Spanish Barbs: The Original Horse?


The Spanish Barb’s story begins on Africa’s northern coast sometime around 700 AD, with a fierce tribe of warrior horseman and their legendary mounts– agile, elegant, surefooted, and possessing a dominating stamina honed on the arid plains and scrub-brushed mountains of the Barbary Coast.

The African Barb, once the pride of the Zenata – a mounted warrior tribe of the Berbers–had a change of fate when the Zenata joined the Muslims to invade Iberia around 711 AD. The initial force of 7000 exceptional horseman, who called themselves the Moors, began the acquisition and subsequent seven-hundred-year occupation of Spain, changing the landscape, peoples, and significantly, the breeding of horses.

The Moors called their new territory Al-Andulus, an area that at the time included what now is Spain, but also Gibraltar, Portugal and part of France. In their new country the fleet-footed African Barbs were crossed with the local heavy Spanish war horses from the southern half of Spain, resulting in the development of a horse suited not just for cavalry, but all around riding and working cattle as well. By the Middle Ages, the new breed was widely renowned and coveted by the royal stud farms all across Europe.

In the late 1500s, having reclaimed their country from the Moors, the Spanish began their own invasive adventures, including voyages to the new world. Since the exploration and settlement of what would be the Americas would depend heavily on livestock brought from Spain, it was a royal edict that horses were to be included on the journeying ships. First landing in the Caribbean, then Mexico, Central and South America, the Conquistadors, as they were called, eventually made their way into the vast southwest of the future United States. The Spaniards would also make their way eastward in the 16th and 17th centuries, establishing settlements along the Gulf of Mexico, moving into north Florida, and along the southeastern Atlantic seaboard.

spanish barb

Many Native Americans, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creeks acquired Spanish horses. At that time, the Spanish horses were being raised on the land grants of the early missionaries and on ranches in the vast territories stretching from the Arkansas River to Mexico. Some mares were also sent east as broodmares for the imported English stallions of the eastern colonies.

Thus, the genetic contribution of Spanish Barb bloodlines to what would become the English Thoroughbred (or “thoroughly bred” as they were originally called.) Of note, the English who first traded for horses with the eastern Native Americas–or caught animals running wild in herds–believed the animals were native as well, not the descendent of escaped Spanish livestock. While the English used their horses under saddle and for plowing, they were also avid horse racers. British settlers eventually imported their beloved race horses from England, Oriental Barbs with some Irish blood.

The union of the Spanish/Indian horse to these English imports was essentially the melding of the Spanish Barb to the Oriental Barb. The off spring would become known as the Colonial Short Horse and, in later years, the American Quarter-of-a-Mile Running Horse. The bloodlines of the Spanish horses influenced not only the early thoroughbreds, but Morgans, Quarter Horses, and the Plantation Horse or Tennessee Walker as it is known as today. The coat color expressions of many Paint, Appaloosa, Buckskin/ Dun and Palomino horses can all be traced back to the horses bred by the early Spanish. Until the U.S. acquisition of the Spanish-held western territories, the Spanish Barb bloodlines were the most prevalent in early American horses.

spanish barb

Though the particular traits and pronounced abilities of the Spanish Barb have survived hundreds of years in North America, the ancient bloodlines almost disappeared in the 19th century. Along with the fact that the early frontiersmen pushing westward were oblivious of the breed’s colorful history, genetic significance and critical contribution to the foundation of many European and American breeds, the U.S. government showed little regard and often outright disdain for the “foreign” horses that belonged to the Indians and Spaniards. The animals were summarily confiscated and sold or slaughtered. Subsequent extensive cross-breeding of the surviving horses nearly ensured the destruction of the pure-blooded Spanish Barb. Luckily, a few western ranchers and horsemen realized the treasure they were losing and rose up on behalf of the legendary horse, dedicating themselves to its preservation. A strict breeding program was established along with a registry.

Five bloodlines were recognized in the first quarter century of the registry: The Belsky from South Dakota; the Romero; the Coche Two; the A-ka-wi; and the Sun. Four of these can be traced to Susan Field-Paulton, one woman and equine heroine who beginning in 1957, devoted herself to trying to save the breed. By 1965 she had two mares, Cochi Two and A-Ka-wi, as well as two stallions. One of her stallions was a Medicine hat Pinto named Sun, the other, Scarface, had been bred by the Romero family of Mexico. Unbeknownst to many, the Romeros had been quietly breeding their Spanish Barbs since the 1800s. In 1996, a sixth strain was recognized, The Wilbur-Cruce Mission Strain.

spanish barb

The Wilbur-Cruce Mission Strain has some interesting history all its own, dating back to the 1600s and a certain Father Eusebio Kino, who kept a breeding herd of Spanish horses at Mission Nuestra Senora de los Dolores in Sonora, Mexico. In the late 1870s, horse trader Juan Sepulveda, also from Sonora, collected a herd of several hundred of the mission horses, intending to take them to the Kansas City stockyards. On his trek to the Midwest he stopped at the cattle ranch of Dr. Ruben Wilbur, near Arivaca, Arizona. Sepulveda sold a manada, (a breeding group) of twenty-five mares and a stallion to the Harvard educated physician, who happened to be the first rancher to settle in that district of the Arizona territory. For 113 years the family worked the ranch and kept their stock in isolation, catching and training only those horses needed for ranch use. The rest were turned out and allowed to run in wild bands in the high desert mountains.

The Wilburs referred to their horses affectionately and proudly as “rock horses,” able to tolerate the dry climate and steep, rock strewn terrain. Dr. Wilbur’s granddaughter, Eva Antonia Wilbur- Cruce was able to preserve the isolated herd until 1989 when it was sold to the Nature Conservancy. In 1990, Dr. Philip Sponenberg, (Technical Director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and champion for the Colonial Spanish horse-including the Choctaw breed featured in our March/April issue) divided the herd of seventy-seven horses into breeding groups and distributed them among conservation breeders.

The herd had been blood-typed with modern DNA techniques, and determined to have no Thoroughbred or Arabian markers among the numerous Spanish Barb markers found, leading credibility to Eva Wilbur-Cruce’s belief that the horses had in fact come from the original Mission Dolores herd. Today the Wilbur-Cruce Barbs are bred and trained on thirteen ranches in Arizona, California, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico, including the Dragoon Mountain Ranch in Southeastern Arizona, from which COWGIRL co-owner Ken Amorosano’s beloved and spirited pure-blooded Spanish Barb, Chato was obtained.

spanish barb

The Spanish Barb is known by several names; Colonial Spanish Horse, “Spanish Barb” and “Spanish Mustang.” There is sometimes confusion with the word “mustang” which translates as feral in Spanish. Not all “mustangs” are Spanish mustangs. Fewer than two thousand pure Spanish Barb horses exist today. These beautiful and rare horses come in virtually every color. (Paints and pintos may exhibit the white “Medicine Hats.”) The lean and refi ned head is distinctively Spanish in type with a broad, flat forehead.

The ears curve inward and slightly back at the tips; the eyes, expressive and intelligent, are usually brown but occasionally blue, and set forward on the head. Prominent bone structure above the eye is characteristic. A shallow mouth and small muzzle are set off by crescent shaped nostrils. The legs are sturdy, the chest deep and the back short. The well-rounded croup and hindquarters afford the power and finesse to turn on a dime. 14 hands is the average height. Spanish Barbs often have a thick mane, forelock and tail. These small, sturdy, rugged horses are prized for their exceptional dispositions, exquisite beauty and athletic prowess, and are suited to every kind of equestrian event, from roping and mounted shooting to dressage.

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