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Spanish Mustangs & Barbs
Part of Our Living History
Horses of exceptionally strong Spanish heritage have become a great
part of the historyand traditions of our own country, the Spanish Mustang and Spanish Barb.

Part I, History and Type
By D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, Ph.D.

Colonial Spanish Horses are of great historic importance in the New World. They descend from horses introduced from Spain during the age of the conquest of the New World. They are a direct remnant of the horses of the Golden Age of Spain and that type is mostly or wholly extinct now in Spain. Our Colonial Spanish horses are therefore a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long gone.

Conformation and Type in North America
The Colonial Spanish Horse is generally a small horse, although size is increasing with improved nutrition and some selection among breeders. The usual height is around 14 hands, and most vary from 13 to 14.2 hands. Some exceptional horses are up to 15 hands high or slightly more. Weight varies with height, but most are around 700 to 800 pounds. Distinctive conformational features include heads which generally have straight to concave (rarely slightly convex) foreheads and a nose which is convex. This is the classic Spanish type head, in contrast to the straighter nasal profile of most other breed types. The heads vary somewhat between long, finely made heads to shorter, deeper heads. Both are typical of Spanish horses. From a front view the cranial portions of the head are wide, but the facial portions are narrow and fine. The muzzle is usually very fine, and from the side the upper lip is usually longer than the lower, although the teeth meet evenly. Nostrils are usually small and crescent shaped when the horses are resting and at ease, but do flare with alertness or exertion.

The horses typically have narrow but deep chests, with the front legs leaving the body fairly close together. It is difficult to describe this aspect of conformation without making it sound defective, when in actuality it is a strong, serviceable conformation. When viewed from the front, the front legs join the chest in an "A" shape rather than straight across as in most other modern breeds that have wider chests. The chest is deep from the side view, and usually accounts for about half of the height of the horse from the ground to the withers. The shoulder is long and well angulated. The withers are usually sharp instead of low and meaty.

The croup is sloped, and the tail is characteristically set low on the body. The rear quarters vary from fairly massive and heavily muscled to a more slenderly built and less excessively muscled conformation. From the side there is usually a break in the curve of the hind quarter somewhere in the area of the base of the tail, rather than the full even curve of the Quarter Horse from top of croup to gaskin. From the rear they are usually "rafter hipped" meaning that there is no distinct crease at the backbone, but rather the muscling of the hip tapers up so the backbone is the highest point.

The muscling is characteristically long and tapering, even in the heavily muscled individuals, rather than the short and bunchy muscling characteristic of bulldog Quarter Horses and draft breeds. Leg conformation is generally sound, with ample angles in the joints and strong, harmonious relationships between the lengths of the varying parts of the limbs. Hooves are small and upright rather than flat. The chestnuts (especially rear ones) and ergots are small or missing altogether.

These horses usually have a very long stride, and many of them have gaits other than the usual trot of most breeds. These other gaits can include a running walk, single foot, amble, pace, and the paso gaits of other more southerly Spanish strains (Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino). These gaits refer to the pattern of the footfall, and not to any sideward tendency of the path of the foot. It is important to not confuse the pattern of footfalls with this lateral motion. While both are typical of the Paso breeds, only the pattern of footfalls is the actual gait.

One myth frequently told is that these horses have only five lumbar vertebrae. They are more likely to have five than are most other breeds, but many pure Colonial Spanish horses also have six lumbar vertebrae, as has been demonstrated by work done in Argentina on Criollos, Thoroughbreds, Barbs, and Arabians. They do usually have short, strong backs regardless of the number of vertebrae.

The Variety of Colors
Colors of the Colonial Spanish Horse vary widely, and it is through the Spanish influence that many other North American horse breeds gain some of their distinctive colors. Colonial Spanish Horses come in a full range of solid colors including black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, grullo, zebra and red dun, buckskin, palomino, and cream. Other solid colors such as the lilac dun colors, and even silver dapple, occur rarely. In many horses these base colors are combined with white hairs or patches to result in gray, roan, paint (tobiano, overo, and calico types), pure white, and the leopard complex of blankets, roans, and dark spots usually associated with the Appaloosa breed. The frame overo pattern is especially interesting, since it is almost limited to North American Colonial Spanish horses or their descendants. From that origin the color pattern has spread to other regions and breeds, but all evidence points to it being a Spanish pattern originally. Different breeders select for various of these colors and patterns, but all can be shown to have been present in the Spanish horses at the time of the conquest.

Preservation through Narrow Selection
Various registries have had an important role in conserving the Colonial Spanish horses. They have also focused their breeding on a specific type of horses, which is the type described above. This type varies somewhat from the rangier, more lightly built individuals to others that are more compactly and more heavily made, but the range is fairly narrow between these two types. The original Spanish type was more variable, including some horses with higher set tails, broader chests, and rounder conformation generally. The Lipizzaner horses from Europe are illustrative of this point concerning the variability of Spanish horse type. Lipizzaners are a numerically small breed of mostly Spanish descent which springs from a base established fairly close in time to the Spanish Colonial Horses, but from more highly selected horses. Within the Lipizzaner are some horses that would be acceptable as the Spanish Colonial type, but many that would not be. Lipizzaners have a history of largely or solely Spanish breeding for centuries, but are in fact very variable in type and conformation. This can only be appreciated by visiting the European herds, since the photographs in breed books and the horses exported to the USA all tend to be a narrower range of types that is more desirable to North American breeders than are some of the other types.

