New Mexico: Ruidoso, "Free Spirits", horse sculpture, sculptor Dave McGary

by Lee Foster

A major monumental sculpture to the horse, occupying a significant place on the American artistic landscape, can be seen at a remote location–Ruidoso, New Mexico.

The subject of this realistic bronze masterpiece, 255 feet long and 36 feet high, is the spirit of the horse, the noble animal that contributed so much to the exploration, farming, and transportation story of America. Indeed, an appreciation for the horse is one of the more universal animal relationships that unites humans everywhere and throughout time.

You have to see the sculpture, as I did, to feel its amazing power. Dave McGary, one of the America’s most respected bronze sculptors of realistic figures, has called his work “Free Spirits at Noisy Water.” The “Free Spirits” are the horses. “Noisy Water” is the translation of the Ruidoso River, which runs past the sculpture.


Imagine eight bronze horses, each one-and-a-half times life size, galloping across a rocky, alpine New Mexico meadow. This is the world’s largest equine sculpture.

Individually, the horses depict seven classic breeds, including one with a foal. A Thoroughbred leads the way, followed by a Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, Paint, Arabian, Morgan, and Standardbred.

Aficionados of individual breeds will appreciate how carefully McGary worked with breed associations to make the sculptures conform to the particulars of the breed.

The spirit of the individual horses surges through each sculpture, but it is the collective force of all these magnificent animals in motion that is truly moving. McGary captures the beauty and endurance of one of nature’s gifted species, suspended in motion, strong and swift.

Any traveler who has spent even a few hours on a trail ride with a lively horse can relate to the magic of this purified, distilled essence of the horse.


Patrons for the sculpture were R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard, who live and breathe horses and are involved heavily in American horse racing at various sites.


The horse sculpture is one of many achievements in the illustrious career of Dave McGary.

Raised on a Wyoming ranch, McGary knew from his earliest days that he was destined to sculpt.

At age 12, McGary was working extensively in clay. At 15 he studied in Italy with the legendary bronze master, Harry Jackson, who recognized in McGary both talent and dedication to the art form. McGary later worked at a bronze foundry in Santa Fe before opening up his own studio in Alto, near Ruidoso.

McGary’s realistic bronzes of American Indians have won him many admirers. In the 1980s collectors and museums vied for his works. A one-man show at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington celebrated his skills. He was selected to execute a major public work in Santa Fe, “The Founding of Santa Fe,” depicting Don Pedro de Peralta on a horse signaling where Santa Fe should be located. That sculpture stands in Grant Park.

Affable and exacting, the huge McGary, who stands six-foot-five, has passionate thoughts about the responsibility of a sculptor.

“Sculptures are a very special art form,” he says. “They occupy a unique place in our consciousness. They involve us in a demanding way. They invite us to interact by saying that we must look from more than one angle, more than one place. So there is a sculptor’s obligation to occupy that space with something significant.”

McGary has spent several years thinking about horses.

“The subject was already part of my American Indian studies,” he says, “but with this commission I really got to know the spirit of individual horses, the breeds, and the passion of their owners.”

McGary sees his future in doing realistic sculptures, especially of monumental themes.

“From the time of the Greeks, people have liked realistic sculpture,” he says. “More abstract styles will appeal to some people and some cultures, but the appeal of realistic figures is universal.”

Creating the bronzes is a complicated process. McGary starts with a small clay model, a maquette, and then enlarges it eight times to get the required size. The final bronze gets finished with a patina and paint process that fixes the desired color into the metal.

The motto on the wall at McGary’s studio is, “There are no limits.”

Ruidoso, “Free Spirits”, horse sculpture, sculptor Dave McGary in New Mexico


The monumental horse sculpture stands outside a Museum of the American West in Ruidoso.

One of the extraordinary specialty museums in the country, this museum the remarkable Anne Stradling Collection of equine art and paraphernalia. Paintings, sculptures, carriages, saddles–everything you can imagine about horses–were passionately collected by Stradling, who grew up in the East and settled in Arizona.

A prime example of the collection is a red, restored Butterfield Stage, which carried passengers on the 27-day ride from St. Louis to San Francisco.

In her advanced years, Stradling made an arrangement with the Hubbards to locate the collection in Ruidoso.


As might be expected, the interest of Ruidoso people and their comrades from nearby Texas is not only in equine art, but also in the eternal question: who has the fastest horse?

Ruidoso is a major American horse racing scene. The site, Ruidoso Downs, witnessed the first million dollar race, in 1972, called the All American Futurity. In 1982 the track set another record with a million dollar winner’s prize.

Today you can see horseracing, primarily of quarter horses, during the summer season at Ruidoso.


