Grass, grass and not a blade to eat


New Mexicans, in the early days, faced a recurring problem, one that is almost forgotten now. It was the perennial shortage of grass to feeds their horses, cattle and sheep. The causes were two-fold: periodic droughts and over-grazing pastures, particularly those within a day's ride of towns and villages.

The need for adequate forage was always keenly felt by travelers on New Mexico's roads and trails. Two other essentials were also required — water and firewood.

Persons going in or out of the province on the Camino Real for instance, usually knew of the campsites where those necessities were lacking and took care, if possible, to transport water and wood to tide them over.

A deficiency of grass, however, was not easily remedied. When short, hungry horses under saddle or draft stock in harness just grew weaker by the day.

While the problem affected everyone, it remained most critical for the military forces assigned to protect New Mexico. Royal troops were stationed at the Santa Fe Presidio in the 18th century, located just north of the Plaza.

Late spring, summer and early fall was the campaign season when offensive operations were directed at nomadic Native tribes. In that period, the bulk of the presidial horse herd (caballada) was in the field and could usually live off the unspoiled land.

The long winter season was another story. Then, war parties tended to suspend hostilities and go into hibernation, waiting for the spring thaw. So, too, did the mounted soldiers.

That left the caballada idle, but still needing to be fed. Santa Fe historian Linda Tigges has identified at least seven grazing grants in the vicinity of Santa Fe that served to pasture the presidio's large herd whenever needed. The names of three of them are recognizable to this day — the Caja del Rio, Los Cerrillos and San Marcos.

The herd in size often contained upward of 1,000 horses and mules, occasionally reaching 1,200. The number was so high because each soldier might have six horses and two or three mules, the latter for packing supplies on expeditions.

Note too, that all other livestock kept by the presidio as a food source — cattle and sheep — was usually herded next to the caballada. Local citizens were also permitted to pasture their stock alongside the government animals to take advantage of the added protection.

In the late 1700s, the horse guard totaled 30 men, many being armed citizens, drafted to serve two weeks at a time. Native tribes from afar, defying the cold weather, on occasion raided the company herd, driving off the entire lot.

In the last years of the colonial period, a prolonged drought, plus a growing civilian population that swelled the numbers of domestic livestock, resulted in a serious depletion of pasturage.

Sometime the hungry stock was driven north 20 miles to the countryside adjacent to Cuyamungue and Pojauque. When that area's grass was exhausted, the presidio fell back on the Galisteo Basin, and finally when all else failed on the valley of the middle Pecos River.

A document in the New Mexico State Archives indicates that at one point, the presidial horse herd was pastured on the flats near the future hamlet of Tecolote, some 50 miles northeast of Santa Fe.

We can imagine how impractical that was when in an emergency requiring a large body of troops, the horses had to be brought from distant grazing grounds. The unavoidable delay in may cases must have resulted in failure for the mission.

When the invading American army seized Santa Fe, Aug. 18, 1846, Commanding Gen. S.W. Kearney observed at once the absence of forage close by. He was informed by local residents that his hundreds of saddle horses and draft mules must be driven down to the Galisteo River to obtain a stomach full of grass.

On the very next day, the general sent the stock there with half of Missouri regiment commanded by Lt. Richard S. Elliot as a guard.

In a letter, a lieutenant remarked, "Our horses are all poor. We have great difficulty in providing subsistence for them, having to move our grazing camps every day or two."

With our state in drought this year and our ranchers and their stock suffering the consequences, the experiences of New Mexicans in centuries past help us measure the fortitude then and now that is necessary to prevail in this sunlit land of ours.