The Mesa Verde Horses

Click here to browse the catalog of available Mesa Verde Horses!

Wild horses at Mesa Verde National Park? A History


Horses have roamed Mesa Verde for at least a couple of hundred years, long before it was a national park. Presently at least nine small bands of wild horses live in four or more canyons and on three or more mesas in the park. Water sources are rare, becoming nonexistent with the years of drought.

People had inhabited the green mesa top since 7500 BC, archaic people, basket makers, then Ancestral Puebloans building rock shelters in 750 AD. By 1300 AD, the nomadic family groups of the Ute tribes migrated from the Great Basin into the Four Corners region. With the explorations of the Spanish beginning in 1604 from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and north into Colorado, the Utes acquired the horse and the mobility to hunt, raid, and migrate. 

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe claims they have had horses long before the 17th century – probably from the Columbus time, 15th century.

By 1776, Ute tribes had a highly developed tradition of horse use. The Ute people became the People of the Horse. Horses escaped and proliferated in the land. The Old Spanish Trail, a trade route between Santa Fe and California, used by pack trains in the late 1820s, provided new opportunities for trading, looting, immigrants, and escaping horses. 

By the 1870s, gold was discovered in the southwest mountains of Colorado, and the Brunot Treaty of 1873 was negotiated which resulted in the ceding of the San Juan and La Plata Mountains by the Ute to the U.S. government and the Ute reservation was restricted to a strip along the southwest borders of Colorado, including Mesa Verde country. But Mesa Verde, the green table, had no rivers, no streams. It is high desert, dry plains dissected by canyons that make the topography look like crocodile skin from above. The people, the wildlife, the free ranging horses were dependent on springs or seeps or on the ability to travel steep sandstone canyon trails to reach water far below and miles away. 

Mesa Verde was established as a national park in 1906, but the deceptive land grab from the Ute tribes in Colorado failed to include the most spectacular of the Ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings. The Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Inspector with the Department of Interior negotiated a land exchange with the Weminuche Utes that was signed May 10, 1911, expanding Mesa Verde National Park about 3.75 miles southward, that addition surrounded by the Ute reservation. No one told the horses ranging across the park along with the elk and deer.

Mesa Verde Horses

Wild horses are prohibited in the National Park

According to the park service, horses are not considered indigenous wildlife and federal law does not allow livestock in the park. In addition, the horses at Mesa Verde do not fall under the protection of the Wild horse Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. That law identifies specific public lands in the West where wild horses are managed long term under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Mesa Verde is not included.

In October 2013, the park’s wildlife biologist stated that, instead of developing a management plan for the horses, the park would “use fencing to keep horses away from water sources.” The Denver Post reported that this would “serve as a sort of management tool: Lack of water will force the horses to go elsewhere, and when horses are under stress from too little food or water, they are less fertile.”  In the summer of 2014, at least six horses in the park died from dehydration.

Climate Change and the ongoing drought in the Southwest

For several years, NMACO negotiated unsuccessfully with the National Park Service at Mesa Verde to manage the horses there with injectable fertility vaccine, but the National Park Service considers the horses incompatible with the antiquities and archaeological sites and plans to remove the horses. With the multi-year drought in the southwest, available springs and seeps are drying up. Much as drought and conflict triggered the migration of the Ancient Puebloans from Mesa Verde, drought has caused a crisis for the wild horses of Mesa Verde. The Park has agreed to allow habituation, bait trapping, and eventual low stress removal of the horses. NMACO will have title and possession of the horses for their training and further adoption.


For several years NMACO lobbied Mesa Verde National Park to leave its horses wild and manage the population. The Park’s mandate to protect the antiquities and archaeological sites, however, was deemed to be incompatible with wild horses and the Park is finalizing its plan to remove the horses from the Park. NMACO is collaborating with the Park and with Tim McGaffic (The Nature of Natural) to make this a successful plan for capturing the horses without helicopter or horseback chases, using habituation principles, bait trapping, and low-stress livestock gathering techniques. We are hopeful that this will result in better domestication for the horses and successful human-equine connections.

In the interest of finding the best possible outcome for the horses, NMACO has agreed to take possession and title to all of the horses gathered, and to re-home them to adopters or sanctuaries. Toward that end, we will be releasing a select few horses to qualified trainers and transporting the remainder to the Mustang Camp in Milan, New Mexico. Patricia Irick of Mustang Camp has developed an innovative, scientifically-based training program that uses positive reinforcement without punishment to domesticate, tame and train these horses, who will then be available for adoption. The horses will be trained to be touched, groomed, haltered, trailer loaded, and to be ready for saddle training.

