“A Breed on the Edge of Extinction” — ACTHA Charity of the Month

Friends of the Heritage Horse Foundations Herds doing business as The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain, is a 501c3 nonprofit located in Antlers, Oklahoma whose mission is “To preserve and promote the foundation herds of the Colonial Spanish Horses designated by the Oklahoma Legislature as The Heritage Horse of Oklahoma and deemed “CRITICAL” by the Livestock Conservancy.”

Establishment of The Friends of the Heritage Horse Foundation Herds Association would not have been possible had they not had a documented history and generous support of many throughout the years.  Colonial Spanish horses have been proven by research, to be descended from stock originally brought to the American colonies in the 1500’s by the Spanish.  The Blackjack Mountain Horses, also known as the Rickman Spanish Mustangs are descendants of these equines and therefore, a treasure trove of genetic wealth.  They have not been intermixed with any other breeds of horses, as many mustang populations have been over the years.

The Rickman Spanish Mustangs are comprised of bloodlines that originate from Choctaw, Chickasaw Cherokee, Huasteca, Kiowa, Comanche, and other Native American tribes along with the Colonial Spanish horses from Utah and New Mexico.   According to the conservation breeding program developed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Technical Advisor Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, the herd is divided into two main breeding populations or strains within the herd; the Gilbert Jones and Choctaw strains.

To understand the severity of the plight of the Rickman Spanish Mustangs and The Friends of the Heritage Horse Foundation Herds, you must first become acquainted with the two men who have devoted their lives to the preservation of this breed, and a few other individuals who have made it their life’s mission to aid in this undertaking.

The first being Gilbert Jones, founder of the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association.  Gilbert Jones was born in 1906 and given his first Spanish Mustang in 1914.  This gift gave birth to a lifelong dedication to the preservation of the Spanish Mustang beginning with his breeding them in the southwestern United States.  In the 1920s he began gathering up and breeding his own strain, the Gilbert Jones strain of Spanish Mustang.   In the mid-1950s, Gilbert moved to the Pushmataha County, OK area bringing with him several Spanish Mustangs of the Chickasaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache and Pueblo bloodlines.  In 1962 Gilbert moved to Medicine Springs Ranch, located on Blackjack Mountain, continuing the Gilbert Jones strain and adding the genetics of the Choctaw horses.  He also began locating and speaking with the elders of the area, seeking out the remnants of these historic herds. Throughout the remainder of his life, Gilbert Jones, worked tirelessly to prevent the extinction of this strain. 

These historic herds had arrived in Oklahoma through the “Trail of Tears”, the most sorrowful legacy left by President Andrew Jackson as he pursued a policy to forcefully remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands east of the Mississippi River to west of the river, into what is now Oklahoma.  This journey of injustice not only included 46,000 people from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek and Seminole tribes but their thousands of horses as well, with the Choctaw herd said to have numbered 15,000.

Bryant Rickman grew up riding Spanish Mustangs on his family’s ranch near Speer, OK.  He met Gilbert Jones in the late 1970’s and became his disciple for the preservation of the Spanish Mustang. In the early 1980’s Bryant and Darlene Rickman became stewards of the few remaining Choctaw horses living on Blackjack Mountain. A graduate of Texas A & M, and a retired agriculture teacher, Bryant has been a driving force for the Choctaw horse conservation, working tirelessly to ensure that this endangered strain of the Spanish Mustang would not become extinct. Throughout this period they worked closely with the renowned equine geneticist Dr. Phillip Sponenberg.  Dr. Sponenberg’s findings reveal that while pedigree information is lacking in many feral herds, the original Spanish horses had been kept pure, especially in the Native American tribes.

While Dr. Sponenberg’s research is well documented he states “the historical record for the Choctaw Indian horses is extensive and more details are known for this strain than for many other strains of Colonial Spanish horse.  But, they are surviving by a thin thread…perilously close to extinction.”  The Livestock Conservancy has listed the Choctaw strain as “critical”; i.e., there are less than 250 alive today.

Through a business agreement between Gilbert Jones and Bryant Rickman, the bulk of Gilbert’s horses passed into the Rickman’s hands in the mid-1990s.  Bryant also assumed the leadership role of Jones’ organization, the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association.  The Rickman’s have dedicated their lives to the preservation of the Choctaw and Gilbert Jones stains that are thriving today, but the battle hasn’t been easy as they fight to preserve the Spanish Mustang and the Choctaw strain from extinction.

