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.
CONFORMATION, TYPE, AND COLORS IN NORTH AMERICA
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.
TYPE AND CONFORMATION RELATED TO OTHER COUSIN BREEDS WORLDWIDE
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.
BLOOD TYPES AND DNA TYPES
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.
FOUNDATION STRAINS OF THE PRESENT BREED
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.
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