Webmaster's note: I'm not certain of the original publication dates of these two articles, but from the content I would guess they were written around 1990, for the Spanish Mustang Registry's annual newsletter. They were first published online on the original Sulphur Horse Registry webpage in 1999. The first article was originally revised in 1992; revised again for publication in Conquistador Magazine in the mid 1990's; and further revised in 1999, and 2003. The 2003 update can be found at Dr. Phil Sponenberg Colonial Spanish Horse Reports.
Conservation of Spanish Mustangs/Colonial Spanish Horses in the USA, and the need for a complete inventory of remaining undocumented horses.
D. P. Sponenberg
The Spanish Mustang is a direct lineal descendant of the Spanish Colonial Horses that were brought to the New World during the Spanish conquests. These horses persist today in three major ways. One of these is in a relatively few and highly isolated feral herds. A second is in the herds of traditionally minded Native Americans. The third way is through the activities of well organized breeders and ranchers who have used this type of horse. The organizations that have sprung up from this conservation effort include the Spanish Mustang Registry, the Spanish Barb Breeders Association, the American Indian Horse Registry, the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association, the and Kiger Mesteno Association, the Pryor Mountain Horse Breeders, and the Florida Cracker horseAssociation. These seven organizations have largely relied upon the activities and interests of a variety of interested and motivated individuals. The history of their activities is largely to identify and accept as purely Spanish those horses that meet external, historical, and occasionally, bloodtype evaluation.
It is an opportune time to expand the activities of the existing organizations to include a more active search for and inventory of the remnants of Colonial Spanish horses in the USA. To date this has not happened, but instead the organizations have relied on interested others to bring horses or herds to their attention. The result has been that pure horses outside the organizational structures have not been documented nor recognized, and these are the horses that are in danger of slipping away unnoticed by the organized conservation efforts.
The main places that this search should occur are among the feral BLM herds of horses, and among the horses of the Native Americans. While it is certain that herds of purely Spanish horses of these sources will be rare, it is equally true that even the few that might still exist are of great conservation interest.
Current conservation efforts within the various organizations are functioning well and are focused. They have done a good job in securing most of the Spanish horse genetic resource that is present in the USA. This success means that the major interest in outside horses is mainly in herds of appropriate type and history. There is no longer any need to consider the rare individual horse that turns up, unless such an individual is extremely good and very extremely Spanish. Any other individual horses, especially if they are more average, are simply not important enough in terms of the enire population to warrant much activity. In contrast to these individual horses are entire herds or groups of horse of Spanish type. These larger groups are very significant to the conservation of the Colonial Spanish horse in the USA, especially since they represent entirely new founder strains that have previously been overlooked.
Entire herds that have to date been overlooked are going to be rare, and will only number in the low teens. This does not diminish their importance. Such herds are most likely to be under BLM or Native American management.
In order to accomplish an inventory for the BLM herds, it will be necessary to take the horse management areas one by one and decide for each if the horses are or are not of Spanish breeding. Most horses are clearly not of Spanish breeding, but some few that are Spanish have already been documented. These include the Pryor Mountain, Cerbat, and Kiger herds. This list is very preliminary, since ongoing investigations are still needed even for these herds.
The sequence of events for evaluating BLM herds includes an evaluation of external type, then evaluation of the history of the region as to the isolation of the horses from outside breeding, and then finally bloodtyping can be helpful in many instance to point to a Spanish origin of the herd. The external and historical evaluations are probably only to produce a handful (five would be optimistic) of new herds that are of genetic conservation interest.
The native American herds present a different challenge. The overall goal here is similar, though, in that the horses of interest are the ones from herds or breeding programs of consistently Spanish horses. The rarely encountered individual horse is not of the same importance. Traditional horses are likely to be raised by isolated full-blood Native Americans, or in remote corners of large reservations. The evaluation of these herds should be similar to those of the BLM management areas.
The Spanish type horse is the only unique type likely to be encountered in either the feral or Native American herds (barring the outside chance that indigenous North American horses did indeed survive to Columbus's day). These Spanish horses are rarely appreciated, but instead the usual wisdom is that they need to be bred to be taller, heavier, and smoother. This is usually called "breeding up" the mustangs, and dilutes the unique genetic resource that these horses represent. This dilution is due to the fact that the Spanish horses are among the most unique horses in North America, and to blend them with other types therefore means a reduction in the uniqueness of the genetic resource. The "breeding up" of these horses should therefore be discouraged, especially since the purely Spanish horses are now very rare and hold such a position of traditional importance. Spanish horses, when found, should be managed in their areas for continued purity.
