North from Mexico and East from California

By Dean Jacobson

The year 1492 was an eventful year in Spanish history. The Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabel had finally succeeded in defeating the last Islamic city in Spain and ordered that all Jews and Moors who did not convert to Catholicism were to leave the country. Ironically, that same year the son of Spanish Conversos living in Genoa, Italy had discovered lands heretofore unknown.

For his second trip to the Americas, Christopher Columbus requested a shipload of the famed Spanish Jennets. Instead he was given a load of what he called “common nags”. Under the Spanish caste system only Hidalgos (Caballeros and Damas) were allowed to ride Jennets. The Hidalgos rode stallions and the noble women rode mares or a gaited pony called an Hacanea. Columbus may have been denied the Jennets because neither he nor his crew were Hidalgos.

Most Spanish horses at that time were the result of more than three thousand years of crossbreeding. To the indigenous Sorria and Tarpan was added the Celtic, the Phoenician, the Greek, the Roman, the Gothic, the Berber and finally the Caliph’s Arabians horses. Colonists, traders and invading armies had brought horses to Iberia since before recorded history.

Spain became a horse breeder’s paradise. The Spanish Jennet became the ancestor to the Andalusian, Alter Real, and numerous European breeds. Of special interest are the descendants of the dun and striped horses of western Spain. Those from the north were historically known as Garranos. From them came a draft pony called an Haca, or Asturiano, the gaited Hacanea and a small cow-horse called a Galiceno. From the striped horses of the south, originally called Sorraias, came the bullfighting Lusitano. Every region produced horses that met the particular needs of that region from the types of horses available.

Cattle became the catalyst that metamorphosed the Iberian horses into American horses. As a reward for their services to the kings of Spain and Portugal, Soldiers of fortune were given or claimed huge tracts of land and became cattlemen. The caste system also in effect in the Americas relegated peasants and all other herders, especially Indians, to the use of ponies, mules and burros.

Necessity is the mother of invention and the cattlemen of the Americas needed bigger and faster cow-horses and they needed Mestizo and Indian herders to ride them. The herders were called vaqueros, vaqueros and gauchos and the horses were named after the haciendas, estancias or regions where they were developed. Sometimes they were merely called by their color: Alazanes, Bayos, Pintos, Palominos, Grullos, etc. Dun and striped horses were called: Bayos Coyotes, Bayos Lobos, Gateados, Zebrunos, Bayos Tigres, etc.

Horses and long-horned cattle were taken north into Texas and the southwest. Horses and cattle were taken to St. Louis and other frontier towns to sell to the swelling tide of English and French speaking colonists.

Indian herders soon realized the value of being mounted and stole horses before returning to their tribes. Tribes of Indians began raiding the haciendas and estancias and selling and trading horses to other tribes as far north as Canada. By this same means were they spread across South America.

Catholic priests in both hemispheres were sent beyond the frontiers of civilization to establish missions and proselyte the heathens. They were sent with livestock, fruit trees, grapes, grains and alfalfa since agriculture is necessary to sustain civilization. Soon there was series of missions one day’s ride apart from Mexico City to Santa Fe and from Mexico city to northern California along El Camino Real. In 1829-1830 a trail was established between Santa Fe and southern California.

The next spring David E. Jackson and associates went to California and brought the first of many bands of horses and mules to traverse what came to be known as The Old Spanish Trail. For the next eighteen plus years thousands of horses and mules were purchased or stolen in California annually and driven along the Old Spanish Trail to markets at the various outposts along the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Oregon Trail

After the missions were secularized in 1833, American thieves or “Chaguanos “as they were called, began stealing Californian horses. Of special interest is a trapper/mountain-man/horse thief named Thomas (Peg-leg) Smith and his brother-in-law, Ute chief Wakara, who stole over 5000 horses and drove them up the Old Spanish Trail to be sold at Fort Bridger, Fort Bent and Saint Louis. In 1842 Peg-leg took his six Ute wives and a band of some five hundred horses to an Island in the Bear River near present day Montpelier, Idaho where he set up a trading post to sell horses to the emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail. Initially he traded horses at Fort Bridger and Fort Hall for the supplies he needed. He took at least two bands of horses up the Oregon Trail and peddled them at every settlement along the way to the Willamette Valley.

