California Riding Magazine • March, 2009

Heritage Horses
Santa Cruz Island horses
conserved in California.

by Jeannette Beranger

When the island of Santa Cruz is mentioned, many people think of the famous sheep originating from that island. What few people know is that there were also Spanish horses that came with the ranchers in the 1800s to herd cattle and sheep on the island’s 60,000 acres of land. These horses were used for everything from herding to plowing, and in maintaining vineyards and pulling buggies for the families who lived on the island. They were even used as stunt animals in the silent films of the early 1900s by the famous American Film Manufacturing Company’s “Flying A” movie studio. Santa Cruz Island was a favorite production site for this company that produced many of the early Westerns that were popular during the “nickelodeon era” of the American cinema.

Historically the horses on Santa Cruz were managed in a semi-feral system that allowed the herds to self select for hardiness and adaptability to the rugged island habitat. Archive photographs of horses from the early 1900s substantiate that the horses have changed little during their time on the island. Today they are still very much Spanish in type and predominantly cremello, palomino, sorrel or buckskin in color.

Photo: Christina Nooner/Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses.

When ranching on Santa Cruz Island was discontinued in the 1980s, the horses were left to fend for themselves until the 1990s when the island was sold and came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It was at this time that the horses came to the attention of Dr. Karen Blumenshine of the Santa Barbara Equine Practice. She believed the horses were unique and distinct from the many types of horses she had seen in her practice. She felt they warranted serious scientific study and conservation.

The herd, referred to as the “Heritage Herd” by Blumenshine, was supported by a non-profit group called the Foundation for Horses and Other Animals (FHOA), which hired a lawyer to fight for the horses to remain on the island. At the same time, Dr. Blumenshine, with the assistance of fellow veterinarians Dr. Joe Cannon and Dr. David Jensen, began a scientific study with the collection of DNA samples from the horses. Dr. Ann Bowling, of the University of California at Davis, conducted the initial genetic testing and found that the herd did have a unique set of genetic characteristics and that there was sufficient genetic diversity to sustain a breeding herd.

Despite extraordinary effort, continued pressure led to the removal of the horses from the island. The last of the Santa Cruz horses left their historic home in 1998 and came into the care of Dianne Nelson of the Wild Horse Sanctuary (WHS) in Northern California’s Shingletown. From this foundation herd, purebred foals have added to the population since 1998 and have been adopted by Christina Nooner, the founder of the non-profit Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses in Tehama County’s Los Molinos. Beginning with the adoption of an orphaned foal named Sunshine (the namesake of the sanctuary) the herd now numbers more than 25 individuals, with more foals expected in the spring. Christina, like Drs. Blumenshine and Bowling, recognized something special in the horses from the island. With their gentle disposition and ease of training, the horses fit perfectly into Christina’s plans to use as them as therapy horses for troubled children.

Connecting with People

The Santa Cruz Horses have had a remarkable ability to connect with humans, especially youth, and have quickly became the means for children to find an outlet to help them to cope with, and perhaps even forget, the difficulties life has sent their way. For example, after she left the sanctuary for college Cierra Buer, one of the original teenage volunteers at Sunshine Sanctuary, followed her interest in animals to become Dr. Buer, DVM. Like many others, Cierra fell in love with the Santa Cruz Horses and pursued her continuing interests in the breed by working on detailed records of the new foals and their genetics. She documented the herd dynamics of the original island group through many hours of observation in order to produce a detailed thesis on the subject.

Photo: Christina Nooner/Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses.

Wanting a more complete understanding of the horses and their genetic uniqueness, the Sunshine Sanctuary proceeded to follow up with further DNA investigation of the herd. Texas A&M’s Dr. Gus Cothran worked on testing with the sanctuary and discovered that the DNA evidence indicates the horses are of Iberian origin and places them as most closely related to the Peruvian Paso and the Columbian Paso of South America. As with their relatives, the Santa Cruz horses are gaited, and phenotypically there is no doubt that they do resemble small Pasos, averaging 14 - 14.2 hh.

Following the report from Dr. Cothran, the Sunshine Sanctuary contacted the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for guidance in managing the population to preserve its genetic diversity and keep the herd as a distinct population within the Colonial Spanish horse group in America. ALBC’s Technical Advisor Dr. Phil Sponenberg recognized the significance of the herd and began to formulate a conservation breeding strategy for the herd by analyzing the pedigrees of the horses. The analysis produced a long-term breeding strategy that is now being used to manage the herd at the Sunshine Sanctuary. To further support the breeding plan, and with the help of ALBC and the Horse of Americas Registry (HOA), Christina has been able to have the horses officially recognized as Colonial Spanish and has been able to register the entire herd with the HOA.

With a strong conservation plan now in place, the Sunshine Sanctuary is in search of new stewards in California and the surrounding states who are interested in acquiring small breeding groups and who will actively participate in the recovery and stabilization of the breed.

Author Jeannette Beranger is Research and Technical Programs Manager for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, NC. For more information on the ALBC visit or e-mail For more information on the Sunshine Sanctuary, visit