Characteristics of Spanish Horses
Spanish horses have a distinct set of physical traits which help in their differentiation from other breed types. All horses colors occur in Spanish horses in the USA, although some breeders may favor one color over others. There is no color that disallows a horse from being Spanish. Colors include black, bay, chestnut, sorrel, grey, buckskin, palomino, dun, grullo, red dun, cream, and any spotting pattern such as tobiano, overo, sabino, appaloosa, and roan. In most herds with a Spanish origin the black and black based colors are usually common, as are linebacked duns and roans. Still, any color can and does occur in these Spanish horses, and no one color or group of colors proves a Spanish origin one way or the other.
The Spanish horse has some range in type from light to heavy, and also varies in size from about 13 to 15 hands high. The average height is probably in the neighborhood of 14 hands. The head of Spanish horses is distinctive, with a flat or convex facial profile and the nose itself being convex or Roman. This is a Roman nose, and is distinct from the huge Roman head of draft horses. This head shape is in contrast to that of most other horses such as Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Arabians which tend to have straighter profiles and squarer noses. The head on Spanish type horses is usually broad when viewed from the side. From a front view the head is broad, but the face is narrow and fine. Some Spanish horses have large eyes, others have fairly small eyes (pig eyes) which are also seen in Spain. Ears vary from large to small, some curve in delicately at the tips.
Spanish horses are generally deep bodied when viewed from the side, but tend to be narrow through the chest when seen from the front. Their legs in front are attached close to one another and the chest appears as a "v" rather than the flatter and broader conformation of the Quarter Horse. The back is usually well conformed and close coupled. The croup slopes rather than being flat, and some are goose rumped. The tail is set on low, rather than the high tail set of Arabians and related breeds. The legs are usually clean, although some few sport some feathering. Rear chestnuts are usually absent. Muscling, even in the heavier types, is long and tapering instead of short and "bunchy".
There is some belief that having only five lumbar vertebrae is a useful indicator of pure Spanish bloodlines. While some Spanish horses have five, many have six. In fact, Arabians are as likely to have five vertebrae as are Spanish horses. This characteristic is therefore of very little value in deciding if horses are Spanish or not.
The Importance of Type in Spanish Mustangs
D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD
"Type" is a difficult concept to define, but is an absolutely vital one when talking about breeds of livestock. One definition of type is the conformational peculiarities that separate one breed from another. It is safe to add that "type" almost represents the ideal mental picture of a breed. Type is therefore central to a breed's character and identity, and it is what sets the different breeds apart one from another. Quarter Horses have a "type"; Spanish Mustangs a different "type". Even closely related breeds, such as the Peruvian Paso and the Spanish Mustang, have subtle differences in type that help distinguish one from the other.
The Spanish Mustang comes to us today as an interesting amalgam of feral, rancher, Indian, Mission, and Mexican strains. One result of this broad base is that there are different types within the Spanish Mustang breed. These are described in breed literature as a heavy and a lighter type, with many intermediates. Within the extremes in the breed there are some consistent conformational traits that set Spanish Mustangs off from other horses, and these conformational traits are essential to the typiness of the Spanish Mustang. Horses that exhibit all of the conformational peculiarities of the breed are said to be "typier" than those that have fewer.
Breeders of any breed need to be aware of type and what it is. Within every breed some individuals are going to be born that are "off type". The fate of these individuals has an important impact on the fate of the breed. If these animals are heralded and used widely as breeding stock, the breed's type will slowly erode until the original breed is unrecognizable. If, on the other hand, "off type" individuals are culled from breeding, then the original type can be preserved.
Modern horse breeds in America can give good lessons in the importance of type, and the ability of breeders to change type. One example is the Morgan horse. The original Morgan was a dual purpose farm chunk, valued for its durability and for its strength. Fashion has changed some strains of Morgan away from the original model into more of a refined show horse. Some of this was done by crossbreeding, but much of it was done by selecting away from the original type. This has been done to the extent that the original type is now quite rare, and its breeders concerned about its extinction.
Draft breeds, such as the American Belgian and Clydesdale, are other good examples of the ability of type to change. Originally these were massive, stocky heavy horses with great bulk. They were used for agricultural work (when they were not being used to "breed up" Spanish Mustangs!). The modern use for these is usually for parade use, and this has favored a much leggier, refined type. The original type is rare. So which one is the "real" breed - the modern type or the original? This is an important question in breed conservation, and has no easy answer.
Type in beef cattle breeds has seen even larger changes than has that in horse breeds - and swine probably have changed type the most of any species of livestock. All of this has helped the breeds in question to adapt to current demands, although in the process the result has been that all breeds tend to start looking very alike. Without the distinctiveness of breeds there is less chance for any breed to really fit a specialized...