The Spanish Mustang

Horses That Made History 

By Tania Millen

These days, importing European horses generally means flying expensive horses with high-performance Warmblood pedigrees over to North America. But importing horses to North America isn’t anything new. Horses were brought over from Europe when Spanish explorers and conquistadors sailed the ocean blue in the 15th century. At that time, the three main types of Spanish horses – Andalusian, Jennet, and Barb – were highly regarded and sought-after by breeders throughout Europe. So, when European explorers set off to expand their patrons’ landholdings and settle new country, their expeditions included Spanish horses. In 1493, on Christopher Columbus’ second trip to the New World, all three types of Spanish horses were crammed into the holds of his ships. The four-legged survivors of that and other voyages to North America dramatically altered the history of the world. 

Clockwise from top left: Spanish horses were revered by First Nations people and eventually figured prominently in all aspects of prairie culture (Photo: National Museum of the American Indian); Blood First Nation horseman in 1882 (Photo: Daniel Cadzow); the Spanish horse was a game changer to First Nations (Photo: O’Neill Photo Co.); First Nations’ saddle circa 1875 made of brass tacks, wood, rawhide, and sinew (Photo: Katherine Fogden).

Imported Spanish horses were both vital to Europeans focussed on conquering North America, and instigated horse-based First Nations’ cultures across the continent that still exist today. Registered Spanish Mustangs - also known as Colonial Spanish Mustangs – present in North America today are descendants of those original imports. Plus, some of the wild horses in the USA – known as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Mustangs – still contain Spanish blood.

Dr. Phillip Sponenberg is a professor at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and has been studying Spanish Mustangs for over 30 years. He writes that “Colonial Spanish Horses are of great historic importance in the New World, and are one of only a very few genetically unique horse breeds worldwide. 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. Colonial Spanish horses are therefore a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long gone.” He continues, “The Colonial Spanish type is very rare among modern feral Mustangs, and the modern BLM Mustangs should not be confused with Colonial Spanish horses, as the two are very distinct.”

A First Nation pictograph at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona depicting a horseback Spanish expedition. Photo: Shutterstock/Martha Marks

How did the Spanish horses of yesteryear survive until today? Well, a lot has happened in the more than 600 years since the first Spanish horses stepped onto North American soil, so let’s start at the beginning. Fossil records indicate that horses and their Equus genus counterparts evolved in North America approximately four million years ago. These prehistoric horses are understood to have travelled back and forth to Europe and Asia via the Bering land bridge. However, approximately 11,000 to 13,000 years ago, horses died out in North America, while those in Europe, Asia, and Africa continued to thrive. Between the 7th and 15th centuries AD, 800 years of intermittent warfare in southern Europe produced three types of highly regarded Spanish cavalry horses. It was these highly sought-after, powerful, and athletic animals that were shipped to the new world in the 15th century, returning the Equus genus to land that hadn’t seen horses’ hooves for approximately 11,000 years. 

Meanwhile, research indicates that about the time horses became extinct in North America – 11,000 to 13,000 years ago – First Nations people arrived. Which means that when horses were reintroduced to North America by European explorers, the First Nations population of North America didn’t know what they were. Historical accounts also suggest that since the Europeans were well aware of the value of horses in warfare and conquering new lands, they successfully kept most horses out of the hands of the First Nations people until the Pueblo uprising of 1680. Thus, it was approximately 200 years after horse hooves hit North American soil before horses substantially infiltrated the lives of the First Nations people.

A strong connection between horse and rider is a highly regarded trait of Spanish Mustangs. The author and Margo Russell riding their Spanish Mustangs at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta. Photo courtesy of Tania Millen

Chocolate, the author’s former registered Spanish Mustang trail horse, rode over 500 km along the Trans-Canada-Trail in 2017. Photo: Tania Millen

Initially, Spanish horses arrived in North America via the Caribbean Islands, but they soon spread to what is now Mexico, and subsequently supported the proliferation of soldiers, missionaries, and settlers throughout what is now the southwest USA. During the uprising, about 1,000 horses escaped or fell into First Nations’ hands. Thereafter the “spirit dogs,” as First Nations initially called horses, became treasured assets of First Nations people, initiating the development of new horse cultures and the return of hoof prints across North America. 

