D.P. Sponenberg, DVM, PhD
Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA  24061
Colonial Spanish Horses are of great historic importance in the, and are one of only a very few  genetically unique horse breeds worldwide. They have both local and global importance for  genetic conservation. They are sensible, capable mounts that have for too long been relegated  a very peripheral role in North American horse breeding and horse using. The combination of  great beauty, athletic ability, and historic importance makes this breed a very significant part of  our heritage.

Colonial Spanish Horses are rarely referred to by this name. The usual term that is used in  North America is Spanish Mustang. The term “mustang” carries with it the unfortunate  connotation of any feral horse, so that this term serves poorly in several regards. Many Colonial  Spanish horses have never had a feral background, but are instead the result of centuries of  careful breeding. Also, only a very small minority of feral horses (mustangs) in North America qualify as being Spanish in type and breeding.

The important part of the background of the Colonial Spanish Horses is that they are indeed  Spanish. These are descendants of the horses that were brought to the New World by the  Conquistadors, and include some feral, some rancher, some mission, and some native  American strains. Colonial Spanish type is very rare among modern feral mustangs, and the  modern Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mustangs should not be confused with Colonial  Spanish horses, as the two are very distinct with only a few exceptions to this rule.

They descend from horses introduced from southern Spain, and possibly North Africa, during  the period of the conquest of the New World. In the New World this colonial resource has  become differentiated into a number of breeds, and the North American representatives are  only one of many such breeds throughout the.These horses are a direct remnant of the horses  of the Golden Age of Spain,which type is now mostly or wholly extinct in Spain.

The Colonial Spanish horses are therefore a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long  gone. In addition, they are capable and durable mounts for a wide variety of equine pursuits in  North America, and their abilities have been vastly undervalued for most of the 1900s. These  are beautiful and capable horses from a genetic pool that affected horse breeding throughout  the world five centuries ago, yet today they have become quite rare and undervalued.

It is widely held in some circles that North American Colonial Spanish horses consistently have  only five lumbar vertebrae. Research on Barbs, Criollos, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians in  Argentina suggests that the Colonial Spanish horses are more likely to have five than are most  other breeds, but that a substantial number of pure Colonial Spanish horses also have six  lumbar vertebrae. In addition, horses of other breeds do indeed occasionally have five lumbar  vertebrae. Regardless of the number of vertebrae, they do usually have short, strong backs.

Another subtle distinction of Colonial Spanish Horses is a tendency for the cannon bones to be  more round in cross section, as opposed to the usual shape of most horses where the posterior  surface is flat. Subtle but characteristic differences are also present in the first vertebra (atlas)  whose wings are more lobed in Spanish horses as opposed to semicircular in most other  breeds. This difference apparently does not lead to any difference in function of this important  area of the horse’s anatomy.

Colors of the Colonial Spanish Horse vary widely, and it is through the Spanish influence that  many other North American horse breeds gain some of their distinctive colors. Colonial Spanish  Horses come in a full range of solid colors including black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, grullo,  zebra dun, red dun, buckskin, palomino, and cream. Other solid colors such as the champagne  colors, and even silver dapple, occur rarely. It is consistent among most populations of these  horses that black and colors derived from it are relatively common. This constrasts with the  relative rarity of these colors in horses of Arabian or Thoroughbred breeding.

Various people have occasionally focused attention on color to the detriment of the whole  breed package involved in the Colonial Spanish Horse. Some colors are controversial, either in  a positive or a negative direction.

Linebacked duns (zebra, red, and grullo) are frequently associated with Colonial Spanish  Horses, largely because these colors do indeed betray a Spanish connection in Western North  American horses. These colors are very widespread, though, in pony and some draft breeds  throughout Europe and Asia, and so are by themselves not an accurate predictor of Spanish  breeding in horses. They are attractive colors, and common in Colonial Spanish Horses, but are  a very inaccurate indicator of relative purity of breeding.

Some people insist that solid colored (those lacking white marks) zebra duns and grullos are a  throwback to Sorraia type breeding. These are sometimes attributed special significance as the  Sorraia is considered by some to be a primitive foundation for all Iberian horses. The status and  role of the Sorraia is controversial, however, and individual zebra dun and grullo horses do  indeed segregate from herds of very mixed colors. The resulting solid colored duns and grullos  are no more nor less Spanish in breeding than are their siblings of other colors.