NMACO will be responsible for costs of the horses while they are held at the Park, for feed and transport costs, and for paying Mustang Camp for their feed, care, and training.

YOU CAN HELP, even if you cannot adopt a horse, by donating to this cause. If you are interested in adopting a Mesa Verde wild horse, stay tuned to our Facebook page for updates as this project unfolds.

Trapping Plan:

Tim McGaffic (a National Mustang Association of Colorado board member) and Whit Hibbard developed a Trapping Plan for the wild horses at Mesa Verde National Park.

Tim is a horse trainer and a ranch manager and consultant to ranches and businesses for over 30 years. He is a certified educator for Holistic Management and a member of the International Society for Equitation Science. He has worked with behavioral specialists around the country to learn how to humanely manage, capture and train various species, including capturing hundreds of wild horses and cattle in Hawaii. He has conducted clinics and seminars throughout the United States and helped ranches with their animal behavior and logistical issues.

Whit is a fourth generation Montana cattle rancher, publisher/ editor of Stockmanship Journal, and a former National Park Service mounted ranger. He writes a stockmanship series for Drovers and On Pasture, and teaches low-stress livestock handling clinics for bovine and bison producers all over the Western U.S, Central Canada, and Mexico. He was the director of a highly successful two-year project to round up trespass livestock from Mexico in Big Bend National Park which used a stockmanship approach, walked in wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and taught low-stress bison handling to the NPS, USFWS, Parks Canada, and Turner Ranches.


Once trapped NMACO takes ownership of the horses:

The protocol for government agencies removing wild horses, that are not protected by the Wild Horse and Burro Act, is to take them to the sale barn.  Not many people would opt to purchase a wild unknown horse from a sale barn so what ends up usually happening is kill buyers purchase the horses and ship them to Mexico.  Many horses in transit are injured, dehydrated, starved, and often die.  The actual Mexico slaughterhouses are not sanctioned by any rules relating to animal welfare (like slaughterhouses in the United States), therefore the way they conduct slaughter on these horses is very inhumane.

To prevent these horses from ending up at the sale barn NMACO agreed to take ownership once they were trapped and processed at the Park.  NMACO does assessments on all the horses to determine if they are adoptable basing it on age and temperament.  Many of the older horses are sent to sanctuaries, where spots are very limited.

The adoptable horses are sent to NMACO approved trainers.  Each trainer has their own style of training; however, the main component is being patient with these horses and going at a speed of training that is appropriate for each horse. Due to the low stress removal and habituation, these horses do not have any past trauma with people which makes it much easier and safer for the individuals working with the horses.  It also allows for a solid all-around horse.


Potential adopters must fill out applications to be vetted by our NMACO committee members.  We make sure the horse is going to its forever home, and that the adopter and the horse are a good fit.  Each horse is different, and to ensure a long-term home we make sure the horse will be a good match with the adopter.


As of the end of 2023, NMACO has taken ownership of 36 horses, 10 of which went to NMAUT’s sanctuary in Nevada, 22 have been adopted, and 4 still need adopters.

It is estimated there are another 40-50 horses on the Park that will be removed over the next few years.


The Park has agreed to utilize a plan of low-stress gathering methods that will hopefully mitigate any animal welfare issues, and prevent the necessity of disposing of horses through other methods. NMACO is optimistic that these low stress gather methods will translate into better domestication and successful training for these horses, ultimately affording them better lives.


NMACO will be coordinating with the Park to take title and possession of the gathered unclaimed horses after the requisite holding period (up to 30 days). We will be seeking appropriate adopters, sanctuaries and trainers who qualify to take horses. Horses determined to be inappropriate for adoption (e.g. too old or poor dispositions) will be released to sanctuaries.  We will also be offering opportunities for qualified adopters to have their horses gentled and begin their training before taking them.


The memorandum of understanding between NMACO and the Park requires NMACO to share some costs and assume others, over the basic costs NPS will bear.  NMACO will have costs involved in transporting horses, holding facilities (for gelding studs, holding mares with babies, and waiting transport), veterinarians, feed and supplements, and payments for trainers and facilities. We need and appreciate your financial support for this important project!

[email protected]

You can make a difference

for the horses of Mesa Verde