Acquisition of the horse by First Nations was a massive game changer. Prior to the 1680 uprising, First Nations depended on human and dog power to travel and hunt, which included pursuing vast herds of the over 30 million bison that grazed the plains. But for the next 200 years, Spanish horses and their descendants handily chased bison over the plains, were at the forefront of battles across the continent, and were the mainstay of First Nation horse cultures that still exist today. During this time, the Spanish horse was the most common breed on the continent and highly valued by all. Ranchers, missionaries, and First Nations’ bands all bred their own lines of Spanish horses, while vast feral herds populated the wilderness. It was during this time that the legend – and likely the hoax – of Frank Hopkins and Spanish Mustang, Hidalgo, purportedly lived.

Spanish Mustangs are ideal partners for mountain trail rides. Photo: Tania Millen

However, settler Europeans eventually decided that Spanish horses – also known as Indian horses - were too small for cavalry use. Hence in the 1800s, heavier and taller horses were imported to what is now the northeast USA. The presence of these new imports, their interbreeding with Spanish horses, plus the extermination of Spanish herds as part of colonial subjugation of First Nations’ people, decimated the Spanish breed. Sponenberg notes, “The close association of the Spanish horse with both Native American and Mexican cultures also caused the popularity of these horses to diminish, in contrast to the more highly favoured larger horses of the dominant Anglo-derived culture…”

By the early 1880s, not long after Canadian Confederation in 1867 and about the time the last bison herds were exterminated, the population of Spanish horses in North America had dramatically declined. The surviving horses became the ancestors of today’s Spanish Mustang breed.

Margo Russell trail riding on her trusted Spanish Mustang mare in the Rocky Mountains. Photo: Tania Millen

The author trail riding on her registered Spanish Mustang, Chocolate, whose pedigree includes the foundation stallions Choctaw and Yellow Fox. Photo: Margo Russell

Fortunately, pockets of Spanish bloodlines endured across North America. Feral herds, which contained relatively pure Spanish horses, were found in the Sulphur area of southwest Utah, Cerbat Mountains of Arizona, Kiger region in Oregon, Pryor Mountains of Wyoming and Montana, and Santa Cruz Island in California. Robert Brislawn, one of several enthusiasts who created the Spanish Mustang Registry (SMR) in 1957, sourced feral horses from the Bookcliff area of Utah to create his herd.

Although most ranchers were more interested in developing chunky horses – ultimately creating the American Quarter Horse – a few ranch breeders contributed to the conservation of the Spanish horse, and notable Spanish Mustang foundation bloodlines originate from ranches in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. 

The Spanish Mustang stallion, RP Coutts Midnight Cowboy, stands at Rocky Pine Ranching and is one of very few registered Spanish Mustang stallions standing in Canada. Photo: Rocky Pine Ranching

First Nations bands also contributed to the Spanish Mustang of today, creating the distinct Choctaw and Cherokee bloodlines, among others. The Choctaw strain has made a substantial impact and many Spanish Mustangs today have Choctaw breeding, including the author’s former trail horse. Individual First Nation families were also important in maintaining Spanish horse lines, preserving distinct colour patterns or selecting for gaited horses.

With limited numbers of Spanish horses remaining alive and herds so scattered, early conservation efforts focussed on observing and selecting typical Spanish Mustang conformational traits and types for breed registries, identifying owners who had maintained breeding records, and seeking out isolated feral herds. Once DNA testing became an option, an Iberian variant blood type was identified; however, blood testing and typing does not provide an answer in itself to the question of whether an individual horse has primarily Spanish origins. Dr. Sponenberg writes, “Blood typing 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.”

Partly due to these challenges, plus differences in conformation, movement, and temperament of the types of Spanish horses imported over 500 years ago, several breed registries have developed to conserve the Spanish Mustang.