Various registries have had an important role in conserving Colonial Spanish horses. They have  focused their breeding on a specific type of horses, which is the type described above. This  type varies somewhat from the rangier, more lightly built individuals to others that are more  compactly and more heavily made, but the range is fairly narrow between these two types and  the entire range is very distinct from other common breeds in North America. The original  Spanish type was probably more variable, including some horses with higher set tails, broader  chests, and rounder conformation generally. Conformation details do indeed vary among the  several horse breeds throughout the Americas that descend from the Colonial Spanish horses.

The range of variability in the type of breeds of Spanish descent calls into question what is truly  Spanish type in Colonial Spanish Horses. Certainly it is wise for the registries to limit the range  of allowable types in order to produce consistent, predictable horses. It is equally important to  recognize that some horses that are considered outside the type desired by the registries are  still entirely of pure Spanish breeding. It is worthwhile to recognize that horses of newly found  purely bred Spanish Colonial horse herds may be more variable than the present horses in the  registries. The registries then usually accept only some and not all of the horses from these  herds, although the horses may indeed all be of purely Spanish breeding.

The reasons for the registries not accepting some of what might in act be Spanish types are  based in the history of the conservation of Colonial Spanish Horses in North America. These  horses were originally saved as a small minority of horses in the midst of a large population of  horses based on Spanish breeding but then deliberately crossed with draft, Thoroughbred,  Morgan, and other types derived from northern European breeding. The range of Spanish types  that are likely to be refused registry cannot really be told externally from other types, such as  horses with Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred ancestry. Even though some horses with such an  appearance may be purely Spanish, they do pose a much greater risk of introducing outside  genetic influence than do those horses of the more uniquely Spanish types that cannot be  confused with these other breed influences. By concentrating on the most unique of the  Spanish types the registries have also assured that this rare genetic resource has been  conserved with minimal contamination. The registries are to be commended on their foresight  for saving the most unique of the Spanish phenoytpes, even if in the process some pure horses  were left out. In addition this strategy has provided for keeping the Colonial Spanish horses  distinctive and recognizable from other breeds - which offers horseowners a real choice rather  than just another brand name for something similar to other breeds available.

Recent advances in bloodtyping and DNA typing have held out promise for a nonsubjective  approach to deciding if candidate populations (or individual horses) are Spanish in origin or  not. Dr. Gus Cothran of the University of Kentucky has been instrumental in pursuing these  techniques, and works closely with others in the conservation and identification of these  horses.

These techniques have some limitations in that no breed or herd is uniform for the presence of  what are generally considered to be “Iberian” markers (or bloodtypes). These techniques do  offer great help in verifying the initial results of historic and phenotypic analysis, but are by  themselves insufficient to arrive at a final conclusion. Almost invariably when the history and  phenotype point to a consistently Iberian population, the bloodtyping and DNA evidence  likewise point in this direction.

Recently some conservationists have mistakenly concluded that Iberian bloodtype variants can  be the basis for deciding which horses of a population are more (or less) Spanish in origin. Due  to the inheritance pattern of these markers it is easily possible for an absolutely pure Colonial  Spanish Horse to have missed inheriting any of the Iberian markers. It is likewise possible for a  crossbred horse to have inherited several. A carefully selected Quarter Horse, for example,  could easily have a preponderance of Iberian markers. A conservation program based heavily  on bloodtypes without considering other factors could then very easily exclude the very horses  whose conservation is important, and could include some that should have been excluded.  Therefore, conformational type is a more important factor than bloodtype, and will always  remain so. It is impossible to determine the relative percentage of Spanish breeding in a horse  through bloodtyping.

Bloodtyping and DNA typing are both critically valuable and important adjuncts to conservation  programs, but must be used wisely for the sort of information they provide. They are not a  panacea for the difficult and subjective challenges that face conservationists interested in  Colonial Spanish Horses. Neither of these techniques is powerful enough to direct conservation  programs without attention to overall conformation and breed type as well as historical data.

The Spanish Colonial Horse is the remnant of the once vast population of horses in the USA.  The ancestors of these horses were instrumental in the ability of the Spanish Conquistadors to  conquer the native civilizations. The source of the original horses was Spain, at a time when the  Spanish horse was being widely used for improvement of horse breeding throughout Europe.  The Spanish horse of the time of the conquest had a major impact on most European light horse  types (this was before breeds were developed, so type is a more accurate word). Types of  horses in Spain at the time of the founding of the American populations did vary in color and  conformation, and included gaited as well as trotting horses. The types, though variable,  tended to converge over a relatively narrow range. The origin of these horses is shrouded in  myth and speculation. Opinions vary, with one extreme holding that these are an unique  subspecies of horse, to the other extreme that they are a more recent amalgamation of  Northern European types with oriental horses. Somewhere in between is the view that these  are predominantly of North African Barb breeding. Whatever the origin, it is undeniable that  the resulting horse is distinct from most other horse types, which is increasingly important as  most other horse breeds become homogenized around a very few types dominated by the  Arabian, Thoroughbred, and Warmbloods.

