The Wild Horses of Ute Country

by Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country

Artist Davis Murphy making a horse sculpture.

Photos by Sandra Hale Schulman

De Beque is a small, dusty town in Mesa County, Colorado. It has a population of just about 500, sitting along the north side of the fast flowing Colorado River in a small ranching valley 25 miles from Grand Junction. The town consists of a historic downtown featuring a town hall, a tavern, and several commercial businesses in historic structures. The surrounding streets include houses, several churches, and a school. But one thing stands out – there are mustang sculptures, hitching posts, and signs made of horse heads everywhere. A nearby luxury ranch has commissioned a renowned sculptor, Davis Murphy, to construct a series of copper horses to run across the canyon in a 90-foot herd.

The town is located in a region historically occupied by the Ute people. White settlers arrived in 1880. The town is named for Dr. W.A.E. De Beque who explored the area in 1884 while looking for a location for a ranch. The town was historically a location where wild horses, prevalent in the surrounding lands, were rounded up and sold. In August 2001, the Town Board of Trustees designated De Beque as the only Wild Horse Sanctuary City in the West. The town now undertakes projects in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, as well as private organizations, to protect the remaining wild horses and burros in the area. Measures include the construction of a public corral for the care of injured and sick mustangs and burros awaiting adoption. Each August the town hosts a “Wild Horse Days” featuring a rodeo and parade.

The Utes were never a unified group; instead, the Utes consisted of numerous nomadic bands that maintained close associations with other neighboring groups. Unlike many other tribal groups in this region, there is no tradition or evidence of migration to the areas now known as Colorado and Utah – ancestors of the Ute appear to have occupied this area for at least a thousand years.

Contact with Spanish Explorers

The Ute’s first contact with Europeans was with early Spanish explorers in the 1630s. Horses were eventually obtained through trading with the Spanish colonists in New Mexico or theft from those settlements. The increase in mobility made possible by the horses was instrumental in changing aspects of Ute society in ways that paralleled the Plains Indian cultures of the central U.S. This social upheaval resulted in different degrees of consolidation, political realignment and tension between the Ute groups.

The Ute experience with European-American settlers is similar to that of many other Native American groups: competition, confrontation and eventual coerced relocation to reservations. Eventually, the various bands of Utes were consolidated onto three reservations. Several of these bands still maintain separate identities as part of the Ute tribal organizations. Although initially large and located in areas that white settlers deemed undesirable (occupying parts of Utah and most of western Colorado), the sizes of these reservations were repeatedly reduced by various government actions, encroachment by white settlers and mining interests. In the 20th century, several U.S. federal court decisions restored portions of the original reservation land to the Ute Tribes’ jurisdiction and awarded monetary compensations.

The Northern Ute, and in particular the Uncompahgre Ute from Colorado, are exceptional artisans and produced extraordinary examples of religious and ceremonial beadwork, unusual art forms, and cunningly designed and decorated weapons of war in their traditional culture.

The Southern Ute Indian Reservation is located in southwestern Colorado, with its capital at Ignacio. Today, the Southern Ute are the wealthiest of the tribes and claim financial assets approaching $2 billion. Gambling, tourism, oil and gas, real estate leases, plus various off-reservation financial and business investments have contributed to their enormous success. The Sky Ute Casino and its entertainment and tourist facilities, together with tribally-operated Lake Capote, draw tourists and host the Four Corners Motorcycle Rally each year.

The Ute operate KSUT, the major public radio station serving southwestern Colorado and the Four Corners. KSUT features many public radio shows as well as the top Native American programs including Tribal Radio Morning Show with Cynthia Buckskin ; Native America Calling with Harlan McKosato; and Voices in the Wind with Marge Borst.

Horses Made of Copper

Driving through DeBeque’s Kessler Canyon, a private ranch recently opened to the public, visitors are met by a series of stunning 20 foot long copper horse sculptures running across the canyon. Leaping and galloping with their manes and tails flying in the wind, these incredible equines are the work of artist Davis Murphy. Made of steel frames enveloped in a unique copper “skin,” the six running horses span 90 feet. Another piece of two horses fighting with front hooves and heads in the air is 32 feet long and high enough to drive a truck under.

wild-horse3-web.gif The ranch is owned by Orlando-based hotel and real estate developer Richard C. Kessler. Kessler Canyon is a first-class $25 million Western Colorado wildlife retreat encompassing 23,000 acres of mountains, canyons, rivers, and pastures. An outdoor sportsman’s paradise, Kessler Canyon offers year-round recreational activities. Kessler is a major art collector, with galleries and specially commissioned artwork at all his resorts.

