Falling in love with New Mexico

A trip west led my husband and me to make a life-changing decision: We would build our dream ranch in the Land of Enchantment.
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My husband, Kenny Weber, and I have long dreamed of moving our herd of horses to higher elevations with room to roam and ride year-round. Kenny has lived in southern Texas all his life, while I’m a relative newcomer, having arrived six years ago from comparatively balmy Arizona and California.

Enduring long Lone Star State summers with high heat and humidity has been hard on us all. I don’t tolerate the heat well, and several of our horses suffer from seasonal allergies, including pastern dermatitis, sweet itch and hives, along with bouts of white line disease, each a result of the vagaries of climate that swing from floods and mud to drought and dust. Our herd includes Tennessee Walkers, Missouri Foxtrotters, Arabians, a Morgan and, of course, Farley the rescue (see “From Sickness to Health,” EQUUS 473).

Two summers ago we took a trip that would change our life. On our way home from California in a 26-foot U-Haul truck packed with my late mom’s furniture, Kenny and I stopped to visit a friend in New Mexico. Set amid 45 pinyon- and juniper-studded acres, his home is 16 miles south of Pie Town in Catron County, the state’s largest---by land area, with almost 7,000 square miles---yet its third most sparsely populated county, with 3,500 people.

We fell in love with the 360-degree mountain vistas, including sweeping views of the Continental Divide. It didn’t take long to forge a plan: We would come back from our ranch in Texas and create a new life here. As a signal of our commitment, we left the contents of the truck in a storage unit in Pie Town.

A major decision

Many of our friends were skeptical. Wouldn’t the winters be long and cold? The winds mighty? The roads mired in mud during monsoon season? We were also warned of the paucity of health-care services for both horses and people.

These were concerns, we conceded, yet we were sure of our decision. I searched online for horse ranches throughout the state, but most were on the flat, windswept plains. Given how relatively flat our Texas ranch is, we wanted our horses to benefit from hill work. As trail and endurance riders, we knew that hill climbing is a sure path to fitness. And horses also will build wind and hindquarter strength far faster compare to those living in the flatlands.

We returned to Pie Town one year later, resolved to purchase 55 pristine acres near our friend’s ranch. The surrounding mountain ranges, the healthy landscape and the air---cool and crisp for much of the year---set our dreams in motion.

While making arrangements to close on the land, we contacted well drillers, dowsers, fence-builders and surveyors. We met a local builder who was in the process of constructing a house in the same area. He shared many insights into “stick building” a home, including materials, site location, square-footage costs and more.

Kenny and I knew we wanted a home with an office for each of us, along with guest quarters and a “great room.” We’d need a secure hay storage building, and we envisioned run-in sheds and perhaps a few stalls for special needs, along with an insulated tack and feed room, wash racks and tacking-up areas. Tractor and horse-trailer storage was also on the wish list.

A dowsing rod and GPS

Water availability remains a critical consideration throughout much of the Southwest. We’d been told this area was blessed with abundant water. So much water and so few people, in fact, that there is a controversial plan in place to “harvest” water from underground aquifers on the Augustin Plain near Datil and pipe it north to subdivisions near Albuquerque. Many local folks consider this akin to stealing local residents’ water and selling it elsewhere. We would need to monitor the situation closely.

Local well-driller Walter Elliott drove out from Pie Town to help us determine the likelihood of finding water. His wife Kathy and son Jesse both search for water using the ancient method of dowsing---the art of finding water, treasure or other hidden things with a divining rod. Jesse wielded a pair of brass welding (brazing) rods as he walked along the southern perimeter of the property. When he passed over underground water, the rods snapped together. “I have no idea how it works,” Jesse told me. “All I know is that it does.”

The rods clicked together, marking one potential site, but tipped off by the presence of large ant mounds, Jesse set off on a diagonal path uphill and soon found a better spot. “That’s the place!” Jesse said. After recording the GPS coordinates, Jesse and Walter marked the spot with a post and red surveyor’s tape. The next step would be to secure a drilling permit from the state engineer’s office in Albuquerque.

We learned that several properties in the area had found water, but some of the wells dried up within two to three years. In some instances, water would have to be hauled in. With the number of horses we have (at last count, 14), we were of course concerned but hopeful this site would yield sufficient water.

That same afternoon we drove to Show Low, Arizona, to meet the owner of the property and his girlfriend, both of whom are delightful free spirits. We signed the paperwork, had it notarized at a local bank, and wrote checks for the down payment. It was ours!