Ruidoso lies in southern New Mexico, south from the usual travel pattern of Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Taos. Distance is not a casual matter in this fifth-largest of states.

Access to Ruidoso tends to be from El Paso, Texas, or from Albuquerque, which is slightly farther away but may have better air connections for some visitors. Travelers tend to fly into El Paso and rent a car for exploring the region. Sierra Blanca is the dominant peak in this high, forested mountain country.

The area has some fresh discoveries for a traveler interested in exploring, beyond all the horse-related matters. Here are some highlights:

*Ruidoso’s downtown offers a pleasing small-town encounter, especially noted for its art shops. See the Zuni jewelry at Zuni, the ceramics at White Mountain Pottery, and the gan spirit dancer dolls of the local Mescalero Apaches at White Dove. Siano’s has ample supplies of New Mexico chili in many manifestations, plus bottles of the state’s Blue Teal wine.

*Galleries of two major artists can be viewed. The McGary studio in Alto, adjacent to Ruidoso, shows many of his bronzes of American Indians. East of town, in the Hondo Valley, talented Michael Hurd of the Hurd-Wyeth family shows the family works at the Hurd-La Rinconada Gallery.

*Culinary creativity in New Mexico can be sampled at the French-style La Lorraine in Ruidoso. The counterpoint food/entertainment event not to miss is the chuckwagon dinner and western entertainment each evening at the Flying J Ranch in Ruidoso.

*White Sands National Monument has 275 square miles of dunes formed from shifting, soft, gypsum sand crystals. The deeper you get into the monument, the more the dunes resemble a snowscape. Animals adapt by changing their protective coloring to white. Only a few of the most resilient plants can survive in the heart of the dunes. The late afternoon sun or even a moonlit night make the dunes a lovely place for a walk.

*The Space Center at Alamogordo honors the founders of and contributors to man’s journey into space. Much of this development took place in New Mexico, especially after Werner von Braun and other captured German scientists were held at El Paso after WW II. Much of the critical research here in the 1950s focused on how much punishment in G’s the human body could take.

*Remote lodges, especially The Lodge at Cloudcroft and Inn of the Mountain Gods, run by the Mescalero Apaches, attract many visitors. The Lodge at Cloudcroft is an elegant 1890s structure, originally built by the railroad. The Mescaleros own extensive trout-and-elk-filled mountain ranges around their modern, lakeside lodge, Inn of the Mountain Gods. Their Ski Apache downhill facility is popular in winter. Highway 244 between the two lodges is one of the lovelier drives in the region, passing through a necklace of mountain meadows.

*Valley of the Fires Recreation Area celebrates a huge lava flow that occurred about 1500 years ago. Plants now colonize this vast moonscape, where the oozing and bubbling lava hardened in irregular patterns as its internal bubbles of gas escaped.

*Three Rivers Petroglyph Site shows 20,000 figures of lizards, mountain sheep, the sun, lightning, and other subjects that Native Americans chipped into the black patina on the stone. The exact motives behind this creation of art are not known. The artists may have been passing their moments of leisure on this promontory between hunting excursions.

*The town of Lincoln was the site in 1878 of the noted Lincoln County War, pitting the Irish Murphy faction against the English Tunstall clan, both vying for lucrative beef contracts to supply the New Mexico military posts. One of the legendary outlaw figures in this struggle, Billy the Kid, made his famous and impossible escape from the county jail at Lincoln in 1881, only to be gunned down later by a persistent sheriff, Pat Garrett.

As they gallop into the American artistic imagination, the bronze odes at Ruidoso enlarge our appreciation for one of man’s most spirited comrades on this planet–the horse.



The local tourism information source is Ruidoso Valley Chamber of Commerce, PO Box 698, Ruidoso, NM 88345, 800/253-2255.

The overall state tourism office for New Mexico is New Mexico Department of Tourism, Lamy Building, Room 106, 491 Old Santa Fe Tr., Santa Fe, NM 87503, 800/545-2040.

Most travelers will fly into El Paso and then rent a car for the drive to the Ruidoso area. Albuquerque is the alternative fly-in point, to the north, but slightly farther in distance.

The new sculpture “Free Spirits at Noisy Water” is at the Museum of the American West, Highway 70 East, PO Box 40, Ruidoso Downs, NM 88346, 505/378-4142.

Lodging in Ruidoso is possible at several small motels, such as Best Western Swiss Chalet Hotel. The lodging with a view above the city is Crown Point. Several cabin-type lodgings are possible on the Upper Canyon Road. East of town in the Hondo Valley artist Michael Hurd offers several guest houses on the Hurd Ranch.



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