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Saving the wild horses of the Channel Islands

Credit: UC Davis

The Santa Cruz Island horse lived for centuries on the Channel Islands, but years of isolation and a small gene pool have left the breed teetering on extinction. UC Davis researcher, Amy McLean, is working with El Campeon Farms to save the Santa Cruz Island horse and preserve a piece of California history.

It's hot at El Campeon Farms, even for early August. A hard wind accompanies the heat, blowing through the Conejo Valley, where this horse ranch sits in Southern California. Abby Followwill is saddled on a horse named Vince. His golden-brown coat and blond mane stand out against the saturated blue sky and dusty corral where Followwill is training with him.

Cochise and Abby Followwill prepare for a morning ride at El Campeon Farms. The duo are part of the farm’s marketing effort, traveling to horse shows to promote the breed.
Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

She is tall and lithe, with matching blond hair tucked into her helmet. Vince looks small under her, and though he is young, Santa Cruz Island horses tend to run small. They’re also known to be easy-going and carry a hardiness, all formed by generations of living on the rugged island, one of the Channel Islands off the California coast.

In one hand, Followwill cradles a lariat and whips the loop above her head, aiming for a cow-skinned sawhorse. Vince looks, but he doesn’t flinch as the rope hooks the plastic horns attached to the wooden legs.

“That was exactly what I was looking for with Vince, for him to just be totally comfortable with me doing a job,” Followwill said. “It’s just about finding that harmony between myself and Vince.”

Harmony is what Santa Cruz Island horses have been looking for since being removed from the Channel Islands in the early 2000s. The horses had been there for more than a century, living relics from the time of the conquistadors, evolving to become as unique as the island itself. But after years of surviving in isolation on the island, the breed is teetering on the brink of extinction here on the mainland.

Truffles, the oldest Santa Cruz Island stallion at El Campeon Farms, just after breakfast.
Credit: Karin Higgins/UC Davis

Their unique history and characteristics have led to an effort to save the breed. Amy McLean, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, is working with Lou Gonda of El Campeon Farms to find the right way to do that.

“It’s truly a piece of California history we’re trying to preserve,” McLean said. “If we lose these genetics, we lose these horses, we lose that history and a part of our heritage.”

Fifteen horses came off the island, leaving the breed with an incredibly small gene pool. Estimates have the breed at 60 horses now, but they’re spread across the country with herds in Florida, Northern California and at El Campeon Farms in Thousand Oaks, California, where 20 now live. McLean is working not only to save the breed, but also improve it.

For the full, multimedia presentation of the story, please visit the UC Davis story here.