budweiser Clydesdales were shot, and it regularly welcomes the public for everything from school field trips to high performance clinics.
A rare breed of horses is El Campeon’s current beneficiary since the Farm became a steward of the Santa Cruz Island Horses in 2014. These gentle, hearty horses can trace their genetics to the Iberian Peninsula, the origin point for the Colonial Spanish horses brought to North America by the Conquistadors and California’s Missionary Padres.
Donatello and his rider, Willow.
The horses were brought to the Channel Island’s Santa Cruz Island the late 1880s to help with ranching endeavors. They were used for wide-ranging tasks from herding cattle and sheep on the Island’s 60,000 acres, to pulling plows and family buggies. Some even showed up as stunt animals in early 1900s films.
Ranching ended on the Island in the 1980s and the horses’ fate fell into question for many years. They had fared well in a mostly feral state when the Island was sold from private hands to come under the National Park Service’s jurisdiction. A long battle ensued over whether the horses should be allowed to stay or be removed because they were not a native species.
Dr. Karen Blumenshine of the Santa Barbara Equine Practice was among those to lobby for letting them stay. Supporters sometimes slept on the island in fear the horses would be culled in the middle of the night. Simultaneously, Dr. Blumenshine initiated the process of researching the breed’s genetics. With the assistance of UC Davis veterinarians and geneticists, it was established that these horses had a unique genetic pool with sufficient diversity to sustain breeding the herd.
By the late 1990s, the California government won on removing the horses from the Island and supporters switched tactics to ensure their survival in new environments.
Dianne Nelson at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shasta County’s Shingletown took in the last of the herd. The horses’ long isolation on Santa Cruz had preserved their genetics, but that also made them susceptible to diseases. And their lack of experience with predators made them easy targets for mountain lions.
Christina Nooner led the next step toward salvation by adopting a five-day old filly from the resettled herd. Named “Sunshine,” the filly was nursed to health and is now the namesake for the Sunshine Sanctuary for kids and horses in the Bay Area’s Los Molinos. She’s was the first member of a what’s now called the Heavenly Heritage Herd.
Simultaneously, work continued to determine and preserve their genetics through DNA testing and consultation with equine genetic experts. This research confirmed the connection to the Spanish horses and those discoveries have inspired others to help ensure the breed’s perpetuation.
Enter El Campeon
Finding breed stewards to broaden and multiply efforts on the horses’ behalf was the next step. El Campeon owners Kelly and Lou Gonda learned about the horses through their interest in goats. “Will (Simpson) had won the gold medal and the Gondas’ children were grown and off on their own,” explains Christy Reich, El Campeon’s manager. While researching the origins of goats on another Channel Island, San Clemente Island, the Gondas learned of the Santa Cruz Island horses and their plight. “Lou came to the United States as a 16-year-old and he’s always had a fascination with California history and the early California cowboy -- Vaquero -- way of life,” Christy continues.
In 2016, El Campeon purchased 13 Santa Cruz Island horses, including three stallions, and committed itself to breeding and promoting the horse’s great temperaments and versatility.
As a steward of the breed’s future, the El Campeon team works with UC Davis’ equine geneticists and reproductive experts to establish best practices, standards and protections. The horse’s best traits are good temperaments and calm brains, Christy reports. At an average height of 14hh, they are easy to handle and ideal for children and amateurs who dominate inquiries when the horses compete or participate in demos and exhibitions. They appeal to people getting back into riding after a hiatus and to experienced riders downsizing from Warmbloods.
Working Equitation: A Perfect Fit
Equally important is ensuring that these horses will have a job. “Like every breed, you have to redefine what their job is to make it,” Christy explains. “If we just breed them, then they will live and die with us.”
Working Equitation is a relatively new discipline in the United States, but it’s a very old one where it originated on the working ranches of Portugal. “It’s such an interesting sport. Parts of it speak to the high-performance side,” Christy observes. “When you see some of the riders at the top of the sport, they are doing tempi changes through the obstacles, for example. It’s all about proper collection, classical riding and horses having a good brain because they have to do all the different events in a workmanlike manner.”
The level-headed, intelligent temperaments and physical abilities of the Santa Cruz Island horses make them perfect partners in Working Equitation. While she’s partial to the SCI horses, Christy notes that all horses can excel in the discipline: “It’s non-denominational!”
El Campeon participates in and promotes the discipline. Last year, the inaugural El Campeon Invitational was a big success with 40 horses and their characteristically friendly owners. “It’s such a cool group of people, all from different walks of life,” Christy notes. “Everybody is really supportive of each other.”
A Working Equitation schooling show took place in late February and this year’s El Campeon Invitational will be held on Memorial Day Weekend.
El Campeon’s breed ambassador, Cochise, shines in Working Equitation, Western Dressage and Open dressage competition. In the latter, he’s already scoring well in Training Level work, thanks to naturally-relaxed fluid gaits that are prized by riders and judges. He wowed one of dressage’s top talent spotters, Christine Traurig, during a recent visit, Christy recounts. “She stopped teaching a lesson when she saw him and said, ‘Who is that?’”
Smaller than traditional dressage breeds and often wrapped in eye-catching shades of palomino, cremello and liver chestnut, the horses stand out and inspire inquiries. Chochise and his stablemates have made their mark at competitions throughout the region. This year’s itinerary includes the Showcase in April in Los Angeles and the Andalusian World Cup in Las Vegas this August.
The successful appearances are building demand for the breed and El Campeon hopes to have its first batch of homebreds available for sale soon, possibly this year. It all depends on how they progress in their training with El Campeon rider Abigail Followwill. El Campeon has four mature stallions and two junior stallions. Breedings have included some carefully considered out-crossing, under the close direction of UC Davis scientists, to ensure genetic diversity.
In lieu of a pre-existing registry for the Santa Cruz Island horses, El Campeon works with The Livestock Conservancy, which works to save many heritage breeds from extinction.
While the Santa Cruz Island horses are very different from the hunters and jumpers El Campeon was once famous for, they surely have equal -- likely more -- gratitude for all the Farm and its family have made possible for them.