The Spanish Colonial Horse

While my interest in Spanish Colonial horses in the Southwest began with our little red mare, Alazana, it took me years to put all the pieces together. The horses are now tracked with DNA markers and appear on the Heritage lists of endangered breeds of livestock, but the prejudice against their existence was still intense through the 1980’s. I went through a long stage where people would show up to tell me that my horses couldn’t exist. In 1982 a family friend and author, Stan Steiner, even published a book ‘ Dark and Dashing Horseman’  declaring that the horses no longer existed. His credibility depended on sources that were written and accepted in academic circles.  I had no academic connections to concern myself with and my sources were the living embodiment of history in my horses and the oral histories of my friends and neighbors. So my usual reply was along the lines of ‘they eat an awful lot for something imaginary’ as I continued actively collecting and breeding them.

Then I got a call from the Albuquerque Museum. They had acquired a complete set of  15th century horse armor and could not find a horse model to display it on. They asked if I would send measurements of my horses to the model-maker so he could fabricate something that would fit. I took averages of the 25 horses, and sent them off. When the model showed up, the armor fit perfectly, except for the chevron or face piece. Spanish Colonial horses have their ears set low and wide apart like their wild relatives, and the model maker had placed the ears high and close together. The horse and armor (click here to see the model) are still part of their main display and one of the first concrete pieces of evidence that the wild horses of the southwest were actually descendants of the first Spanish horses.

Although Gilbert Jones, Ilo Belsky, Emmet Brislawn, and Monty Holbrook had been collecting and breeding their Spanish Colonial horses since the 1930’s, and had banded together along with the McKinleys  and a few others in the 1950’s to establish the Spanish Mustang Registry, by the 1970’s the registry was splitting into several factions. I ended up joining the Spanish Barb Breeders Association because they responded to my inquiries at the time. Eventually I found that Gilbert Jones, eventually of the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association had run his Spanish horses in the hills near Tijeras, New Mexico until the drought in the mid-1950’s when he moved to Oklahoma.  The sorrel yearling filly my father bought was a descendent of the few horses that escaped being rounded up for the move.

Because I lived in  Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was primarily interested in the New Mexico blood lines, which turns out to be the heart of the culture and origination of the Spanish horses in North America. While horses were an integral part of any Spanish community, there was specialization. North American Spanish horses are very different from the gaited horses of South America even though they are both descendants of Spanish breeding stock. The story behind that goes that Queen Isabelle wanted to ship some of her royal ‘caballos del camino’ or gaited horses to the New World. The captain she hired gambled away all his money and sold her breeding stock to pay his debts. He filled his ships with ‘caballos del campo’ or country horses and brought them across the ocean instead. Queen Isabelle was so angry she refused to send any more horses from her stables to North America

Horse breeders and their ‘caballos del campo’ arrived in the American Southwest in 1598 with the first Spanish settlers. The offical version is that the Spanish were never able to subjugate the Pueblo Indians already living in the area and instead of conquest, there were complex webs of trade, friendship and kinship woven through the inherent conflicts between cultures that endure to this day.More recent research indicates that many of the Spanish speaking peoples coming to New Mexico were seeking refuge from religious persecution, and allied themselves with the peoples already living in the area. Both the Pueblo Indians and the refugees were societies that had long histories of incorporating new peoples and ideas into their cultures, and both were motivated to protect and preserve their ancient and complex spiritual traditions.

Although Vaquero and Charro are contemporary names for Spanish cowboys, those that hunted the buffalo from horseback with lances in New Mexico were called Ciboleros.  Cibolo was the word the Spanish used for buffalo in New Mexico. These pure-blooded Spanish men had a deeper import then simply supplying food, since the Spanish came to New Mexico seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola. Just as the Spanish came to the American Southwest as seekers, the spiritual journey in this old Greek version of Revelations begins with a journey to Seven Societies located in seven different, far away, and distinctly unchristian cities. Since Klaus Hempfling’s 20th century teachers as well as Revelations are adamant that horsemanship is first and foremost an inward and personal spiritual practice, I tend to think that the captain who was dismissed as a drunken cheat and gambler was very likely working to save both the horses and the secret teachings of that art from the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

In his book ‘Dancing With Horses’, Klaus Hempfling has brought the ancient  teachings of the North African, French, and Iberian horseman back into public awareness. He quotes his teachers as saying  ‘We ride our horses by the transmission of our thoughts, an art that has flourished here unchanged throughout the centuries.’. A few years ago I was given an esoteric translation of the two-thousand-year old original Greek version of Revelations that was especially fascinating to me as it offered me a peek into the depth of that complexity. Mysteriously, the horses that spread over the plains of  North America came in the same range of colors as the horses described in the ancient text of Revelations.

According to this text, there are actually Five Horseman of the Apocalypse,  not four.  They come as Blacks, Sorrels, Whites, Buckskins (pale) and the magical Medicine paints of the Plains Indians.   The different colored horses appear in the Book of Revelation with specific attributes associated with each Horseman. The Swordsman rides a Red Horse, the Archer rides a White Horse, the Scales rides a Black Horse and Death with his Scythe rides a  Pale Horse. The fifth horseman holds the Key to the Unseen Realms. He  is invisible to most eyes, and the Unseen Horse that so easily disappears from view is a mottled or spotted horse.

The text I found also informed me that the original Greek word translated as Horseman in Revelations actually means Wind or Breath. Each of the five horsemen would be a specific ‘Breath’ with predictable effects on our consciousness. Looking down the esoteric path, the Book of Revelations suddenly became an instruction manual for some very specific breathing practices. Apocalypse literally translates as ‘unveiling’, so through this breathing practice our true nature could be unveiled. The horse as a partner in the search for enlightenment continues to this day.

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2 thoughts on “The Spanish Colonial Horse

  1. As with almost all fans of these horses, you leave out the entire role of Mexico. MEXICO is the ” heart of the culture and origination( sic) of the Spanish horses in North America”. These Spanish horses are not rare in the Republic of Mexico, now, in the present time!

    • I am sorry that your education is lacking that vital piece of Mexican history called the Mexican American War. It ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed in 1848 that ceded the territories of Alta California and New Mexico to the USA and established the Rio Grande as the border with Texas. New Mexico finally became a state in 1912, but its Spanish culture remains strong with Spanish as the primary language for most native New Mexicans until quite recently. My generation is the first to speak English instead of Spanish at home.
      On a more personal note, my grandfather was born in Mexico, I have generations of cousins there, and my parents moved our entire family to the Oaxaca valley in 1968. My sister still lives there and has operated her riding stable in the valley for decades. So I speak from personal experience when I say that while Mexico is rightly proud of its Mestizo heritage, that hybrid vigor does include the horses. Like wealthy landowners farther north, Mexican ranchers have long been importing stallions to cross on their original Spanish mares. Currently the Azteca is one of the most popular mounts among Mexican charros. Although it is of Iberian descent, it is a modern cross between Quarter Horses and Andalusians. Sadly, genuine Spanish Colonial Horses are not only rare in Mexico, they are often despised because the few remnants are owned by indigenous peoples.
      Northern New Mexico is unique in that those who were hoping to save their secret spiritual traditions from the Spanish Inquisition managed to survive due to the Pueblo Indian Revolt and their undocumented alliances with the native peoples. The 1680 revolt was provoked by the Franciscans arresting and executing heretics, including the governor and his lieutenant who were sent to Mexico City for their trial.
      If you do have information regarding any authenticated herds of pure Spanish Colonial horses in Mexico, I and many others would be delighted to know about them.

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