El Campeon Farms in the Santa Monica Mountains preserves a unique breed with the blood of a 200-year-old Spanish Colonial
El Campeon Farms in the Santa Monica Mountains is reviving one of the most endangered horse breeds in the world – the Santa Cruz Island Horse (SCI). The young herd, now up to 23 horses, may be the last of their kind, but a scientific breeding program is currently underway to increase their numbers.
As the name suggests, these horses came from the 98 square mile Santa Cruz Island – one of the Channel Islands off our coast. Records show that horses were first brought in in 1830 – nearly 200 years ago.
According to El Campion Farms general manager Christy Reich, in an interview with Livestock Conservation, the island’s first horses were Spanish colonial horses descended from those brought to the New World on Spanish galleons to Central and South America. Eventually, the “padres” (Catholic missionary priests) rode these horses as far as ca.
When Mexico established a penal colony on Santa Cruz Island in 1830, some Spanish horses were sent there. With the advent of sheep farming in 1851, additional horses were brought in to haul hay and supplies from farm to farm—the new horses may or may not have been Spanish Colonies.
According to ship records from 1873 to 1905, small numbers of horses were periodically delivered or picked up from the island, but the isolated core herd remained and developed into its own distinct breed. Records recorded in 1874 “about 125 saddle horses and mules,” but almost half a century later, in 1922, that number had dropped to “97 head of horses” because they were displaced by automobiles.
Eventually, ranching became less profitable on the island and, according to one account, “horses roamed freely and bred among themselves for several decades”. In 1984, 40 horses remained, and in 1999, when the National Park Service took over, 15-19 of the surviving wild horses were removed (accounts vary).
They were taken to a horse sanctuary in Northern California, but after living without predators for over 150 years, the animals had no flight response and were preyed upon by mountain lions. Then the survivors were taken to a shelter in the province of Tehama, where they lived for about 15 years. El Campeon Farms purchased 13 animals in 2014 in an effort to save them through a scientific breeding program.
Santa Cruz Island horses are registered with the Livestock Conservancy and are listed under the “Critical” horse category.
Karen Blumenchen, an equine veterinary vet based in Santa Barbara, studied the animals in their natural habitat on the island with UC Davis researchers from 1995-1998, analyzed their DNA, and published a scientific paper about them. She describes the horses as genetically unique with “heirloom” genes that must be preserved.
It described a number of distinct differences that set the Santa Cruz Island horses apart. Notably, they have babies at a very different time of year than any other horse breed.
“These guys were giving birth from November to February,” she said in a phone interview. They haven’t read the book about waiting longer hours for sunlight. But the change was adaptive and beneficial to life on that island—for the grass was green while feeding; And then when the grains and seeds came in, they had a higher-calorie food available to gain weight again during weaning.”
Blumenshine found that the island’s horses are stronger than other breeds, and get around the island without vets or foot care.
“Because they were constantly on the move, their hooves scraped up sand, and they were textbook perfect,” she said.
The SCI breed is also shorter and thicker than other horses.
“It was heavier than a lot of Spanish breeds, so maybe some draft horses mixed in…they look alike, like they’re related, but not like any other breed I know,” Blumenshine said. “They reminded me of the old California horses from when I was a kid; with larger heads and feet, which makes them more solid. The larger feet distribute the force of each stride over more square centimeters. They also have rough manes, which probably also came from draft horses.”
“When US breeders started breeding horses to have a certain appearance—smaller feet and heads—you lose outbred genes—genes that adapt to the environment.”
Another thing that sets the breed apart is its appetite.
“Island horses also don’t need as much food as other horses—if you feed them too much, they get obese,” Blumenshine said. We rescued them at the end of a seven year drought, and they were competing for food with thousands of sheep, and they were still very healthy. They subsisted on native grass and imported non-native grasses for grazing.
“My hope in perpetuating the breed is perhaps to preserve some of the ancient genes to pass on if we bred them from other breeds,” she said. “There is value in preserving these ancient genes.”
Reich noted that horse breeds don’t survive unless people value them for being good at something, and it was her job to figure out what that was. I discovered their strengths in dressage and working, as well as having unusually calm demeanor.
This also makes them valuable as therapy horses.
“They are very calm and relaxed — nothing bothers them. They love living outside,” she said.
The farm suspects there may have been too much inbreeding in a small number of the population, so they are working with UC Davis to very carefully and slowly introduce more genetic diversity into the line.
“It was important to find similar horses, with calm dispositions and similar body types,” said Reich. “We have been able to find some matches in the Lusitano and Andalusian bloodlines; they are currently on hold to see how those offspring develop. We take our leadership of these island horses very seriously.”