Breed evolution: The Azteca Horse, owners say, is a sublime combination of the Andalusian, one of Europe's most ancient, revered breeds, and the thoroughly all-American Quarter Horse, the most popular breed in the United States. The result is an equine breed with unequaled athleticism, heart, and grace.
Developed in the 1970s south of the border to work vast cattle ranches, the Azteca quickly became the national horse of Mexico. Today, this relatively rare breed has garnered the respect of numerous trail-riding aficionados stateside, as well.
The American Azteca Horse International Association is one of two United States Azteca registries; it has 200-plus horses registered.
Owners tell us: "I've owned both Quarter Horses and Andalusians, and when you cross my two favorite breeds, the result is perfection," says Debra Stephens of Lake Elizabeth, California, which borders Angeles National Forest. "Both breeds are highly athletic, but the Andalusian adds big platter feet and dense bone that many modern Quarter Horses have lost. The Quarter Horse contributes a more docile temperament and adds to the powerful conformation."
Stephens' sister and brother-in-law, Shelly and John Fries, own Vista del Lago Andalusians & Aztecas, also in Lake Elizabeth. Their Andalusian stallion, the multinational champion, Fandango D, sires sought-after Azteca Horses. Stephens' gelding, Tango, 5, is half-Quarter Horse through his dam, a Doc Bar/Mr Gunsmoke-bred mare.
"I love that Aztecas would rather be with humans than horses and have an excellent work ethic," Stephens says. "Tango always meets me at the gate with an attitude that says, 'Let's go!' "
Etta Hebebrand and her six grown children breed Az-tecas at their Hebes Royal Horses in southwest Oregon. "From the moment of birth, Aztecas are in your pocket," she says. "We love their people-orientation. That wonderful personality, combined with the physical ability to do whatever you ask, makes them excel on the trail or in shows. [They do well with] 4-H kids, people just starting out with horses, and experienced riders."
On the trail: Rita Greslin-Ricard has owned and bred American Aztecas for 27 years at her Dakota Winds Andalusians and Aztecas. The current president of the AAHIA, she hails from South Dakota, at the foot of the Black Hills, where she enjoys access to scenic riding trails.
"We have great riding here," Greslin-Ricard says. "I ride my American Azteca stallion, Vaquero, for miles on trails sheltered by Ponderosa pine and aspen; we cross creeks and travel at the edge of deep canyons. Aztecas have exceptionally smooth gaits and the stamina for long days on the trail."
Stephens has also found the Azteca to be an exceptional trail mount. One New Years Eve, she and her husband, Dan, explored Vasquez Rocks, a 745-acre Los Angeles County park known for its jagged sandstone formations.
"The landscape is impressive and provides a variety of training possibilities," Stephens says. "There are natural obstacles, such as logs, streams, and embankments, with lots of opportunities for hill work - all very good for a green trail horse. Tango is simply the most athletic horse I've ever ridden. And he can cover ground! Even though he's young, he's focused and smart on the trail. If you show him something once, he's got it."
Ten years ago, Tina Russeff of Flaming Aztecas in Kent, Washington, bred one of her Quarter Horse mares to an Andalusian stallion for her first Azteca. She now owns three Aztecas, including her homebred mare, Amaria, 7.
One favorite trail destination is in the Cascade Mountain foothills near Enumclaw, Washington. "One day on the trail, we came upon a black bear up a tree," she recalls. "We were quite close before I spotted him. We stopped, and Amaria stood completely still, ears pricked forward, while the bear climbed down and disappeared into the brush. She never lost her head."
Carey Hannigan of Auburn, California, bred an Andalusian stallion to her foundation Quarter Horse mare. The result was Brio, a handsome bay Azteca stallion. Now 7, the stallion is a trail veteran; Hannigan takes him to Point Reyes, Lake Tahoe, and San Luis Obispo, California.
But Hannigan's favorite trail ride is on the beach at Morro Bay, after sunset, under a full moon. "It's a beautiful, sandy beach that stretches on forever," she says. "Brio and I ride by seals and other critters, but he doesn't give them a thought. The moon illuminates the froth on the waves, and it's just me and my horse - my wonderful companion! It's quite magical."