Horses: Santa Cruz Island

From Islapedia
Angel shoeing a horse at Christy Ranch
Santa Cruz Island 1970s
Wild Horses on Santa Cruz Island
Photo by Bill Dewey c. 1999
Colt, Pedro, on the East End of Santa Cruz Island
Photo by Bill Dewey c. 1999
Clare Bredin and Cruz the buckskin colt removed from
Santa Cruz Island, August 5, 1983
Will Dewey and the Heritage Herd
Santa Cruz Island, Easter 1993
Will Dewey and the Heritage Herd
Santa Cruz Island, Easter 1993

Horses have been a part of the cultural landscape of the Channel Islands since the mid 19th century. They are first recorded as having been introduced to Santa Cruz Island in 1830. Horses today are found only on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands.

Horses were first recorded as having been introduced to Santa Cruz Island in March 1830. Angustias de la Guerra Ord recounted in her memoirs, Occurrences in Hispanic California:

“Don Romauldo Pacheco thought of sending them [convicts] to one of the islands and did so with the greater part of them [to Prisoners’ Harbor, Santa Cruz Island]... He first provided seed for sowing and some animals such as cattle and a few horses... Those on the island, after being there some time, lost what they had by fire. We saw the flames from here [Santa Barbara]. A long time passed before succor could be sent to them because the schooner which was used to carry supplies to the island had not arrived. The convicts made some rafts and came here on them. Some landed at Carpinteria or the Rincon and were taken and confined in the guardhouse. Corporal punishment was ordered inflicted by rods or lashes- two or three were very badly treated. Later the Comandante was obliged to send for the rest. They all came to Santa Barbara and complaint was never made of them. Some were sent to Monterey.”

As ranching interests were developed on the island by James B. Shaw, and later by the Santa Cruz Island Company (1869) under the direction of Justinian Caire. Horses were the mode of island transportation from about the mid-19th century into the 20th century — until the advent of motor vehicles. Horse-drawn wagons hauled supplies between island ranches; they were used to haul hay grown on the west end of the island. As roads were developed, wagons were eventually phased out in favor of vehicles in the 20th century.

Justinian Caire died in 1897. As a result of inter-family Caire litigation which had begun in 1912, in 1920 surveyor, Santa Barbara County surveyor, Frank Flournoy, was appointed, by court order of Judge Crow, to survey Santa Cruz Island in order to settle the dispute among the Caire family. H. J. Doulton and George W. McComber assisted Flournoy in this Herculean task which was finished at the end of 1924. The survey resulted in a partition of Santa Cruz Island into seven parcels. Two parcels created on the east end of the island were awarded to two of Caire's six children; five parcels — the western 9/10ths of the island — were awarded to Caire's widow and four of his children. From that time forward, land, assets and livestock were divided with no contact or interchange between the two parcels on the east end of the island and the western five parcels.

A buckskin stallion was introduced to the the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island in the late 1970s by David Petersen. After a number of years, into the early 1980s, with the birth of numerous fillies and colts, he was taken back to the mainland. The horses roamed free and bred among themselves for several decades. When the Owens family moved to the East End of the island, the horses were culled by shooting to reduce their numbers.


[original in SCIF archives] [Santa Cruz Island]

  • 1997 Krist, John Wild beauty: What will become of the wild horses on Santa Cruz Island? Santa Barbara Magazine Spring 1997

In the News~

[March 1830] Horses were first recorded as having been introduced to Santa Cruz Island in March 1830. Angustias de la Guerra Ord recounted in her memoirs, Occurrences in Hispanic California:

“Don Romauldo Pacheco thought of sending them [convicts] to one of the islands and did so with the greater part of them [to Prisoners’ Harbor, Santa Cruz Island]... He first provided seed for sowing and some animals such as cattle and a few horses... [Angustias de la Guerra Ord. Occurrences in Hispanic California. Academy of American Franciscan History (1956) ]

[1851]: “I [James B. Shaw] have paid the taxes on [Santa Cruz Island] since 1851, and have placed cattle and horses and sheep on it; built houses and made canals and cut roads on it.” Island of Santa Cruz, Andres Castillero vs. The United States; Testimony of James B. Shaw, 1857.