This historically important Spanish horse has become increasingly rare, and was supplanted as  the commonly used improver of indigenous types by the Thoroughbred and Arabian. These  three (Spanish, Thoroughbred, and Arabian) are responsible for the general worldwide erosion  of genetic variability in horse breeds. The Spanish type subsequently became rare and is now  itself in need of conservation. The horse currently in Spain is distinct, through centuries of  divergent selection, from the Colonial Spanish Horse. The result is that the New World  remnants are very important to overall conservation since the New World varieties are closer in  type to the historic horse of the Golden Age of Spain than are the current horses in Iberia.

A single exception to the rule that Iberian horses are distinct in type from North American  Colonial Spanish horses is the Sorraia from Portugal. This is a small primitive horse of Iberian  type, present as a small population and saved for many years by the d’Andrade family. Sorraias  are solid colored zebra duns or grullos. While some hold that the Sorraia is ancestral to all other  Iberian breeds, it is much more likely that it represents yet another descendant of the horses  of Portugal and Spain 500 years ago, making it a cousin to rather than an ancestor of the  Colonial Spanish Horses in North America. It’s persistence as a distinct population, kept in  isolation from the New World horses for 500 years, makes it an important conservation priority,  but it’s distinctiveness argues for its being kept as a separate population from North American  strains. North American horses that resemble Sorraias tend to segregate out of populations  that are much more variable for color and type than is the Sorraia. The resemblance of these is  therefore somewhat superficial and lumping these together can be detrimental to the genetic  conservation of both important resources.

The original horses brought to America from Spain were relatively unselected. These first came  to the Caribbean islands, where populations were increased before export to the mainland. In  the case of North America the most common source of horses was Mexico as even the  populations in the southeastern USA were imported from Mexico rather than more directly  from the Caribbean. The North American horses ultimately came from this somewhat  nonselected and early-imported base. South American horses, in contrast, tended to originally  derive about half from the Caribbean horses and half from direct imports of highly selected  horses from Spain. These later imports changed the average type of the horses in South  America and this fact accounts for the differences in modern remnants of Colonial Spanish  Horses as they are encountered in North and South America.

This difference in founder strains is the main reason for the current differences in the North  American and South American horses today. Other differences were fostered by different  selection goals in South America. Both factors resulted in related but different types of horses.  In addition the South American horses have become popular and common in several countries,  and are the “national horse” in many countries. That has kept populations vital and viable, in  contrast to the “national horse” of the USA being the Quarter Horse - a derived breed with  influence from many foundation breeds. The lack of popularity of the Colonial Spanish horse in  North America has been a mixed blessing as its breeders have tended to be very loyal to it, but  very much working outside the mainstream of horse breeders and users in North America. This  has resulted in constant pressure to increase size and harmonize the conformation of the  Colonial Spanish horse to those more popular breeds in North America.

The relatively small handful of Colonial Spanish horses that persisted through the lean years  has founded the present breed, and so is the horse of interest when considering the history of  the current breed. The foundation that persisted through the period of low numbers will  forever stamp the resulting breed in more important ways than will the millions of these  horses that once roamed the continent but failed to survive the bottleneck of low numbers that  occurred between the days of numerous Spanish Colonial horses and today.

Feral Strains:

Many of the purely Spanish horses in North America remained in isolated feral herds. Such  pure horses became rare fairly early in this century due to the practice of shooting the Spanish  stallions and replacing them with draft or blooded (generally Thoroughbred or Coach) stallions  in an attempt to "improve" or "breed up" the feral herds as sources of draft or remount stock.  Bob Brislawn, founder of the Spanish Mustang Registry in 1957, used many feral horses in his  herd. Several of his foundation horses were obtained from Monte Holbrook, an Apache living in  Utah who was an excellent mustanger (capturer of feral horses). In addition to his abilities as a  mustanger were those of his wife, Sadie, and their daughter and son. All had reputations and  abilities equal to Monte's. Most of the feral component to the Brislawn horses was from Utah,  although isolated horses from other herds contributed as well. The Brislawn horses contributed  widely to the present Spanish Mustang Registry horses.

