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.

The part that used to baffle me was why the American cavalry shot Indian ponies by the thousands instead of riding them. The poor quality of remounts was a chronic complaint from cavalry officers in Europe and America all during the 18 and 1900’s. It was not until I understood more about how different types of horses are built, I realized that slapping a saddle designed for a trotter on a Spanish Colonial horse’s back was quickly going to cause serious problems.

  • The long tree required by a trotter meant the bars of the saddle extended past the thoracic ribs onto the lumbar vertebrae.
  • The immediate automatic nervous reflex built into horse’s nervous system causes them to buck when pressure is put on their loins.
  • The long bars dug into their withers, interfering with the free movement of their shoulder blade.
  • The forward set,  (¾ or 7/8ths) girth needed to keep the saddle in position on a trotter a interfered with the free movement of the Spanish Colonial horses’ front legs, causing girth galls.
  • The gullet of the saddle would either be too narrow or too wide, causing pressure points and saddle sores.

The end result was a horse that resented being saddled, bucked when mounted and whose back was quickly damaged when ridden. And that’s how the free-roaming horses of the plains got a reputation for being useless unmanageable broncos. As many riders are now finding out, even infinite resources cannot make up for a badly fitted saddle.

However, when ridden bareback or with a center-rigged medium-gullet short-treed saddle as is found where ever  Spanish Colonial horses are appreciated, the very same horses are prized for their willingness, weight-carrying ability, soundness, agility and endurance.  And the difference between a trotter and a Spanish Colonial horse is literally bone deep. When I started talking about how biomechanics could affect a horse’s abilities in the early 1980’s, I was a lone voice.

 James R. Rooney DVM’s ‘The Lame Horse’ had just come out. Even those people who could see how his information could help prevent injuries were not extrapolating to predicting performance through biomechanics. And making sure that Spanish Colonial horses survived certainly took priority over understanding the details of their movements.

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. Horsemen from the Baroque schools are most likely to discuss the merits of square and rectangular horses. I had to abandon the abstract academic arguments in favor of going and actually looking at my horses while reading the original authors to figure what they might have been trying to explain.

For example, texts that discuss the Baroque ideas of the relative desirability of square and rectangular horses usually draw a box around the horse. Some even show the horse’s raised poll as the top of the box and their hooves as the bottom, making their mobile nose the front and their tail as back. Even when the top of the box is defined by the withers, it seems improbable to me that this was what was originally intended. The height of a horse’s withers changes depending on their stance and self-carriage. I puzzled over ideas like the desirability of a square horse because I was sure that the intention of these authors was based on looking at some unchanging and vital aspect of the horse.

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

My square looked more like a diamond than a box however. Its corners pointed up and down and side to side. And once I realized what a profoundly sophisticated insight the idea of square was into the conformation, movement and schooling of the horse, I got a little cranky. I thought those early horse masters really could have been a little more straightforward. If they had just said that looking at the horse’s balance and the limits of their movement was what they meant, it would have saved a whole lot of horses a whole lot of grief.

Then I had to remind myself that empires rose and fell on the backs of the horse for millennia. I was dealing with the military mindset and even now, our military does not give their secrets away to the enemy. Added to the military mindset towards horsemanship were the pervasive cultural ideals of sacred geometry and the Mystery School. An initiate to a Mystery School had to show an ability to see beyond superficial appearances through to the underlying geometrical patterns of harmony that gave rise to perception of beauty before they even could be considered as possible members. In terms of horsemanship, I suspect that those who had ability to turn the square 90o so it reflected the actual anatomy and physiology of the horse were those who were deemed able to grasp the underlying mysteries of successful horse training and conditioning.

You have to be admitted into the inner sanctum and sworn to secrecy because the consequences of sharing those secrets could be drastic. Some 3000 years ago the Hittites managed to persuade a Mittanian horse master named Kikkuli to defect and teach them all he knew about training and conditioning cavalry horses. The Hittites not only become a power to be reckoned with, they wiped the Mittanians from the historical map. However, because they were unable to integrate Kikkuli’s concepts into their cultural mindset, a mere 150 years later their horsemanship degenerated to the point that their own empire collapsed.

The indigenous peoples of North America lost the war for their lands despite their horses. But, if they had understood that destroying the American Army’s supply routes would stop their advance instead of just fighting the head of the snake, the horse tribes would rule the continent. When agricultural and urban interests began encroaching on Mongol territory a thousand or more years ago, they went straight to the source.

The Mongols presented a united front, regardless of their internal rivalries. Sometimes they destroyed cities themselves. Sometimes they gave fair warning, telling the inhabitants they could destroy the cities themselves and take their possessions with them when they left. It took a couple of hundred years of ruthless warfare, but the Mongols eventually got their point across and are still free to roam the Steppes with their horses.

The lack of that insight is the most compelling evidence I know of that demonstrates the horse was a recent introduction to the Americas. The American cavalry understood that quality of the horse is irrelevant as long as winning depends on how much people are willing to invest in a short-term one-time result and how little they care about the cost.

I think it is time to contemplate what kind of competition would demonstrate the sterling qualities of the 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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