November 22, 1873 [SBSWT]: “The schooner Star of Freedom sailed yesterday for Santa Cruz Island. She had on board five saddle horses for parties on the island.”

February 5, 1874 [LAH]: “The Santa Cruz Island Company was organized in 1869, having been incorporated under State authority, with half a million dollars’ capital, for carrying on the business of sheep-husbandry, stock-raising, etc. The island of Santa Cruz, one of the Santa Barbara group, was purchased by the company as a field of operations… There are now running at liberty over the island, flocks of Spanish Merino sheep, numbering between 40,000 and 45,000 head, worth, according to the season of the year — that is to say, with or without wool on — from $2 to $3.50 each, and representing an aggregate value of $150,000. Besides these immense flocks there is a stud of about 125 saddle and draft horses and mules, some breeding mares with colts, and a fine stallion of the Morgan stock, representing a value of $10,000 to $12,000; about thirty head of fine tame Devon cattle, including bull, milk cows and their increase for the use of the island, valued altogether at about $1,200 or $1,500; and finally, perhaps, 150 head of cattle running wild in the valleys and over the mountains, and affording, whenever desired, an extra supply of fresh beef for the use of the permanent residents on the island…”

August 27, 1877 [BowersFN]: “Santa Cruz Island. Mr. J. B. Joyaux, superintendent of this island, met us and offered me horses to explore the island… I procured a guide from Joyaux at $1.25 per day. The wisdom of securing a good guide was apparent every mile of the way.”

June 11, 1881 [SBDP]: “The schooner Star of Freedom yesterday brought over from Santa Cruz Island a number of horses for Nick Covarrubias.”

June 20, 1881 [SBDP]: “The schooner Star of Freedom, Captain Burtis, came over from Santa Cruz Island Saturday night with sheep for I. K. Fisher, and several horses for Nick Covarrubias.”

June 25, 1881 [SBDP]: “The schooner Star of Freedom, Captain Burtis, sailed for Santa Cruz Island this morning. She took over a number of work horses.”

April 1, 1892 [LAT/SB]: “The schooner Star of Freedom came over yesterday from Santa Cruz Island on Wednesday evening, bringing some horses. They were landed by swimming them ashore yesterday morning.”

May 9, 1892 [LAT/SB]: “The schooner Star of Freedom came in from the islands Friday evening, bringing two mules and a couple of cows, landing them in the surf.”

April 6, 1893 [LAT]: “The schooner Star of Freedom came in from Santa Cruz Island Tuesday morning and landed several horses, tumbling them overboard and running them ashore through the surf.”

May 30, 1893 [SBMP]: “The schooner Star of Freedom arrived in the harbor Sunday and sailed again yesterday for the island. She carried two horses to be used on the island.”

October 24, 1894 [SBMP]: “The schooner Santa Cruz brought some horses from the island yesterday for ‘Nesimos Covarrubias. A small crown gathered to watch them unload.”

October 24, 1894 [SBDI]: “The schooner Santa Cruz arrived yesterday from Santa Cruz Island with several horses. A large number of people gathered to see them unloaded, which was done by throwing them overboard and making them swim ashore.”

October 7, 1905 [SBMP]: “The steamer Pasadena put into port late yesterday afternoon and took on a cargo of stock, mostly horses, consigned to Santa Cruz Island. The Pasadena came south a few days ago from Eureka with a cargo of lumber for San Pedro, and is now on her return trip to the northern port. She has carried other cargoes for the Santa Cruz Island Company. After unloading the stock at Prisoners’ Harbor, she will sail on north without returning to this port.”

December 7, 1905 [SBMP]: “The Santa Cruz Island schooner sailed for Prisoners’ Harbor yesterday morning with a load of supplies and horses for the Santa Cruz Island Company.”

January 15, 1907 [SBMP]: “Channel Island of Santa Cruz a place of rare beauty…Over this rocky road the Italians come and go on horseback or afoot; in a gig starting their horses at the ranch house and never allowing him to walk until the journey’s end. A remarkable sort of driving, and one which the inland voyager is not soon to forget, and of which he can give no adequate description…It really seemed I touched the seat three times from the beach to the minute the boy pulled up the horse on his haunches and cried, ‘whoa!”

