Breed evolution: 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 mounts' 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.
Owners tell us: Screenwriter and filmmaker John Fusco champions the Choctaw Indian strain of Colonial Spanish Horse. 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;
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).
On the trail: In Texas, Vickie 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 Americas' registry, founded by the late Robert Brislawn. Today, it thrives as an umbrella organization, open to all strains of the remarkable Colonial Spanish Horse, including the Original Indian Horse, Spanish Mustang, and Spanish Barbs. Wild mustangs may also be inspected for registry, including the American Sulphur Horse, the Pryor Mountain Mustangs, the Cerbat, and the Kiger.
Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!