News of the discovery of gold prompted Peg-leg to organize another Horse stealing raid. He, some “renegade” white men and some “renegade” Indians stole a large herd of horses of which Peg-leg reportedly took some 2500 head to Fort Smith, sent freight wagons to Saint Louis and Salt Lake, and amassed a small fortune selling Spanish horses and supplies to the Gold-seekers headed for California.

Not all Spanish horses brought north from Mexico by explorers, priests, vaqueros and horse thieves reached their proposed destinations. Some were lost, stolen, abandoned and many died. Those that survived became feral horses or mestenos. Soon herds of Spanish mustangs roamed from Mexico to Canada and became a resource from which Native Americans and American settlers could draw to meet their needs. When the need was for bigger and faster cowponies, Thoroughbred or other hot-blood stallions were released into the feral bands. When the need was for medium draft horses, draft horse stallions were released.

A few herds on reservations, ranches or in remote or inaccessible areas were spared this infusion of European genes and still show strong Spanish characteristics. One such herd is the Sulphur Springs herd in Southwestern Utah.

Though their exact origin is unknown, they most assuredly came north from Mexico and east from California. Their will to live and natural selection has kept them one of the most pure Spanish Colonial horses in North America.

Mustanger Kent Gregerson of Marysvale, Utah; Caught and sold many horses from the Needle Range area, but recognized that there was something unique about the horses from the northern and more rugged part of the Needle range called the Mountain home range. The forty-mile- long Needles range is covered with heavy stands of pinion and juniper making it very difficult to see much less capture the horses that live there. Gregerson built a water trap and succeeded in catching a few of the Mountain Home horses. Bob Brislawn, founder of the Spanish Mustang Registry, traded Kent three horses for a buckskin colored, line-backed stallion captured in the Mountain Home area.

Ranchers and other mustangers were more successful at capturing the mixed-blood feral horses of the more accessible areas and introduced draft and light horse stallions to those herds to produce bigger animals that were more marketable because they met the needs of that region. Eventually these herds were caught out or killed off for the meat market.

In 1977 the tenacious little mustangs came under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management’s Warm Springs and Beaver River Resource Areas. Recognizing the uniqueness of the Sulphur Springs herd and the possible demand for these horses, the BLM (the world’s largest horse ranch) is following the recommendations of Dr. Phil Sponenberg to maintain the population at a level that would preclude the introduction of outside horses and that the least typically Spanish horses should be removed.

Those concerned about inbreeding should look to history. History tells us that it only takes one pregnant mare to establish a genetically closed herd. From the Arab’s original five blue mares have come by inbreeding and strain breeding five distinct strains of Arabian horses: the Kuhaylan, the Ubayyah, the Saglaviyah, the Dahmah and the Shuwaymah. Zoologists and zookeepers in Poland re-constituted the extinct Tarpan by inbreeding Koniks, a very near descendant of the Tarpan and the Nez Perce Indians started their herds of spotted horses from a single pregnant white (few spot leopard) mare that they obtained from the Shoshones.

There are those who wish to preserve the near extinct Portuguese Sorraia. They are selecting Sorraia look-a-likes from the Sulphur Springs herd, the Kiger Mustang herds and individual animals that meet their requirements in an effort to re-constitute the primitive Sorraia and expand the gene pool by breeding to select animals from Portugal. This is a courageous and worthwhile effort that may take several generations since primitive Sorraia’s have been subject to the introduction of other types of horses for about 3000 years.

A wise man once said: “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have!” The largest horse ranch in the world and a few breeders have the most uniquely colored horses on the North American continent. The BLM is happy with what they have and they are not going to trap any more Sulphurs for three years and only then to cull out the least typical. They know that there is a growing demand for these horses and a limited supply. And they control the supply.

The colored horse market is predictable. Once the Palominos, the Appaloosas and the Paints became numerous and commonplace; their popularity waned and so did the price. The only ones in demand are winners and descendants of winners. The BLM can and will prolong the demand for Sulphurs by limiting the supply. Wise breeders would do well to prepare for the future by producing winners and descendants of winners.

P.S. I found some interesting information in Elwyn Hartley Edwards book Wild Horses “There is no evidence at all that the horses brought to America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century had even a remote connection with those of the Baskirian steppes.” I think that means that the Curly that Leo Campbell paid $1000 of the registry’s money for is either not a Baskir Curly or not a Spanish Colonial, but definitely a BLM cull.


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