Carlos LoPopolo is large in stature—and in ambition. His frame seems to dwarf the wooden bench he’s perched on at the Satellite Coffee on University. His height is hard to gauge from a sitting position, but he looms over the table, a studded black cowboy hat bobbing as he talks, which is most of the time. To his right, Paul Polechla serves as his counterpart—a man of average size and quiet disposition, wearing a white cowboy hat and yellow-and-blue checkered shirt, topped with a matching silk bandana tied around his neck. LoPopolo is a Southwest historian and the founder of the New Mexican Horse Project, an organization many New Mexicans know nothing about. Polechla is the group’s biologist as well as a biology professor at UNM.
Though the Horse Project’s mission to preserve a certain kind of horse is simple, LoPopolo and Polechla will tell you the road they’ve been down has been anything but. In the 10 years the organization has existed, LoPopolo has met criticism and fury from horse breeders and cattle ranchers, spent nearly $1 million out of his own pocket, and has even been graced with the occasional death threat. The reason he puts up with it? It’s all to protect a horse most people thought no longer existed.
Horses were native to North America and roamed the American plains for 58 million years, says Polechla, but then went extinct in the region and were absent for about 8,000 years. In the Spanish Colonial period, a little more than 400 years ago, mustangs were reintroduced through New Mexico, Polechla says, and all the wild horses in North America today are descended from that reintroduction. Until about a decade ago, the men add, it was common opinion that the reintroduced Spanish mustang had disappeared.
In 1999, LaPopolo was approached by local photographer Charles Perry, who had pictures of wild horses a local rancher said were old Spanish mustangs. “I didn’t really believe it,” says LoPopolo, “I thought they had been outbred.” But LoPopolo decided to look into it. He did a roundup of the horses Perry captured on film and took their DNA samples. He sent the samples from all 40 horses to Dr. Gus Cothran, one of the world’s foremost equine geneticists, who was stationed at the University of Kentucky. Thirty-eight of the horses, Cothran told LoPopolo, were common, but two had DNA he’d never before seen.
That evidence, combined with “subjective reasoning,” says LoPopolo, convinced him that the horses were the old Spanish mustangs—no longer “pure,” but closer than he’d thought possible.
After this discovery, LoPopolo sat down with his wife Cindy, now deceased, to talk about what they should do. “We had always been around horses all our lives,” he says. They raised Arabians together, and he, in a previous incarnation, had been a rodeo cowboy (then a race car driver, then a business owner, then an artist whose work now hangs in the Vatican—but that’s a story for another day). “We had a six- or seven-hour discussion about what to do,” he says, “and we made a decision.” With the help of some friends, they started the New Mexican Horse Project, which aims to preserve the wild Spanish mustangs they find and ensure their freedom.
LoPopolo says he made a promise to continue on the Horse Project’s mission, and that’s what he’s doing.
The Horse Project operates on two preserves, one on 28,000 acres (lent by Campbell Corporation, where LoPopolo was working at the time the mustang organization started), and the other on 5,000 acres near Socorro. Through DNA testing, the Horse organization has found more than 30 of the Spanish mustangs. The project doesn’t feed the horses because the horses know how to fend for themselves, and that keeps them wild, LoPopolo says. Plus, Polechla interjects, there are plenty of highly nutritious grasses scattered throughout the preserves, and he can talk in detail about every one of them—“I know my grasses.”
The Socorro preserve, named the Cindy Roger LoPopolo Wild Horse Preserve, has double functions. It also serves as a retreat for those who are suffering from cancer. While no one is allowed to approach the horses on the preserve, sometimes the horses will approach people, and LoPopolo says those interactions can be breathtaking.
The decision to establish the preserve specifically for cancer patients came early, more than a year before it was was bought in 2004. LoPopolo and his wife had seen the effect working with horses had on colleagues who had cancer. It helped them relax, they said, helped them feel “normal.” Six months after LoPopolo and his wife decided to dedicate the Socorro preserve to cancer patients, she was diagnosed with melanoma, and nine months after that, she was gone.
LoPopolo says he made a promise to continue on the Horse Project’s mission, and that’s what he’s doing. But eventually he’ll pass the task onto someone else, once it becomes more financially sustainable. As it stands, the organization doesn’t make much money. “We’re lucky if we get $3,000 a year in donations,” says LoPopolo, “but it takes $100,000 to run.”
Money for the project is generated through two stores in Socorro—an art gallery called Wild Horses of the West and Socorro Leather. The stores have no employees—instead, members (mainly LoPopolo) volunteer to watch over them, and all profits go to the project. LoPopolo also finds funding in writing books. He’s authored 27 to date, most on the history of New Mexico during the Spanish period. Now he’s writing a children’s book, Zobo the First Mustang, the first in a series of 10 about the history of horses in the Southwest.
The Horse Project has also gotten some grant money—about $100,000 from the state in past years and $75,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009. Polechla, who requested the money from NSF, says the funding is a Planning Grant. This enables the Horse Project to craft a proposal that will land the organization a larger grant, “in the low seven figures,” says Polechla, to build a large-scale science education package. He says the goal is to produce a PBS documentary series, interactive website, coffee table book, traveling museum exhibition and teachers’ guide. Previously, a documentary on the project’s findings was released by National Geographic in 2001, called “America’s Lost Mustang.”
All the work the men are doing is for a single purpose—keeping the lineage from dying out. Wild horses in general aren’t well-protected by the government, and the proof is in the numbers. In 1971, LoPopolo says, there were an estimated 1 to 1.5 million wild horses in North America. Today, there are only 22,000 to 32,000. “We should have wild horses in every federal park in the U.S.,” he says, but instead, many people in the States are surprised to learn that wild horses still exist at all. But if LoPopolo and Polechla have anything to do with it, that won’t be the case forever.