The blood of Spanish Horses is found in nearly every equine breed that evolved in North America over the last 500 years. Columbus - and the Spanish conquistadors that followed - selected Iberian Horses, African Barbs, and Spanish Jennets to make the long voyage to the New World.
When they put ashore in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, or Central or South America, these tough, handsome horses carried them throughout the Americas, and eventually evolved into the modern breeds we love today.
The distinctive characteristics that helped Spanish Horses carry explorers and later, settlers, over challenging, uncharted territory are found in many of their descendants: the charisma and elegance of the Iberian Horse (now known as the Andalusian/Lusitano); the durability and stamina of the African Barb; and the naturally smooth, even gait of the Spanish Jennet.
The very traits that made the Spanish Horse a steadfast, reliable partner for explorers as they forged new trails across continents also endears them to trail riders today. Read on to learn more about four diverse Spanish breeds: the Andalusian Horse, the Colonial Spanish Horse, the Paso Fino, and the Peruvian Horse.
The Iberian Horse is an ancient breed. Cave paintings of its ancestors, estimated to be 20,000 years old, have been found on the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain and Portugal are located today. Ancient Greeks and Romans revered the Iberian Horse for his courage, agility, and beauty, and the knights of medieval Europe charged into battle astride their broad backs.
Originally, only Iberian Horses from the Andalucia province in Spain were called Andalusians. In 1912 - primarily to appease disgruntled breeders in other Spanish provinces - owners called Andalusians registered in their new stud book Pura Raza Española (PRE) for Pure Spanish Horse.
Then, in the 1960s, Portuguese breeders formed their own stud book and called their Iberian Horses Lusitanos after that country's premier breeding area. In the United States, the Lusitano may also be registered as an Andalusian, but not as a PRE. However, in the United States, the magnificent Iberian Horses are usually called Andalusians.
By any name, this breed is astonishingly well-endowed for the trail. Strong, athletic, and tough, the horse that for centuries carried warriors into battle is today relatively rare in the United States, and most often seen in dressage competition or demonstrations. The International Andalusian Lusitano Horse Association currently has 15,000 horses registered.
When training his Andalusian horses, Avi Cohen, owner of Kilimanjaro Ranch in Malibu, California, combines trail riding with classical dressage, including the dramatic cabriola and high school training known as "airs above the ground."
"My job and the travel it requires are very stressful, so when I come home, I immediately jump on my horse and go to the mountains," he says. "Whatever else you do with your horse, the trail allows him to clear his head and relax-and me, too!
"I learn most from horses when we are on the trail," Cohen continues. "My hands become lighter. My legs drive better. My body is more centered. Trail riding is not for the horse only!"
Cohen, who originally rode Western style, became captivated by the Andalusian horse with his athletic prowess and fairytale beauty nearly eight years ago. His search for an Andalusian took him to Spain, where he went from one farm to another, until he found Caballos Espanioles SA. The search was over, but Cohen's journey with Andalusians was just beginning.
"I liked what I saw," he says. "And I began to learn what was becoming a lost art. I love the groundwork, and most of all, the Andalusian Horse."
Cohen was a good student. Today, he gives clinics and demonstrations, and Kilimanjaro Ranch is home to four handsome Andalusian stallions, four colts, a filly, and two broodmares. His senior stallion, the statuesque dapple grey, Alborozo, will become a Breyer model horse.
When Cohen's young Andalusians are nearly 4 years old, their training begins. He immediately takes them onto trails through the Malibu mountains. Once populated by the Chumash Indians, who had a thriving maritime culture along the California coast, the hills offer miles of trails with ocean vistas that go on forever.
"I have a passion for the trails and the beauty there," he says with contagious enthusiasm. "Without passion, there is no life!"
Fortunately, Kilimanjaro Ranch and the surrounding trails were left untouched by the recent wildfires in the area.
Colonial Spanish Horse
Soon after their arrival in the New World, breeding farms for Spanish Horses were established in the Caribbean and Mexico to raise the mounts that would carry riders for conquests and exploration. Over scores of years, horses were traded and stolen; some escaped to become the wild herds of North America.
Some feral herds lived near cavalry riders or ranchers. These individuals would introduce a stallion, such as a Thoroughbred or Tennessee Walking Horse, into the herd to increase the size of the next generation. Later, these offspring would be rounded up and trained for use in the military or on ranches. In these wild herds, the original Spanish blood was diluted.
However, this dilution didn't occur in some geographically isolated wild herds and in many herds domesticated by Native Americans. Each tribe zealously guarded their horses and kept detailed pedigrees, both oral and written. Horses were selectively bred for characteristics that best suited their owners' needs.