This variability in the other breeds of Spanish descent calls into question what is truly Spanish type in horses. Certainly there is some wisdom in the registries limiting the range of allowable types in order to produce consistent, predictable horses. It is equally important to recognize that some horses that are considered outside the type desired by the registries are still entirely of pure Spanish breeding. It is worthwhile to recognize that horses of newly found purely bred Spanish Colonial horse herds may be more variable than the present horses in the registries. The registries then usually accept only some and not all of the horses from these herds, although the horses may indeed all be of purely Spanish breeding.

The reasons for the registries not accepting some of what might in fact be Spanish types are based in the history of the conservation of Colonial Spanish Horses in North America. These horses were originally saved as a small minority of horses in the midst of a large population of horses based on Spanish breeding but then deliberately crossed with draft, Thoroughbred, Morgan, and other types derived from northern European breeding. The range of Spanish types that are likely to be refused registration cannot really be told externally from other types, such as horses with Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred ancestry. Even though some horses with such an appearance may be purely Spanish, they do pose a much greater risk of introducing outside genetic influence than do those horses of the more uniquely Spanish types that cannot be confused with these other breed influences. By concentrating on the most unique of the Spanish types, the registries have also assured that this rare genetic resource has been conserved with minimal contamination, and are to be commended on their foresight for doing so.

A History of Decline
Colonial Spanish Horses are rarely referred to by this name. The usual term that is used is Spanish Mustang. The term Mustang generally carries with it the connotation of feral horse, and this is somewhat unfortunate since many of these horses have never had a feral background. The important part of the background of these horses is that they are Spanish. These are descendants of the horses that were brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, and include some feral, some rancher, some mission, and some native American strains.

The Spanish Colonial Horse is the remnant of the once vast population of horses in the USA. The ancestors of these horses were instrumental in the Conquistadors ability to conquer the native civilizations. The source of the original horses was Spain, and this was at a time when the Spanish horse was being widely used for improvement of horse breeding throughout Europe. The Spanish horse of the time of the conquest had a major impact on most European light horse types (this was before breeds were developed, so type is a more accurate word). The Spanish horse itself then became rare, and was supplanted as the commonly used improver of indigenous types by the Thoroughbred and Arabian. These three (Spanish, Thoroughbred, and Arabian) are responsible for the general worldwide erosion of genetic variability in horse breeds. The Spanish type subsequently became rare and is now itself in need of conservation. The horse currently in Spain is distinct, through centuries of divergent selection, from the Colonial Spanish Horse. The result is that the New World remnants are very important to overall conservation since the New World varieties are closer in type to the historic horse of the Golden Age of Spain than are the current horses in Iberia.

The original horses brought to America from Spain were relatively unselected. These first came to the Caribbean islands, where populations were increased before export to the mainland. In the case of North America the most common source of horses was Mexico as even the populations in the southeastern USA were imported from Mexico rather than the Caribbean. The North American horses ultimately came from this somewhat non-selected base. South American horses, in contrast, tended to originally derive about half from the Caribbean horses and half from direct imports of highly selected horses from Spain. These later imports changed the average type of the horses in South America. This difference in founder strains is one reason for the current differences in the North American and South American horses today. Other differences were fostered by different selection goals in South America. Both factors resulted in related but different types of horses.

At one time (about 1700 AD) the purely Spanish horse occurred in an arch that stretched from the Carolinas to Florida, west through Tennessee, and then throughout all of the western mountains and great plains. In the northeast and central east the colonists were from northwestern Europe, and their type of European horses were more common than the Colonial Spanish type. Even in these non Spanish areas the Colonial Spanish Horse was highly valued and did contribute to the overall mix of American horses. Due to their wide geographic distribution as pure populations as well as their contribution to other crossbred types, the Colonial Spanish Horses were the most common of all horses throughout North America at that time, and were widely used for riding as well as draft. In addition to being the common mount of the native tribes (some of whom measured wealth by the number of horses owned) and the white colonists, immense herds of feral animals that descended from escaped or strayed animals existed.

The Colonial Spanish horse became to be generally considered as too small for cavalry use by the whites, and was slowly supplanted by taller and heavier types from the northeast as an integral part of white expansion in North America. In the final stages this process was fairly rapid, and was made even more so by the extermination of the horse herds of the native Americans during the final stages of their subjection in the late 1800's. The close association of the Spanish Horse with both native American and Mexican cultures and peoples also caused the popularity of these horses to diminish in contrast to the more highly favored larger horses of the dominant Anglo derived culture, whose horses tended to have breeding predominantly of Northern European types. The decline of the Colonial Spanish horse resulted in only a handful of animals left of the once vast herds.

This handful has founded the present breed, and therefore are the horse of interest when considering the history of the present day North American Colonial Spanish Horse.

Read Part II of "The North American Colonial Horse"

The Author
D. Phillip Sponenberg, Ph. D. teaches at Virginia Tech Veterinary College and is the author of "Equine Color Genetics", the 170 page authoritative volume on equine color genetics.