“Turtle” is 100 percent Choctaw Indian pony, one of the rarest strains of Colonial Spanish horses. Less than 250 Choctaw ponies exist today. His sire is Iktinike, a foundation Choctaw stallion owned by Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM. His Choctaw name, Luksi, means “turtle.” The turtle represents opportunity, patience, and the belief that in time, all good things will come. Photo: Morgan Quimby

The SMR is the first, oldest, and probably most recognized Spanish Mustang breed registry with over 4,000 horses registered. It describes the Spanish Mustang as “….a smooth-muscled horse with a short back, rounded rump, and low set tail. Coupling is smooth and the overall appearance is of a balanced, well-built horse. The girth is deep, with a laid-back shoulder and fairly pronounced withers. The build of the Spanish Mustang ranges from a heavier type to a lighter type without extremes. Height is approximately 13.2 to 15 hands high.”

Additional registries, which conserve the purely Spanish Colonial type and allow both rangier and heavier types of horses, include the Spanish Barb Horse Association, Southwest Spanish Mustang Association, and Horse of the Americas registry. Other North American registries aim to preserve specific strains or herds of Spanish-type horses including Barb horses, American Indian horses, Nokota horses, and Pryor, Kiger, Sulphur or Sorraia Mustangs. Plus, other types of North American horses contain Spanish blood, too, including the Banker pony from the outer banks of Virginia and the Carolinas, Marsh Tackies from the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia, and Cracker horses in Florida. However, these appear to have separate strains of Spanish blood.

Spanish Mustang youngsters. Spanish Mustangs are typically attractive, colourful, and have an intelligent eye. Photo courtesy of the Centre for America’s First Hore.

The plethora of registries can be confusing and many horses are listed in multiple registries. But regardless of their registration, Spanish Mustangs are best known among breed aficionados, riders, and owners for their temperament and personality. Sponenberg writes, “The Colonial Spanish Horses have an elegant beauty as well as a temperament that allows them to be good, close partners with people. They are alert to their environment and have great endurance.” 

Margo Russell of Fort McLeod, Alberta has owned registered Arabians, Quarter Horses, and Spanish Mustangs, but feels the Spanish Mustangs are unique. She says, “This is a breed that I absolutely love and there are so few of them around. Their whole history appeals to me. It’s almost like having a connection to the past.” But Russell is most impressed by their temperament, saying, “Spanish Mustangs are attuned to people. They want to connect with people; they want to be partners. They seem to have this inner knowing – that’s the best way I can explain it. Once you have one, you don’t want another breed.” She also appreciates that this rare breed can be found in Canada.

Rocky Pine Ranching in Alberta is one of only a few Canadian breeders that produces registered Spanish Mustangs. Bev Van Metre founded the ranch with her husband, Rod, and it was Chickasaw Surprise, a Spanish Mustang mare they acquired in 1982, which got them into the breed. Van Metre agrees their temperament is unique, saying, “They’re a little different-minded. Once they trust you, they trust you. It takes a little longer than some breeds.”

The Spanish Mustang excels at many disciplines including dressage, jumping, and endurance. Photo: Centre for America’s First Horse

Van Metre’s stallion, RP Coutts Midnight Cowboy (Cowboy), has well-known foundational stallions Choctaw, Cochise, and Yellow Fox in his pedigree. Yellow Fox and his get are known for their success in endurance events, and one of Cowboy’s grandsons lived up to this lineage by travelling over 500 km along the Trans Canada Trail in 2017. Van Metre says, “They’re a hardy horse. A local guy endurance-rode a 14.2 hand Mustang in a stock saddle in the ‘80s and he won quite a few races. So I thought, well, if a little horse like that could do it, then it’s a breed worth pursuing.”

Many would agree. Today’s Spanish Mustangs are revered by North American riders and breeders for their temperament and hardiness, just as the highly-regarded Spanish horses imported by ship over 500 years ago were highly-sought by European breeders. 

Photo: Mark St Amand

But those imported horses weren’t just desired by breeders – they changed world history. Spanish horses returned the Equus genus to North America after a hiatus of over 10,000 years. In doing so, they sparked First Nations horse culture, supported European settlement, were at the forefront of Western cowboy lore, and helped develop North America into what it is today.

Pretty impressive for a hardy little imported cavalry horse.

For more information on the Spanish Mustang, visit the Spanish Mustang Registry, Inc. at  www.SpanishMustang.org.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article photo: Center for America’s First Horse

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