When I learned that long-time Colonial Spanish horse breeder Talley Johnson had persuaded one Captain Yates to acquire horses from the mountains 150 miles southwest of Mexico City over 50 years ago, I was intrigued. My father had moved our entire family to the city of Oaxaca, Oaxaca Mexico in December of 1968. As a peace offering to my oldest and horse-crazy 16 year-old sister, he hired one of the rebels from the mountains on the border of Oaxaca and Guerrero, 150 miles southwest of Mexico City, to give a display on one of their old-time Spanish horses.
So mid-morning, on February 1st, 1969, an apparition from an old Spanish equestrian portrait rode onto our lawn. Pajarito (I still remember the horse’s name) was a dapple gray stallion at the perfect stage of greying where his legs, head, mane and tail were still dark and his body was nearly white. He was in excellent condition, which was rare in rural Mexico, and stood right about 14 hands high with the full neck, round croup, deep body and unmistakable presence of a Spanish stallion.
Although his rider’s outfit and his tack were typical of Mexican charros, his horsemanship was not. Our lawn might have been almost as big as a dressage ring- 20 by 60 meters-and the pair put on a display of high school horsemanship on that tiny patch of ground that could have come directly out of the 16th century Baroque training manuals. They leapt, spun, danced forwards, backwards and in place before ending with both horse and rider taking a bow, side by side.
I was transfixed, partly because the rider used no visible cues. He never shifted in the saddle, never made a visible movement with his legs and never took the slack out of the reins. I do not remember there being any sign of either a whip or spurs. The horse worked literally in ‘the wind of the boot’ and experiencing such an outstanding example of lightness has always stayed with me.
As my father searched for a horse to buy, it became clear just how exceptional both Pajarito and his rider were. The local horses in the Oaxaca Valley were in poor condition physically for a number of reasons. The relentless population of parasites and fungi that build up in the tropics where it never freezes takes a toll even when the horses have the best of care. Another factor was the poor quality of feed available as old dried corn stalks with the occasional fresh-cut alfalfa is season isn’t the best forage for horses. And the horses spent most of their time tied as all available open land was already used for agriculture.
But it was the attitude towards training was what I found most distressing. The mare my father finally bought, named La Gorda because she was built like the old time Spanish horses, was covered with white haired scars especially under her chin where the curb chain rests and on her sides where she had been spurred. Her tongue, bars, poll and hindquarters were also scarred.
Although it was not considered at all proper for young ladies, I managed to wander off off to look at the young horses in training. Between sessions, they were left standing tied to contemplate their lessons wearing full tack. Their sides were visibly bloody and bruised and there was so much blood coming from their mouths and chin that the scabs would cover the curb chain and have to be yanked free to remove the bridle.
My father did make a road trip up to a town on the border of Oaxaca and Guerrero when searching for a horse to buy. He packed up his Ford Econoline van with all seven of us kids plus my mother and we headed up the mountain. For me, the trip mostly consisted of to many hours spent sitting in the back of the van breathing carbon monoxide fumes and feeling carsick from the swaying around the endless hairpin turns.
I don’t remember the name of the town or the restaurant. I do remember immediately wandering off to introduce myself to a pair of really fine red dun hinnies that had been packed for a trip arriving in the town square. Then I was called back to join the rest of the family as we headed into the restaurant and by the time we were finished eating, every equine in town had vanished from sight. My father could generally talk anybody into anything, but in this case the mystery of the disappearing equines was impenetrable.
So I was impressed that Captain Yates had been able to acquire any horses at all from the people in that area, even if they were in poor shape.. Ending up with two fertile mares and one fertile stallion as out of four horses, was even more of an accomplishment. I really would have like to been able to witness the negotiations that got him any breeding stock at all.
Like so many of the old-time Colonial Spanish horse breeders, Talley Johnson’s breeding stock was dispersed when he died without any one keeping records of what horses were sold or to whom. There have been some attempts to breed back part-bred Johnson Yates horses to the original type. I have not heard much in the way of success, The number, even of part-bred individuals, from the strain are few and fertility appears to be low which is understandable given that the whole Johnson/Yates line began with three horses over fifty years ago.
For those interested, horses from the Johnson/Yates strain are currently recognized by the SSMA and the HOA. However, I am not aware of any genetic studies looking at any of the genetic markers of the Johnson Yates horses. I would be very interested to see the results of ‘Y’ chromosome and mtDNA tests as well as the more generic horse ancestry tests.
I also thought that the horses and horsemanship I had seen fifty years ago in Guerrero were also long gone. I am happy to report that I was wrong. There are still families of indigenous peoples preserving both the fine horsemanship and the old bloodlines in Guerrero and Michoacan.
I was chatting with a Facebook friend about light hands and Colonial Spanish horses when he casually mentioned that his family, who live on the border of Michoacan and Geurrero, still breed and train old Spanish horses. Then he added that the young guys ride the horses when they are black, the grandpa’s ride them when they are dapple grey and the kids ride them when they turn white.
When he sent me a photo of his own grandpa on a Colonial Spanish dapple grey, my heart leapt. It is such an incredible serendipity to find Pajarito’s people half a century later! It also gives me an overwhelming sense of just how special these horses and the horsemanship that they inspire really is.
I also came across a website recently that offers some insight into the histories of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. It turns out that the Yope are still a distinct language group and population have been fighting for self-determination in those high rugged mountains since before the Aztec Empire was established. The closest example in European history would be the Basque peoples of the Pyrenees Mountains of the Iberian Peninsula.
The indigenous peoples of Guerrero and Michoacán negotiated with the Guzman aristocrats who had been recognized as delegates by the Spanish crown. Guzman broke his own treaties and first kidnapped, then murdered the indigenous representative of the area in his frenzy for gold. The indigenous peoples of the area took their grievances all the way to the Spanish Court and won.
Guzman was removed from his position and reparations were made. I have yet to learn whether or not horses were included in those reparations. But in general, winning battles whether in court or on the field, requires knowledge of your opponent.
There is a huge untouched field of study regarding the alliances between dissidents fleeing the grasp of the Spanish Catholic crown, many of whom were Amazhig, the free men who had functioned as mercenary light horse cavalry in the Old World since long before the founding of the Roman Empire, and the indigenous peoples of Mexico and North America. Peoples who depend on their horses for their identity and their self-determination as well as their survival, like the Yope, do tend to value their Square Horses once they integrate them into their culture. And those peoples have a very long history on many continents of refusing to sell to outsiders.
And of course, I get excited about the genetics. I want to know if the genetic markers of Spanish horses the Guzman’s still raise in Spain have been compared with the horses from Guerrero and Michoacán. The results would offer some very intriguing and revealing insights into the interactions between the Spanish Colonists and the indigenous peoples of the area.
While the Mexican Charro Association had a very active program of outcrossing, primarily to the Domeqc line of Andalusians, that began in the 1980’s, there is now a growing interest in preserving old strains. Mexico passed a federal law protecting their Caballos Corrientes, their free-roaming horses in 2016. There may still be time to do seek out these Colonial Spanish horses, do the genetic studies and make sure that this strain of horses is preserved and appreciated.