According to the Forest Service web sites, the El Rito horses are the only band of wild horses running on Forest Lands that have genetic markers that match up with those found in modern Andalusian and Lusitano horses. The family names carved into the beams and pews of the small churches built in the 1700’s include coats of arms and names of royal Spanish families like Aragon. It would make sense that people from the aristocratic families of Spain would have horses that show the same genetic markers as the horses bred in the royal stables of Spain.
However, acknowledging historical facts can light fires of controversy as well as illuminate the past. Tierra Amarilla is Spanish land grant country in the 1960’s through Reies Tijerina and the La Raza movement. The idea of Chicano power quickly spread through urban America and the idea of returning land to the heirs of the Spanish land-grants sparked both violence and controversy.
So I find it politically expedient that the Forest Service claims that the first record they have of of wild horses in running in the Caja del Rio Grant between Espanola and Cochiti Pueblo is 1934. Oral history has it that the Comancheros used to bring their horses to the Caja del Rio when they came to stay in Agua Fria for the winter.
Agua Fria is named ‘cold water’ because there is a ridge of volcanic rock that brings the water table to the surface at the San Isidro crossing of the Santa Fe River. In the spring, the Comanchero’s could catch the horses when they came to water. Then they and their horses headed out for the next nine months. Exactly who the Comanchero’s were is still obscure, as their origins and activities were not documented by the Spanish bureaucracy. But that they were associated with trading and training horses is clear.
Colonial Spanish horses that have run on Pueblo lands along the Rio Grande between Espanola and Albuquerque for centuries have display the hallmarks of a distinct breed or type over many generations. When the Albuquerque History Museum contacted me about getting measurements and proportions for a model to display the complete suit of 15th century Spanish Horse armor they had acquired, my heart horse, schoolmaster and beloved companion was a Colonial Spanish colt who was line bred to the Medicine Paint stallion the Brislawn brothers had bought from Santo Domingo Pueblo.
My colt was also a near perfect specimen of the average measurements that I sent to the Albuquerque Museum. While I never got a chance to actually put the horse armor on him, the model based on my New Mexico horses did fit the armor remarkably well. Although he was not a Medicine Paint, he too was short, stocky type with a brash and assertive personality. He not only cornered like a race car on his own, he bounced about on his hind legs under saddle like a Baroque warhorse.
I can assure you that for over seventy years, from Santo Domingo in the 1950’s to Milagro in 2019, these horses are consistent in ability and appearance. My Medicine Paint stallion Apache, who was also linebred to the Santo Domingo stallion, was short, stocky and brash. He preferred the capriole to the courbette, leaping high into the air and then kicking out horizontally with both hind legs. The Placitas Horse website describes the Medicine Paint filly Milagro physically as short and stocky. Short and stocky is not unusual for feral horses in the American Southwest, but when they added that she corners like a racecar and has a brash and assertive personality, they had my attention.
The varied genotypes of acknowledged Colonial Spanish horses in North America reflects the fact that four hundred years ago, horses were as ubiquitous, as essential and as varied in type and purpose as our modern cars and trucks. But when DNA testing of Colonial Spanish horses began in the 1990’s, the question asked was whether or not New World Colonial Spanish horses had the same genetic markers as contemporary horses found in the royal Iberian stud books. Many individual horses and occasionally entire bloodlines were rejected by some registries simply because their DNA profile did not match those found among the descendants of the royal Spanish studs.
It has slowly become apparent to DNA researchers and horse lovers alike that the real questions that need to be asked are who brought over what type of horses to the America’s, for what purpose and where did those horses end up? It became clear to me that the accepted anthropological stance that the horse spread through the North America without human intervention is largely based on the written Spanish restrictions on who could own and ride horses. However, current attempts to build a wall along the Mexican/American border point out that the movement of humans and animals do not always follow rules and regulations even when tracked with satellite surveillance and microchips.
The peoples and horses who brought their unique relationships to the New World may have initiated those who gave them refuge into a truly ancient partnership. According to anthropologist Barbara Tedlock, horses served as shaman’s guardian spirits from Siberia to Iberia for millennia. Although the most famous cave with painted horses is the Lascaux cave in France, in 1458, the Catholic Pope Calixtius III specifically forbade Spaniards from ‘performing rites in the cave with horse paintings’.
The relationship between the genotype or what the DNA has to say, and the phenotype, or what a horse looks like, what it can do and the history of where and why those horses are found now is not a simple yes or no. Seeking out New Mexico bloodlines introduced me to Spanish Colonial horses that freely offered the airs above the ground. They drove me to learn about horses, history, equine biomechanics and dressage (click here).
The simplest explanation I have found for why Colonial Spanish horses from Santo Domingo bloodlines act just like the Baroque warhorses that wore the 15th century horse armor that fits their build is that they actually were and are Baroque warhorses. As late as 1700, Johann George Hamilton painted a piebald Medicine stallion from the Eisbgrub stud performing the levade. At that time, the Liechtenstein Princes were admired all over Europe for having stallions of over a hundred different breeds at their stables near Vienna in what is now Austria.
Since Northern New Mexico was a refuge for Sephardic Jews and others targeted by the Spanish Inquisition, it is doubtful that their horses would carry genetic markers from the bloodlines found in the stables of those they were fleeing. Queen Isabella, quite sensibly, feared mounting those fleeing oppression in Spain and the indigenous peoples of the Americas on the horses that had carried the finest light cavalry to victory for thousands of years (click here). In open country, a man on foot has little to no defense against a man on horseback.
There is a great deal of controversy regarding whether or not our current wild horses are descendants of horses that have always been present in North America, descendants of Colonial Spanish horses or feral descendants of strayed farm and cavalry horses. While there is evidence that indigenous peoples of North America knew about horses before Europeans began importing breeding stock five hundred years ago, what evidence exists indicates that the pre-European horses of North America were eaten not ridden (click here).
I find the most poignant and striking evidence of what Colonial Spanish riding horses offered the indigenous peoples of the America’s to be the extinction of the native peoples of the Pampas, the grass lands of South America contrasting with the still vibrant existence of the Plains and Pueblo peoples of North America. In that context, we can see how giving refuge to the horse peoples who fled oppression in Spain repaid the indigenous peoples of North America many times over. Making allies of those who had bred and trained horses for Old World style warfare for millennia gave the indigenous peoples of North America not only an understanding of how their invaders thought and fought, but the skills and resources to resist them.
It is unlikely to be sheer chance that led the US Army described the Plains Indians in the 1800’s as the finest light horse cavalry they had ever seen using almost exactly the same words the Roman historian Tacitus used to describe the Numidian cavalry couple of thousand years ago . Both the Plains Indians and the Numidian’s generally rode bareback with only a neck rope, and their weapons were a javelin, and perhaps a short sword, with a small round shield for protection.
Some years back, in a conversation with the director of the New Mexico History Museum, I learned that they were considering an exhibit on the history of the horse in New Mexico. Like the Santa Fe Fiesta, Anglo and the Hispanic points of view were present, but there was no one to speak for the indigenous people’s point of view. In the last year, the Hispanic and Indigenous communities have begun renegotiating the accuracy and context of the Santa Fe Fiesta.
I hope that representatives of the indigenous peoples of New Mexico will seek out the stories of their elders and then reach out to make sure that those stories are heard and honored by all. Most of all, I hope the Pueblo peoples decide to treasure their equine gems. Learning what genetic markers are associated with horses whose appearance, abilities and personalities have bred true for centuries may open doors to understanding more about both the human and equine lineages that have been integrated into our multicultural community here in Northern New Mexico.
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