June 28, 1915 [SBDNI]: “George Knapp and a party of friends have gone on the Sea Wolf for the islands. They took with them supplies for pack horses and will camp in the mountains using island horses for packs.”

June 29, 1915 [SBDNI]: “After passing a week on Santa Cruz Island, George Owen Knapp and party of Montecito, returned to this city today in the Sea Wolf owned by Captain I. K. Eaton. The party enjoyed mountain climbing on the island, and rode the Caire ranch horses, making their headquarters at the big ranch, as guests of the family.”

[1922 Symes Report]: “There is a total of 97 head of horses including colts, a Percheron stallion, and an island-raised saddle stallion on the island. Approximately two thirds of these are saddle stock, a considerable number being needed in corrida work, the balance are work stock. The work horses are of good size and condition and are generally well adapted to the island work. The saddle horses are mostly from Arizona stock, generally small but wiry and well adapted to the work for which they are used. About twenty head are of but little service due to age or injuries. There are a few Shetland ponies.”


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Droughts: 1976-1977; 1986-1992

East End residents:

“...where the Native American [Fidel] was standing by his dapple grey Arab mare [1979]"
“...David sat on his Palomino stallion...[1979];
“...the horse I was riding, Midge...[c. 1980]“
Mocho, a sorrel gelding; grey Arab gelding [1979]; old pinto gelding [1979]; Tagalong [1980];
“When we left the island, over 40 horses remained [1984].“
  • Jaret Owens, Island Adventures 1984-1999

Horses removed from the east end of Santa Cruz Island in 1999


» Krist, John. Wild beauty: What will become of the wild horses on Santa Cruz Island? in Santa Barbara Magazine Spring, 1997;

»Goldreyer, Kip. The Wild Horses of Santa Cruz Island in Practical Horseman 25:7 (28-37) July 1997.


August 18, 2016 []: “LOS MOLINOS, Calif. - Christina Nooner is prepared to say goodbye to Sunshine, one of 13 Santa Cruz Island horses she and her husband Troy continue to take care of at their ranch in Los Molinos. Over the last two decades, the Nooners say they've "rescued and bred more than four dozen Santa Cruz island horses" at their Sunshine Sanctuary. DNA testing indicates the Santa Cruz horses are of Liberian origin and are officially recognized as Colonial Spanish. The few that remain are because of the work and love provided by the Nooners, who are now hoping breeders will come forward to purchase the horses and continue the breeding process. "I've been taking care of them and feeding them for quite some time and got pretty attached to them," said Troy Nooner, 61. "But it's time for [these horses] to move on." These horses are special to the future generation," said Christina Nooner. "They must survive for future generations." Until two years ago the sanctuary welcomed children free of charge to ride, play and just visit the horses, which the couple says have an uncanny ability to connect with children, especially those going through difficult times. "They're just a lot more intuitive than other horses," said Christina. "And they're a lot calmer. If a breeder is interested in purchasing one or more the horses, they can contact the sanctuary at”