Following the foundation of the Spanish Mustang Registry, most of the feral herds that served  as the original source were contaminated with other breeds of horses, and are therefore no  longer purely Spanish. The crossing of the horses in these originally pure populations was  frequently undertaken with the hope that larger horses could be raised on the range. Wild  horse, and wild burro, managment by the BLM also rarely regards the special status of breed  origin in the management of horse populations on public lands. As a result, the horses within  the SMR represent the only contribution that those once pure herds can now make to the  breeding of the Colonial Spanish Horse, and they are an important foundation to the present  breed.

The Sulphur herd management area in Southwest Utah is one area that still has Spanish type  horses today. This region is along the Old Spanish Trail trade route, along which many horses  traveled during Spanish and later times. Both traders and Ute Indians used routes through the  area repeatedly, and the feral horses are thought to have originated from this source. Chief  Walkara and others made many horse raids into California, and it is likely that the horses in this  region have a California origin, making them distinct from other feral strains. Many of the  horses from the northern end of this management area have very Spanish type. The usual  colors in these herds are dun, grullo, red dun, bay, black and a few chestnuts. These horses  show remarkable adaptation to their harsh environment. Sulphur horses are currently  attracting attention, as well as dedicated breeders such as Ron Roubidoux. A group of these  horses was accepted into the SMR in 1994, and a second group in 1995. Earlier horses from this  area are reputed to be among SMR foundation horses, largely coming through Kent Gregerson.

The Sulphur horses remaining in the wild are in a remote area, and these horses are frequently  harassed by a variety of people. Hopefully the ones in the feral herds can be managed to  complement the very able work being done by Ron and the other breeders. Bloodtyping by Gus  Cothran has revealed a very high frequency of Iberian markers in the Sulphur horses, further  substantiating this herd as a source of good Colonial Spanish type horses. Type is variable  enough, though, that care and wisdom must be used in the inclusion of individual horses from  this area into conservation breeding programs. Not all Sulphur horses have a Colonial Spanish  phenotype.

Most feral herds remaining today are crossbred with non-Spanish horses. Recent success,  especially with the Pryor, Cerbat, Sulphur, and Kiger horses, has stimulated some investigation  into the feral herds that are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management for other herds of  Spanish type. If other herds of the correct type are found then the history of the feral horses in  the area will be considered, along with bloodtyping information, in order to determine if any of  these herds should be added to the list of Spanish type herds. These can then be managed to  guard against incursion of non-Spanish horses. Such a program has several advantages. It keeps  the feral Colonial Spanish horse in the original environment so that selection pressures keep  working to produce environmentally resistant horses. The BLM has also found a recent change  in preference among adopters. It has become easier to adopt out Spanish type horses rather  than the usual crossbred BLM type, largely from increased recognition of the historic  importance and utility of these horses. If any other feral Spanish herds remain besides these  four, they are probably very, very few in number.

A further conservation issue with feral herds is that pedigree information is lacking, and the  ranges are open which brings with it the risk of trespass horses contributing to the gene pool.  While some herd management areas have horses of predominantly Spanish type it will always  be necessary to inspect individual horses as they are brought off the range to assure that they  are of correct type. A carte blanche acceptance of all feral horses from even the selected,  proven ranges (Cerbat, Pryor, Sulphur) could result in some inclusion of some off-type horses  into conservation efforts.

New/Old Mexico Strains:
New Mexico has proven to be an interesting repository of several interesting strains. This in  part reflects the importance of New Mexico in the early days of the introduction of horses into  North America.

One important rancher strain from New Mexico is the Romero/McKinley strain. These are from  a ranch near Cebolla, New Mexico where Spanish type horses were raised for generations. The  Romero ranch passed to the McKinley family, who still maintain a few horses of the original  strain. These are raised extensively in a nearly wild situation on large ranges. These horses  figure heavily in some lines of Spanish Barb horses. Alan Bell of Texas was instrumental in  acquiring and taming several horses from the McKinley ranch in 2000; an effort which greatly  boosted the impact of this strain on the conservation effort. These horses come in a wide  variety of dark as well as dun colors.

In addition to the feral, tribal, and rancher horses were some from Mexico. These Mexican  horses usually were single horses and not a strain. One exception was a group assembled by Ira  Yates, who also figures prominently in the history of Texas Longhorn cattle. The Yates horses  are small and are dun or grullo. They still persist in the care of Tally Johnson in Oklahoma. The  horses were originally from 150 miles southwest of Mexico City. The original group, assembled  in 1950, included two stallions and two mares. One stallion was infertile. The line still continues  today, which is food for thought that inbreeding need not always result in the decline of a line  of animals.