Gilbert Jones had secured grazing leases for his herd from timber companies that had owned more than one million acres of unfenced land.  A portion of this land encompassed Blackjack Mountain where many of the horses’ ancestors had roamed.  The herds had grown and they continued to run free and thrive until fall of 2007 when the timber company cancelled all of the pre-existing grazing leases, including the Rickman leases for the horses, forcing removal of all cattle and horses grazing on the mountain.  Given the terrain and untamed nature of the horses this was a seemingly insurmountable task.  

Over the next three years Bryant, with help, was able to capture about 400 mustangs and move them to his own ranch, 274 acres and 600 leased acres.  The monumental task of feeding and caring for the horses escalated and continues to this date.  A number of people have stepped forward to give homes to some of the horses, including individuals committed to ensuring the Choctaw and Gilbert Jones bloodlines.

The Spanish Mustang while small in stature is easily able to carry a 200lb man.  The horses are highly people oriented, durable, kind, come in a variety of colors and have excellent feet.  As Bryant says, “If you respect them, they will do anything for you.  They have two other unique qualities, once they hit their stride they have superior endurance and can gallop for miles.  In addition, they thrive on terrain that other horses would find too inhospitable to survive, that’s why they have basically survived on their own for all these generations.”  The Rickman herd of Spanish Mustangs currently numbers approximately 300 horses.

Without the vision and the fight of Gilbert Jones and the Rickman’s these strains would fail to exist.  There are a limited number of pure Spanish Mustang breeders throughout the country who work tirelessly to support this breed but more are needed if they are to survive.  Dr. Maila Coleman, a pediatrician from Hawaii, contacted Bryant in 2006 upon learning her ancestors were from eastern Oklahoma and had traveled with the horses in her dreams.  Dr. Coleman, along with her own herd – Mana Mustangs, continues to work with and support the Rickman’s breeding, preservation and promotion programs.

Other instrumental figures in this fight of preservation include Francine Locke Bray, a direct descendent of one of the several families who owned and bred large herds of the Choctaw horses in Pushmataha County, OK.  Francine, a museum curator and research consultant has been instrumental in the documentation of the breed, authoring several editorials and was the driving force behind their legislative recognition as “The Heritage Horse of Oklahoma”.  As Francine and her husband, Michael, continue on their retirement journey they are dedicated to assisting the Rickman’s with the care of the Rickman Spanish Mustangs.

Another volunteer, Jennie Sweetin-Smith, learning about Bryant Rickman and the horses’ predicament and close proximity to her Oklahoma ancestor’s family land, convinced her husband to take the 200 mile drive down to Speer.  Wanting to help, she and her husband Brad Smith trailered home two conservation mares – both in foal, a 100% Choctaw stallion, and six young colts of varying bloodlines.  Since that time the Smiths have become prominent breeders of the Spanish Mustangs and actively promote the breed across Oklahoma with the help of Chistoso, Jennie’s grey Spanish Mustang gelding.  Since 2010, Jennie has been fundraising with Francine and subsequently built The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain website.  Many more individuals and families have stepped forward to help as best they can.

What is the Spirit of Blackjack Mountain’s greatest need? Land. Without several hundred acres of appropriate land to sustain the herds they continue to face the urgent need of food for several hundred horses in various locations. This last winter they have been feeding approximately 3 tons of feed every five days at the cost of $212 per ton!   Some people have stepped up like Jim Stephens, a major supporter, who has donated the use of his ranch “Chahta Isuba” along with additional property, monetary support, supplies and labor.  But they need more, these horses continue to be on the CRITICAL list of endangered breeds.

There are many ways you can help “The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain” horses.  You can lease or donate land to them, become a breeder of Spanish Mustangs dedicated to keeping the breed pure, donate monetarily through their website PayPal account, donate items needed on their website, or host an ACTHA ride with them as your designated charity.

Seeing and experiencing these equine treasures can be a life-changing experience.  If you would like to learn more about these amazing horses and become involved in the conservation program and can do so by visiting the website www.thespiritofblackjackmountain.com or by contacting Bryant Rickman at [email protected]