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.