Today, there's a growing interest in preserving these genetically unique and historically important herds. Previously known as Spanish Mustangs, they're now commonly called Colonial Spanish Horses, in large part due to the research and writings of D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
Screenwriter and filmmaker John Fusco champions the Choctaw Indian strain of Colonial Spanish Horse. (See "Wild About Mustangs," Trailblazers, March '07.) With less than 150 pure Choctaw Indian Ponies in existence, he's established a conservation and breeding program for them at his Vermont Red Road Farm.
"The Choctaw strain began with the pure Spanish horses brought to Mississippi with De Soto," he says. "The Choctaw people adopted this war horse and selectively bred for endurance, ability to pack, and smooth gait.
"We'd like to see them recognized as more than endangered horses with a unique heritage. We'd like to see them rediscovered as the superb trail and distance horses they are. That's the best way to preserve them."
Across the country in New Mexico, Silke Schneider has five Colonial Spanish Horses, members of the Wilbur-Cruce strain. Ancestors of this herd group, descended from the Spanish Barb, were originally purchased from Mexican breeders in the late 1800s by Dr. Reuben Wilbur. In 1930, his granddaughter, Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce, assumed control of his ranch and carefully guarded the purity of her treasured "little rock horses." In 1989, she published a book about them and life on her family's remote, desert ranch, "A Beautiful, Cruel Country" (University of Arizona Press, 800/426-3797; www.uapress.arizona.edu).
That same year, Wilbur-Cruce sold most of her ranch to the Nature Conservancy. The next year, her herd, genetically pure for over a century in their isolated locale, were rounded up and found permanent homes with breed preservationists.
The Wilbur-Cruce horses at Silke Schneider's Heritage Breeds Southwest farm are from that historic herd and the next generation.
"I became interested in them, because they are tough, handsome horses and beautifully adapted to this ecological niche, with its rugged mountains and high heat," she says. "They are also very people-oriented; a real pleasure to be around.
"My farm borders national forest, so I tell friends that I have 3.3 million acres of trails for a backyard," Schneider adds, smiling. In 2007, she penned Arizona's Spanish Barbs, the Story of the Wilbur-Cruce Horses (Outskirts Press, 888/672-6657; www.outskirtspress.com).
In Texas, Vicki Ives' Karma Farms is home to the Colonial Spanish Horse stallion, Rowdy Yates, a North American Trail Ride Conference national champion and Breyer horse model. She also judiciously breeds high-quality Colonial Spanish Horses, and offers trail rides to enthusiasts who want to get up close and personal with America's first horses.
"Recently, I supplied a dozen Colonial Spanish Horses to riders on Michael Martin Murphy's annual Piney Woods Cowboy Gathering and Trail Ride," she says. "This breed makes ideal trail partners!"
Ives is also vice president of the Horse of the America's registry, founded by the late Robert Brislawn. Today, it thrives as an umbrella organization, open to all strains of the remarkable Colonial Spanish Horse.
Paso Fino Horse
Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the New World put ashore on what today is the Dominican Republic. The Spanish mares and stallions that accompanied him formed the nucleus of the breeding program for explorers that ventured into the unknown territories that became Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, and Mexico.
Generations of smooth-gaited horses developed in relative isolation and became known as Los Caballos de Paso Fino - "the horses with the fine step." Centuries passed, and the Paso Fino remained a special Latin secret.
But World War II would change that, when American GIs stationed in Puerto Rico took note of the local equines. Following the war, enthusiasts in the United States gratefully imported Paso Fino Horses from Puerto Rico.
A second wave of importations began in the 1960s, when Paso Finos from Colombia arrived on our shores. Today, a combination of bloodlines from these two countries is found in most American representatives of the breed. The Paso Fino Horse Association has 45,000 registered horses, 8,500 members, and popular programs with prizes and national recognition for recreational and trail riding.
Bernice Kingsbury of Clinton, Missouri, had trained a variety of breeds, including many gaited horses. But her focus changed when a client brought a Paso Fino to her to start under saddle.
"By the time he came to pick his horse up, I was hooked!" she says. "I immediately traded two horses for a Paso Fino mare in foal." One thing led to another. Today, Kingsbury and her husband, Dwaine, proudly own 19 Paso Finos at their Scenic View Paso Finos.
"They are the ultimate smooth and comfortable ride," Kingsbury says. "A dear friend, Jill Harden, had been paralyzed in a car accident and for 12 years tried unsuccessfully to get back into the saddle. But with the help of a sweet Paso Fino Horse named Presidio and a specially designed saddle, she's riding down the trail again.
"We breed, raise, and sell Paso Finos for the trail-not show-and they have never let us down."
Carol Garcia and her husband, Julio, own Hacienda Nueva Vida Paso Fino Farm near Nashville, Tennessee. She's owned Paso Finos for nearly 20 years, and he, a native of Puerto Rico, was in the saddle by age 3. Carol runs a busy equine brokerage, specializing in Paso Finos, and counts country-music singer Shania Twain as a client.
