Colonial Spanish Horses and Endurance Tests

The Colonial Spanish horse excelled as light horse cavalry for millennia. Yet our Colonial Spanish horses have not made a mark in modern endurance competitions. I say that is because those modern races are not actually about the horse’s endurance at all.

I once asked a lowlands horse trainer who specialized in endurance competitions how he handled changes in elevation. Santa Fe itself is 7,000 feet above sea level and the mountain trails easily reach 12,000 feet  elevation. Acclimation to the thin air takes people a while, so I assumed that he would have included some days for his horses to acclimate before the ride.

But, his actual response floored me. He informed me that he managed the change in altitude by bringing his horses in as close to the entry deadline as possible before the race, ran them as close to the edge of their tolerance as possible during the race and then took them home as quickly as possible after the race. Once back on home ground, he and the barn veterinarian treated the horse’s injuries and pumped them full of NSAID’s, steroids, grain and supplements to counter the stress of travel and exertion at high altitudes.

I learned about the cost of support when I was working as a wildfire dispatcher for the BLM. If we could get a couple of guys and a tanker out to a fire before it began to spread, it cost less than five grand to put it out. That included the cost of keeping the men and machines on stand-by. If the fire began to spread and we needed to bring in ground crews and support them, even if only for a day or two, the cost rose to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

People need supplies. They need transportation, food, bedding, housing and latrines. Those supplies need people to manage them and those people in turn need supplies. The supplies and people need transportation. The whole thing escalates radically in a remarkably short period of time.

So, that endurance barn might have taken home some ribbons, but they were not getting rewarded for their horse’s endurance. The prizes they displayed were the result of the amount of resources the humans were willing to invest to counter the stress they placed on their horses. Without that tremendous investment of resources, horses from that barn would not have managed more than a race or two before they broke down.

In times of war, that is exactly what happens. Kit Carson and the American cavalry only managed to subdue the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest because they were willing to leave a trail of dead or crippled horses and mules behind them and had access to sufficient resources to promptly replace them.

Now there is more widespread awareness of equine biomechanics. Saddle-fitting is actually a searchable job description on the internet. And celebrities like Willie Nelson and Viggo Mortenson are vocal advocates for the descendants of the Spanish Colonial horse.So I can indulge in explaining how their unique bone structure is the bio-mechanical basis for unique abilities of the Spanish Colonial horse under saddle.

Ongoing research into the conformation that produces sound sport horses that excel in their field backs up the empirical observations of accomplished horsemen of the past. Although the many details of exactly why are still under study, it does appear that horses with 90 degree angles at the point of the shoulder joint and the hip joint are more likely to stay sound even as they excel in their field of competition. In the most simplistic terms, over-extension is one of the foremost causes of joint injury. A 90o angle offers stability and significantly more extension than a open or obtuse angle.

Then I read in James R. Rooney’s revised version of The Lame Horse that a little geometrical trickery can give us the same information as force plates and cameras. James R. Rooney’s overall theory states that instability in a horse’s biomechanics causes most lameness. Left to move freely as nature intended, each limb moves in a stable cycle around the zero point of those joints As long as the limbs of our horses are working within their stable limits, the force of movement returns to this zero point and then expands into the next step, and our horse stays sound.

May be an image of horse and outdoors
‘This horse entered the US Cavalry at age 6. In 1887, he completed a continuous march of 2500 miles and remained sound. After the march, he continued to serve in the Cavalry for just over 19 more years in good condition. He retired sound. Officers viewed his conformation to be that of an ideal weight carrier for long distance riding and required each cadet at West Point to study his attributes. Using this horse as a model, the cavalry developed a specific method for its officers to judge initially the conformation of potential cavalry horses.

In pursuing his original search for an understanding of how injuries occur in horses, he found that horses operate by allowing the energy of each stride to move through their body in a regular rhythmic pulsing and each limb moves within certain limits. The centers of those cyclic movements are the hip joint and shoulder joint, the very same positions as the points of the square. When we humans disrupt our horse’s natural way of going, we force their limbs to move beyond their limits. Instead of all the forces balancing at the zero point, they accumulate, increasing instability in the biomechanical system and eventually cause our horses to break down.

Lines run through the diagonal points of the square cross in the center of the horse’s mass. In motion, the limbs of the horse move towards and away from that central point. Mathematically, this is called a saddle point, which makes me wonder how many of the early physicists were looking at how horses moved when they were coming up with their theories! Pragmatically, the saddle point is where we ought to sit so our horse can carry us with the least effort and the greatest balance.

When I checked my square horses, I found that their shoulder joint and their hip joint are exactly opposite each other, and both are 90o angles. The slope of their thighbone and shoulder blade parallel each other, as do their pelvis and upper arm making the sides of the box. The square horse is actually built like the scale cavalrymen sought in their mounts, and our weight naturally gravitates towards their zero-point, minimizing the strain on their body.

I think it is time to contemplate what kind of competition would demonstrate the sterling qualities of the Square Spanish Colonial horse.  Current three-day eventing is still based on 19th century  cavalry training for gallopers. Horses must be at least seven years old to compete and the tests are designed to select for speed on the flat, boldness over jumps and basic obedience to the aids. But a three day event designed for Spanish Colonial horses should show case their specific types of excellence.

  • Horses competing would have to be mature, at least seven years old.
  • The first day would offer dressage and reining competitions showcasing their responsiveness  to the aids and  their agility under saddle.
  • The second day should showcase their endurance and weight carrying ability under saddle. So Spanish Colonial horses would be asked to cover forty miles with the combined weight of the saddle and rider adding up to 25% of their body weight.
  • And the third day should showcase their working ability under duress. So Spanish Colonial horses would be asked to put in a full day riding cavalry formations or working cattle AFTER their forty mile ride.

Then breeders and trainers could have a venue to demonstrate and be recognized for the renowned qualities of their Spanish Colonial horses. They would not even have to start from scratch. There is a group organizing Working Equitation competitions in the USA. They are a little light on the functional soundness end of competition, but the great thing about a new organization is that they can adapt to the needs and interests of competitors.

The information on equine biomechanics is adapted from The Gymnastic Circle, the second book in my horse training series

2 thoughts on “Colonial Spanish Horses and Endurance Tests

    • Really glad to hear it! I can get get enthralled with the impact of biomechanics but keeping the subject engaging takes some thought. I resort to Richard Feyman’s advice a lot… If you cannot explain your subject to an eight year old, you probably do not understand what you are talking about. Study, think and simplify…

      Liked by 1 person

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