November 23, 2022 [VCS]: “On a misty morning in Hidden Valley, a lone rider mounted a small horse and entered an arena nestled below an oak-studded hillside. Calm, patient and sure-footed, Cochise, a 19-year-old gelding, followed commands with ease as his rider Hayley Pelton prompted him through a series of obstacles. “It's a relationship without words,” said Christy Reich, El Campeon ranch manager. Horses are common in the equestrian enclave of Hidden Valley, an unincorporated community just south of the Conejo Valley, but Cochise, though small in stature, stands out among his neighbors due to his rarity. The animal is one of around 60 Santa Cruz Island horses that are descended from the Spanish colonial horses first brought to the island off the coast of Santa Barbara in the 1830s. After 160 years of isolation, the horses developed into a distinct breed. When the island transferred from private ownership to the National Park Service in 1998, all 15 surviving horses were removed to the mainland but they fell victim to predators like cougars. To save their unique genetics, El Campeon Farms brought 13 of the animals to Hidden Valley in 2014 in an effort to save a living piece of California history through a sophisticated breeding program. The effort has added 16 horses to "the heritage herd." “They arrived here in the evening. It was dark. These scruffy, wormy ponies get off the trailer, and I was thinking ‘What are we going to do with these guys?'” said Reich, who oversees the breeding program. “They’re a little bit different.” The Santa Cruz Island horses are different by design. The current breed descends from Iberian Peninsula horses that were first introduced to the island in the 1830s when the outpost was briefly used as a penal colony before it became a privately owned sheep ranch, according to NPS. Ranching operations on the largest of California’s Channel Islands ceased in the 1980s and the remaining horses, descendants of the colonial horses as well as other breeds that had occasionally been brought to the island, lived in two distinct harems in a feral state. Advocates fought to keep the horses on the island, but the park service determined they were non-native and should be removed. The animals were taken to a horse sanctuary in Northern California but after living with no predators for a century and a half, the animals had no flight response and quickly fell prey to mountain lions. The survivors were taken to the Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses in Tehama County, where they lived for nearly 15 years before the sanctuary started looking for a steward to care and preserve the breed. That’s when El Campeon stepped in. Kelly Gonda, who owns El Campeon with her husband, Lou, learned of the horses' plight while purchasing a small herd of San Clemente Island goats. The couple earned the trust of the Sunshine operators and eventually brought the herd to Hidden Valley.

Lou took quickly to the rare and historic breed. Originally born in Venezuela, Gonda moved to California as a teenager and developed a deep love for the state’s history. Watching Cochise exercise against the backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains, Gonda explained where the Chumash used to harvest acorns locally, where their mortars and pestles were found in the creek beds and which local routes Spanish explorers used to travel inland. A replica Chumash home, known as an ‘ap, sits on Gonda’s ranch. He said saving the Santa Cruz Island horses is about preserving a piece of California heritage. "I was drawn to the rarities of these horses," he said. El Campeon’s role as a breed steward represents a shift in its operations. Twenty years ago, the ranch was developed into a world-class training facility that brought home Olympic gold in team show jumping in 2008. "That was our life for 10-plus years," Reich said. "Then Lou became enthralled with the story and plight of the Santa Cruz Island horses." When ongoing drought meant El Campeon could no longer water its grand prix jumping fields, they were converted into an obstacle field for the Santa Cruz Island horses. They now practice working equitation, a discipline that showcases riding styles used during fieldwork in various countries and tests the horse and rider's partnership and ability to maneuver obstacles, where the grand prix jumping fields used to be. During the more than 16 decades the horses spent on the grassy, coastal plateaus of the 98-square-mile island overlooking the Pacific, the Santa Cruz Island horses developed into a unique breed.

Santa Barbara-based equine veterinarian Karen Blumenshine studied the animals in their natural habitat on the island in conjunction with UC Davis researchers prior to the animals' removal. The breed's unique characteristics include a fall-winter breeding season so babies are born during months with the least amount of daylight, rather than the most daylight like other breeds, to time birth cycles to the abundancy of grass on the island. The Santa Cruz Island horses also have closer family relationships, a high foal survival rate and certain bone characteristics, Blumenshine said. Adapted to island life, the horses are hardy and short with ample, rather than delicate, leg bones. More importantly, they have “heirloom genetics.” Blumenshine said that genetically modern horses have been bred for certain preferences, like little heads, that are often associated with other genetic defects, like small feet, which results in horses balancing a large amount of weight on a small surface, leading to damage. She said the Santa Cruz Island horses display characteristics associated with soundness and longevity. “My hope in the perpetuation of the breed is perhaps to preserve some of the old genetics to pass on if we’ve bred them out of other breeds,” she said. "There is value in preserving these old genes." El Campeon currently has 25 Santa Cruz Island horses.