"Shania is an accomplished horsewoman, and was looking for horses that her entire family could enjoy both at home and on the trail," Carol says. "She fell in love with the breed's gait, soft eye, and kind temperament, and took four Pasos home."
Today Carol, an avid trail rider, may be found working on her latest project: her Paso Fino National Trail Ride Directory, a website devoted completely to Paso owners who want to share stories and photos of their trail-riding adventures.
Carol also offers advice for potential buyers, valuable when shopping for any horse with Spanish ancestry:
• Contact the breed association to see whether there are members in your area; find a mentor.
• Ride as many Paso Finos as possible. Learn as much as possible about their gaits.
• Look for a soft eye and a horse that's interested in people.
• Study bloodlines. Some are "hotter" than others, and more appropriate to the show ring than the trail. Find a horse whose "family" excels on the trail.
• Look for evidence of good care (and, conversely, neglect), and ask to review the horse's health records.
• Examine the feet. Most Spanish Horses inherit tough, well-formed feet.
• Check your prospect's back for signs of soreness from a poorly fitting saddle.
• When you've found your perfect horse, take lessons from a trainer thoroughly familiar with the breed. Then, enjoy!
Some Spanish Horses that voyaged to the New World eventually found a new home on the vast haciendas of Peru. There, owners selectively bred for the smooth, rocking gait, stamina, and mellow temperaments that are hallmarks of the modern Peruvian Horse.
For centuries, protective breeders maintained a closed population within Peru, guarding the breed from dilution by discouraging outcrossing with other equine breeds. Only within the past 40 years have Peruvian Horses been imported to the United States in significant numbers. There are nearly 17,000 purebreds registered with the North American Peruvian Horse Association, and approximately 1,100 registered with their Part Blood Registry.
Owners particularly value the breed's brio, often described as its special spirit. But "brio" is also used to embody the Peruvian's combination of elegance, confidence, and kind, willing heart - all of which endear the striking horses to their owners.
Importantly, Peruvian Horse owners and breeders insist that the breed's natural gait remain just that, and no training methods may be used to modify it. Even in the show arena, all horses are presented without shoes, with hooves no longer than four inches.
It's no wonder why enthusiasts strive to protect the breed: The Peruvian's natural gaits are a marvel. From the walk, the Peruvian moves into the paso llano, a lateral, four-beat gait, resulting in a side-to-side rocking motion. This signature gait is extraordinarily smooth, even, and executed with termino, a rolling movement that begins at the shoulders and ends as the front legs move to the outside during extension.
The Peruvian also performs the sobreandando, a four-beat gait, but faster than the paso llano, and unevenly spaced. Peruvians also execute a normal pace and canter, for a five-gait repertoire.
Third-generation horseman Lynn Omohundro rides his Peruvian Horses daily on his family's 460-acre ranch, Rafter Z Peruvians, near Summerville, Oregon. He was first introduced to the breed through a friend of his parents, whose health challenges had prompted him to choose the smooth-riding Peruvian.
"I've raised and trained all breeds of horses, but one ride on a Peruvian, and I was hooked," Omohundro says. Today, he owns a dozen Peruvian Horses, and trains others, using the techniques of Pat Parelli, Tom Dorrance, and Pedro Cantaro, a Peruvian specialist.
Omohundro doesn't have to trailer to trails - he just rides out into the Blue Mountains and surrounding wilderness areas. "We have creeks for water training, hills, and meadows," he says. "And trails that weave through stands of tamaracks, and white and red fir."
Omohundro's enthusiasm for trail riding translated into success in the show ring: Last year, he rode his eye-catching palomino Peruvian mare, CBP Katia, to the North American Peruvian Horse Association's 2007 High Point Trail Horse award.
A few hundred miles to the north, in central Washington State, Pam Brandon has been raising and riding Peruvian Horses for the past 27 years. Their mellow, sweet-natured temperament initially won her over, and their naturally smooth gaits continue to amaze her.
"Unlike some other gaited breeds, you don't need to push them into the bit to get them to gait," she says. "Peruvians don't have to work at it - it's easy for them."
Brandon, who lives on 40 view acres atop historic Nahahum Canyon, rides out her back door and into the Wenatchee National Forest. There she and her neighbor, fellow Peruvian owner Nancy Van Bergen, have spent years grooming meandering trails through aspen and Ponderosa Pine.
In spring, when the snow melts, dainty avalanche lilies, golden balsam root, and blue lupine are revealed. It's always a treat to spy white-tailed deer, bear, or wild turkeys on a ride, though Brandon would be happy if she never again saw the cougar that stored a kill under her hay tarp last winter.
"That aside," she says with a chuckle, "it's a horseman's paradise."