My Colonial Spanish Horses and Armor

I had acquired a small herd of Colonial Spanish horses from old New Mexico bloodlines and was busy schooling, breeding and promoting them when Byron Johnson, then curator of the Albuquerque Museum, contacted me in the fall of 1982. He explained that the Museum had acquired a full set of 15th century Spanish armor from Spain for the mounted knight, his warhorse, his foot soldier and his war-dog. They had been able to create models to display the armor for the people and the dog, but were unable to find a horse model that would fit the armor.

He asked if I would send measurements of my Colonial Spanish horses to the Museum so they could get their model-maker based at the Kentucky Horse Park to fabricate something that would fit. I had roughly 25 Colonial Spanish horses of Northern New Mexico strains that ranged between 3 and 25 years of age and included mares, geldings and stallions. I took measurements, averaged them and sent off the results to Byron Johnson.

When the model showed up, the armor fit perfectly, except for the chevron or face piece. It seems that Colonial Spanish horses have their ears set low and wide apart, and the model maker had placed the ears high and close together. The characteristic broad forehead and wide-set ears are due to a distinctive atlas vertebra that still breeds true.

My current stallion is linebred to the Bookcliff horses captured in 1934 on Ute reservation land by Monty Holbrook. When I put the ergonomically designed headstall I had purchased on his head, it made him so uncomfortable I had to remove the brow band to be able to use it. His ears are set so far apart that the ends of the curves designed to accommodate the base of his ears press into them instead.

That armor was first, and until Dr. Spoonenberg and Dr. Cochran began their DNA testing, the only objective evidence that any of the free roaming horses in the USA were actually descendants of the horses that came to the New World with immigrants from Spain and Portugal.

Model based on my Colonial Spanish horses displays 15th century Spanish horse armor

I cannot offer a link to the display because New Mexico Museums are currently re-evaluating how they present the history and cultures of the different peoples who make their homes here. But the model and armor stood in the Museum display of Spanish history for decades. But I still have the thank you letter I received from the museum director and decided to share it here:

horse armor letter

I was pleased that my horses were the correct build to carry the 15th century horse armor. All the same, I went through a long stage where people would show up just to tell me that my horses couldn’t possibly exist. In re-reading some of the articles written about the display at the time, it almost appeared as though writers wanted people to think that the horses went about trying on the armor of their own volition.

In fact, in very the same year, 1982, a family friend and author, Stan Steiner, even published a book ‘ Dark and Dashing Horseman’  declaring that these same Colonial Spanish horses no longer existed. Of course, 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.

Because I lived in  Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was primarily interested in the New Mexico blood lines. My interest in Colonial Spanish horses in the Southwest began with our little red mare, Alazana, it took me years to put all the pieces of her story together. It is now accepted 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 in the early 1960’s was a descendant of the few horses that escaped being rounded up for the move. Her sire was most likely Cedro, a chestnut stallion bred by Jyot Baca from stock found running in the Manzano Mountains. DNA testing now confirms that the Baca horses are direct descendants of Maghreb Barbs,. But none of the mustang registries would even consider my mare for registration in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, Jyot Baca’s horses were not accepted for registration until 2017 and then only by the HOA-Horse of the Americas registry.

I gained more insight into the dynamics of the registries when my own herd of Colonial Spanish horses achieved notoriety and I too became a target for harassment Emmet Brislawn, and Gilbert Jones had been collecting and breeding their Colonial Spanish horses since the 1930’s. They had banded together along with the McKinleys of New Mexico and a few others to establish the SMR or Spanish Mustang Registry in 1958, but by the 1970’s the registry was fragmenting.  I ended up joining the SB(B)HA -Spanish Barb Breeders Association because they responded to my inquiries at the time. I stayed with them because they focused on the Romero-McKinley horses from central New Mexico when the SMR began denying registration to that strain.

In retrospect, I realize that various individuals in the registries that tried to discourage me from cooperating with the Albuquerque Museum at the time and then to discredit me afterwards were driven by the fear that their claims for their horses would not hold up under scrutiny. As it turns out, the State of New Mexico now recognizes that our populations of free-roaming horses should be DNA tested so that those proven to be descendants of the horses brought to the New World by immigrants from Spain may be preserved.

The longstanding official version of Northern New Mexico 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. After the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680, the Comancheros of Northern New Mexico are at the heart of the spread of the Spanish horses and a very distinct horsemanship in North America.

The first few hundred years of interaction between those horsemen and their ‘caballos del campo’ and the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest is undocumented. The most convincing, if indirect, evidence of those who brought their horses and traditions to North America is the still vibrant indigenous peoples who survived the onslaught of European conquest by adapting their life styles to include the horse. The indigenous plains dwellers of South America are extinct, in no small part because a human on foot has very little defense when ridden down by a armed horseman.

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 hunts by pure-blooded Spanish and Barb horses and their riders had a deeper import then simply supplying food, since the Spanish came to New Mexico seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola.

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. But 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

I tend to think that the captain who was dismissed as a drunken cheat and gambler was very likely working to save both these unique horses and the secret teachings of the art of horsemanship from the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition. 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.

My interest in these horses is driven by my first hand experiences, so I continue to explore their unique biomechanics and abilities under saddle as well as the ancient cultural patterns associated with them world-wide. But even though the idea of the warhorse in Spanish armor was promoted among Spanish Mustang fanciers once it was proved successful, I now find myself safely relegated to a semi-mythological status that does not threaten the status quo. It is a sorry reflection on the Colonial Spanish horse registries that four decades on, I have yet to have a single breeder ask what the proportions, measurements and bio-mechanics of the horses that could wear that armor are.

I had no hesitation in cooperating with the Museum because it never occurred to me that the armor would not fit my horses. My godfather was the Cacique of Cochiti Pueblo, next door to Santa Domingo where Bob Brislawn acquired his Medicine Paint stallion named San Domingo. The oral history of the Pueblos is passed down from generation to generation with astonishing accuracy within those who are initiated into that position. Although I am not initiated, my father was. From my earliest memories, my father and my godfather made it clear that these horses had made history here in Northern New Mexico centuries before Gilbert Jones or the Brislawn brothers ever appeared on the scene.

I realize that it is WAY past time for me to try and put my own version of the story of the Colonial Spanish horses of New Mexico and the Spanish horse armor out into the cyber-sphere. You can click here for more posts. You can also check out my horse training books here or join my facebook group The Square Horse.

2 thoughts on “My Colonial Spanish Horses and Armor

    • Yes. They had to be powerful little guys just to carry it around. When I saw the solid metal plates on the horse’s sides as well as the front I finally understood why knight rode with enormous rowels on their spurs. There was a sheet of metal between their legs and the horse’s sides so they couldn’t even reach past the metal to their horse without those huge rowels. It does make on wonder about how we now interpret what horse trainers had to say and how horse trainers were actually communicating with their horses.

      Liked by 4 people

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