Trainer Abigail Followwill has worked with the breed for seven years. The animals are reliable and low maintenance, she said, but they still have personality and fancy moves. The horses, even the stallions, have a gentle disposition. Followwill has even let her 1-year-old daughter ride Cochise. But Followwill said what really sets the horses apart is their history of survival. "It's such a story of survival and preserving this unique part of California history," she said. "There's been this unified effort to figure out how they can survive post-island life." Breeding is the first step to post-island survival.

The horses are registered through the Livestock Conservancy, a group which seeks to save endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction. The conservancy lists the Santa Cruz Island horses as critical, meaning there are fewer than 200 registered animals in the United States and the estimated global population is less than 2,000. The conservancy lists individual Iberian colonial breeds like the Santa Cruz Island horses and the Wilbur Cruce horses among the 17 North American breeds it considers a conservation priority, but it also lists Spanish colonial horses as a priority in general. Spanish horses were ubiquitous in the United States between 1750 and 1850, but crossbreeding meant pure Spanish horses were nearly extinct in North America by the 1950s except for a few herds in the south and southwest. After the Santa Cruz Island horses were removed from the island, eggs were harvested from one of the mares, Tinker. Those eggs were later inseminated and carried via surrogate. Two offspring from Tinker's eggs are genetic twins named Rey Felipe and Reina Isabel, after the Portuguese monarchs. Because the original population was so small, breeding the Santa Cruz Island horses requires occasionally crossing it with a different breed to ensure healthy genetics. Reich and Gonda originally considered outcrossing with another Spanish colonial breed, but those animals exhibited the same genetic issues the Santa Cruz Island horses had. Instead the horses were crossed with Lusitanos and Andalusians, Portuguese and Spanish horse breeds, so those offspring can later be bred with full-blooded island horses when they grow older. That’s when Gonda and Reich will know if the genetic issues were resolved.

Some of those crosses now live on Hollister Ranch on the Santa Barbara coast while they grow old enough to be worked and bred. Blumenshine visits the animals at the ranch monthly. “The cool thing about them being at Hollister is that the climate is the closest to what they had on the island. I love that part. They have the fog and the wind, space to roam and green grass this time of year," she said. Blumenshine said keeping the horses physically isolated from other breeds is what has sustained its unique characteristics. “They could have easily been like the Neanderthals. The last Neanderthal probably wasn’t killed. He was bred with homo sapiens,” she said.

To survive as a breed, the Santa Cruz Island horses need a job. That will ensure that others will be interested in owning and perpetuating the breed, Reich said. The Santa Cruz Island horses have had success in the sports of working equitation and dressage, a discipline where horses perform precise and carefully controlled steps and movements. They have also shown aptitude for driving, an equestrian term for pulling a cart. The breed has gained popularity with former dressage riders who still want to compete but are looking for a horse that is closer to the ground and easier to handle. Their gentle disposition and lack of a flight response also makes them well suited for therapeutic horsemanship. Cochise, for example, has done groundwork, where horses are guided through exercises while being instructed from the ground, with a para-rider in a wheelchair. "It’s about feeling and energy and respect," Reich said. "When you start to build that relationship, it’s such a privilege.” Gonda said acting as breed steward has been a privilege. When he first learned of the horses, they were “so endangered, so threatened by circumstance” that saving them was “particularly attractive.” “At least there was a purpose to what we were doing,” he said.

Gonda, the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, said when he first brought the horses to Hidden Valley, he did not consciously consider parallels to his own family’s flight from the threat of extinction. “Maybe subliminally, that was something that attracted me. I was drawn to the fact that they were innocent and victimized by the predators," he said. "I guess there are some parallels to the Jewish migration and the desire of all peoples, whether Jews or Chumash or anyone, to restore, to repopulate their area. I can’t tell you I was conscious of it at the time, but reflecting on it, maybe there are some parallels in the back of my mind." For all the effort that has been put into finding the horses a home on mainland California, Reich still hopes that at least one of the Santa Cruz Island horses will be able to return to the Iberian peninsula one day, even if temporarily. In 2026, the World Working Equitation Championship will be held in Jerez, Spain. Reich said her dream is for one of the Santa Cruz Island horses to make the U.S. team so they can complete in the place that their ancestors left centuries before. "It would be a full circle thing," Reich said.

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