Painter Barbs:
Robert and Louise Painter have done a great job of horse conservation, and have used a  different strategy than most of the other significant conservation efforts. The Painter  conservation effort centers around the most unique of the Colonial Spanish horse types, which  is the Barb. This type is the most distinct from other breed resources in North America, and is  therefore the one that is most important to conserve. The Painters have carefully, and over  years, studied the Barb horse, as well as closely scrutinizing other breeds and types such that  any influence other than Barb can be noticed and identified. By critically evaluating horses for  Barb background and Barb type they have assembled a herd of Barb horses that all cluster  within this unique type. They have also carefully studied genetics and animal breeding so that  this type can continue on in a viable genetic pool.

What is most useful about the Painter program is that it involves a type across bloodlines rather  than a specific bloodline. This is in contrast to most other programs, which are based as much  on geographic (strain) origin as they are on type. By mating within the type but across  bloodlines, the Painters have been able to assure survival of this type in a population that  maintains sufficient genetic breadth to maintain great genetic health.

The situation of the registries for the Colonial Spanish Horse can be confusing. There are  numerous registries, and each is slightly different in history and outlook from the others. Many  horses are registered in multiple registries, however some specific horses or bloodlines are  barred from one or the other of the registries. Most of the registries operate from very similar  goals and philosophies, and with very similar horses, which makes some of the differences  difficult to appreciate. In some situations the fragmentation of the Spanish Colonial horse into  these subgroups may be hindering conservation rather than helping it. However, most of the  important substrains are not divided, and find a home within one or the other of the registries.  Some mechanism that provides for conservation of the various substrains as well as the  composites based on them is desperately needed for this genetic resource. The great antipathy  that is present between some of the registries is probably more of a hinderance to  conservation than an aid to it. The following list is likely to be incomplete.

The Spanish Mustang Registry (SMR) was founded by Bob Brislawn and others. It accepts only  Spanish horses, and the books are open to newly discovered horses that pass a visual  inspection and consideration of the horse's origin and history. The SMR has foundation lines  from many strains. Most of the SMR horses are of feral or Brislawn origin, although many are of  Indian Tribal or Rancher bloodlines as well. The SMR has recently disallowed registration of the  tobiano pattern, which is at variance with some of the other registries.

The Spanish Barb Breeders Association (SBBA) began as an offshoot of the SMR. Many of the  foundation horses of SBBA were SMR horses, although some were renamed and therefore  difficult to trace. The SBBA philosophy is that all horses must be tested by evaluation of their  type as well as the offspring they produce. Most SBBA horses originally were SMR horses, and  some still have solely this blood in them. The SBBA is also an important reservoir of the Belsky  bloodline. The SBBA also recently included the Wilbur-Cruce Mission horses in a special section  of the herdbook apart from the other horses they register. This action was taken to  acknowledge the history of the Wilbur-Cruce strain and to keep those horses identified so that  they could be followed and evaluated. Webmaster's note: I don't believe any Sulphur horses  have been accepted into the SBBA, unless they were offspring of Doby, an early SMR stallion.  However, it's possible they would be accepted into the hardship division, so I am including the SBBA here.

The Horse of the Americas (HOA), registry has recently revived as a sort of umbrella for all of the  other groups, meaning that they will accept horses that are accepted by the other registries as  well as horses submitted for inspection. They are probably the most inclusive of the registries.

The Society for the Preservation of the Barb Horse (SPBH), operates under the care of Robert  and Louise Painter. These breeders have succeeded in concentrating on a very Barb type of  horse, carefully selected for consistency of type and performance. Their foundation includes  horses from a number of sources, including many in the SMR.

The American Indian Horse Registry (AIHR), began long ago as a registry for a variety of types of  horses connected in one way or another to American Indians. The AIHR currently registers  Spanish type horses as 0 (original) animals, and has separate sections for nonSpanish types and  crosses. The AIHR does diligently preserve the 0 type as a separate category. The Colonial  Spanish Horses in the AIHR tend to be mostly of Choctaw breeding, although there are many  others involved. Horses are only taken into the O section if they meet rigorous historical and  conformational requirements.

The Sulphur Horse Registry (SHR), concerns only horses from the BLM Herd Management area of the same name. The Sulphur Springs Horse Registry (SSHR), is a breed registry for the Sulphur mustang.
The American Sulphur Horse Association (ASHA), is a breed Association and is promoting these Zebra Duns as "rare and unique" horse.   I am less familiar with the fine points of distinction for some of the other registries:  American  Mustang and Burro Association, American Mustang Association (these two are less focused on Spanish type than on feral background), Sorraia Mustang Studbook (focusing on duns of Sorraia  type).                                  copyright 2010