The next step would be to further explore site selection for the house, barn and storage shed. On Saturday afternoon, we headed back to the property and scouted out a number of spots. It needed to be fairly level, with sufficient space to build a home, barn and metal storage building. We wanted it to be somewhat secluded yet not too far from the well or the road. And we hoped for a spectacular mountain view in at least one direction. We kept coming back to a place on top of a ridge with a lovely open area. Kenny marked the coordinates on a GPS and we made plans to ride the property the next day.

Reflections on simplicity

“It’s natural to overthink it,” said our friend and future neighbor Karl Phaler, “but now it’s time to strip away some of the complexity.”

Kenny and I had initially envisioned putting up a barn and storage shed before building a home. But because the goal is to get ponies and people here before another Texas summer sets in, we are beginning to think it makes more sense to proceed directly to building a house, then spend the next several months learning what the horses need before building additional facilities. The temperate climate for much of the year, along with abundant trees and hills, is nature’s design for happy horses.

Karl has been feeding his herd of five little more than large (1,200 pound) square bales of alfalfa grown in Las Cruces and delivered to a supplier 20 miles away. One bale lasts them a week (longer during monsoon season). They also have free access to a mineral supplement.

With our current herd of 14, we would need about two of these large bales per week. Our ponies are accustomed to getting soaked mashes every morning (one pound of alfalfa-timothy pellets along with a pound of a low-starch, high-fat complete feed) laced with various supplements, from probiotics and omega-3s to joint and hoof health. But one look at the excellent body condition and strong hooves of Karl’s horses shows they are not lacking for good nutrition.

To simplify our horsekeeping, we are considering going with free-choice alfalfa and minerals, and giving a mash whenever we ride or travel to an endurance ride. Start simple and add as needed is our new mantra.

As for shelter, the abundant hills and full, round pinyon and juniper trees provide plentiful windbreaks. Winters are considered relatively mild, with highs in the mid-40s and lows in the mid-teens for about three to four months of the year. Run-in sheds will remain part of the long-range plan as needed. We do plan to construct a tacking-up area and wash racks.

Of course, fencing is one of the first considerations. Originally, we had planned to divide the 55 acres into four quadrants, enabling us to split the herd into two groups and rotate pastures to prevent overgrazing. Now we are considering the idea of a “Paddock Paradise,” a horsekeeping system developed by Jaime Jackson based on a wild-horse model of how horses move, interact and eat. It allows horses to roam the perimeter of the property on a fairly narrow track, dining as they go on hay fed in small-hole hay nets. This approach maximizes herd movement and minimizes damage to the sensitive blue grama grasses that grow here seasonally. The natural contours of the land and trees make this system very attractive.

Surveying the Land

We had a rough photocopy of the plat map to identify the metes and bounds of the two parcels that comprised the property. Now the challenge was to transfer them to a Google Earth display and confirm the boundaries of the property. It had been surveyed, but some of the markers were overgrown in weeds or covered up by prairie dog tunnels. So Kenny set out to transfer the metes and bounds to the Google Earth map and mark the waypoints of each boundary in a Windows graphics program called MS Paint. With a screen shot in one hand and a handheld GPS in the other, we explored, and sure enough, buried in the grass was a formerly hidden marker.

Karl and I saddled up a couple of ponies and rode to the ridge we keep coming back to. The land was quite level and the views fantastic. It was looking more and more like “the” place. On our way back we bumped into neighbors Jeff and Lynn Haught on their ATV and stopped to chat. While my Walker mare Gypsy was trying to frisk them for carrots, we learned that Jeff and Lynn build fences, dig trenches and do many other things. We invited them to stop by Karl’s place later that afternoon.

Jeff and Kenny took off on an all-terrain vehicle to ride the perimeter of the property, and upon their return, Jeff worked up a quote for fencing with four strands of twisted smooth wire, t-posts with caps and wooden posts for corners and gates. Price for labor and all materials will be about $1.25 per linear foot. They thought they’d be able to begin construction sometime in late October.

We returned home from our trip to New Mexico---from 7,300 feet to near sea level, from 73 degrees to 93, from little humidity to sauna-like conditions. But recent rains have left the grass in Texas green and growing---a wonderful byproduct of living in this climate. And the abundant rain will ensure a good supply of hay for the winter from area growers.

While there are a number of unresolved issues to be discussed before we break ground, we are excited about our New Mexico adventure and ready to take the next steps toward fulfilling our dream.

Next: Drilling the well

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue (#477) of EQUUS magazine