“The area is so beautiful!” says Kessler. “When I saw the location, I knew that it would be ideal for Kessler Canyon. “I knew about the Ute history here as part of one of their trails runs right through the canyon. Then there is the large horse sanctuary, so Murphy’s horse artwork is a natural fit for Kessler Canyon. We are building a large homestead lodge here as well where I plan to display a variety of artwork.”

Due to the sheer size of the horse sculptures, Murphy needed to work onsite for months on end in the canyon, where the weather goes from blistering to blustery in the course of a day. He based the engineering of the sculptures on the Statue of Liberty in New York, which is also made of a steel infrastructure with copper sheets molded over it, though the copper was left to go green on the Liberty stature. Murphy heats the canyon horse’s copper with huge torches to give them a burnished skin.

“Working onsite has changed the nature of the work,” Murphy says. “Seeing the silhouettes and the mountains and sky around them makes me see them differently. They get too static in a warehouse setting, seeing them stretched out in this huge canyon frees them up visually. Plus the more I hammer on them and torch them the better they look.”

The ranch house where Murphy stays has about 20 horses with foals right outside the back door that provide further inspiration.

Ute Horse Therapy for Addicts

A fascinating program the Ute run that uses the horses to an unusual advantage is the Vocational Rehabilitation Service Project for American Indians with disabilities. Southern Ute Indian Tribe Marla Decker is the Program Manager based out of Ignacio, Colorado.

Ms. Decker wrote a recent paper called “The Use of Horses in Psychotherapy and Self-Awareness” where she says:

“Animal-assisted therapy has been around since the early 1970s. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the use of horses in therapy was introduced. With it, a plethora of names emerged: equine-assisted psychotherapy, equine-facilitated psychotherapy, equine-guided education, equine-experiential psychotherapy, etc.”

Any way you call it, it’s therapy that uses horses during sessions to help clients facilitate change in themselves and in their lives.

Due to the novelty of this therapy model, there is little yet growing research about why horses are working; however, the limited studies do show that horses in therapy are making a difference.

In a recent study of young adult males, it was determined that the areas most positively affected by these participants were self-esteem, timidity, and respect. Another recent study indicated that younger people are more open to utilizing this therapy model as opposed to older adults.

wild-horse2-web.gif Along with the many names developing out of this type of therapy, there are just as many theories as to why it works. Is it psychodynamic? Are the fears and obstacles of the client exercised symbolically with the powerful horse? Are horses psychic? Do they have a sixth sense that allows them to “read” the client’s feelings when even the therapist can’t? Or is it a kind of gestalt therapy where the client’s issues are brought to the surface through the physical interaction with the horse? There are many ideas and theories as to why horses are proving to be powerful tools in therapy. Research continues to explore those possibilities while the studies show positive results of this novel therapy model.

The Southern Ute Vocational Rehabilitation Program, located in Ignacio, CO, provides Equine therapy, named the “Work-Horse” program, for eligible consumers who desire this unique psychotherapy service. In this “Work-Horse” program, it is with the pure intent of assisting the consumer to discover his/ her patterns, issues, etc., that may be hindering or disrupting their own growth towards better self-understanding. It is also with this notion that one hopes that a better understanding of the self will help the individual in their completion of the Individualized Plan for Employment and, ultimately, become a successful employee or self-employee.

The program also serves as relapse prevention for those who have alcohol/chemical dependency disabilities and are experiencing stressful situations in their lives.”

Wild Horse Days

Wild Horse Days is a non-profit organization established to promote and assist the Bureau of Land Management with the public education and awareness of the Wild Horses who reside on 36,000 acre preserve just outside DeBeque. DeBeque is one of only three Certified Wild Horse Sanctuary Cities in the United States.

The main fundraiser is the Wild Horse Day’s celebration is held annually in August. The long-term goal is to develop the land, which the Town of DeBeque owns, into an area that would have corrals, parking and recreational space. This would be available for those working with the Wild Horses on the range.

The Town of DeBeque plans to have a rodeo grounds with trails for walking, bird watching and perhaps a dock on the river. All of this will be a perfect place to inform the public about the Wild Horse’s and Burros.

At one time DeBeque was where the wild horses were rounded up and sold. A mustang statue at the Town’s Square honors these animals. As times change the Mustang Days has changed also. The festivities have clubs, floats, antique automobiles, cars, farming equipment, pets, horses, decorated bicycles, clowns, and bands.



The Utes are an ethnically related group now living primarily in Utah and Colorado. There are three Ute tribal reservations: (1) Uintah-Ouray in northeastern Utah (3,500 members), (2) Southern Ute (1,500 members) and (3) Ute Mountain (2,000 members) – both in southwestern Colorado. The name of the state of Utah was derived from the name Ute.