The Highly Contentious Strain of Wilber Cruce Horses

The Wilber Cruce strain remains one of the most acrimoniously contested strains of Colonial Spanish horses. I do regret not taking screenshots of the various explanations of the strain’s backgrounds that have been posted on line over the last decade or so. However, I have put the relevant points of the different stories together as best I can.

The founding stock for Wilber Cruce herd of horses were purchased in 1885 from an itinerant horse trader who was said to have stopped over at one of Father Francisco Eusibio Kino’s mission churches in Sonora, Mexico. Although the Wilbur-Cruce Spanish horses were the founding stock on Dr. Wilber Cruce’s homestead ranch near Arivaca, Arizona and kept in genetic isolation for nearly 120 years, they are admittedly more variable in type than other Colonial Spanish strains.

The influx of Anglo settlers into what had been Northern Mexico prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that ceded territory to the USA was accompanied by the consequent introduction of English Thoroughbred stallions to free roaming herds, primarily through the US Cavalry’s Remount programs. The success of the Texas Rangers in the Indian wars made Thoroughbred crosses on Spanish mares a hot commodity among Anglo settlers.

By 1885, Mexican Corriente (free-roaming) horses were also the hardy survivors of the Mexican War for Independence (1810-1821) that had dispersed breeding stock from Spanish landowners. The records of Spanish landowners near Guanajato, Mexico show that horse breeders imported different types of horses for different purposes. Over 300 years of documentation shows that those imports included horses described as Arabes for flat racing, Garranos and Galicenos for agricultural work, as well as the agile hardy Barbas and Sorrias fit for war, working cattle and long distance rides.

But the most recent research into the Wilber-Cruce horse genetics shows that this strain is most closely related to the Iranian horses, including the Caspian. The original story of the Wilber Cruce herd claimed that they were brought north to the Arizona border from ranchers much further south in Mexico. As it turns out, there is a sound historical provenance for the Iranian influence.

The 1650’s Viceroy of New Spain was was a scion of the same lineage that includes Afonso de Albuquerque. Afonso was a Portuguese General who made Portugal the first global colonial Empire. He was appointed head of the Arab and Persian Sea in 1506. Afonso controlled both territory and ports in Iran. It should not be a surprise that his heirs would continue to breed the Iranian bloodlines he valued enough to ship back to Portugal.

Research into the equine genome as well as the activities and influence of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and North America continues to open new windows into our understanding of how people and horses interects in the New World. Although there are claims that the Wilber Cruce horses came from Padre Kino’s Mission Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, founded in 1687 in Cucurpe Sonara. The head mission of the Pimería Alta was located in the San Miguel River in the Pima Pueblo of Cosari, Sonora, about 30 km north of Cucurpe. It had visitas at Remedios and Cocóspera. However, it was never an active mission during the Franciscan years, and is now in complete ruins.

We now know that by 1530, the Chichimeca peoples of the area were fighting the Spanish invaders to a standstill. By 1580, the Chichimeca had forced the Spanish Colonial government to negotiate with the indigenous peoples north of Guanajato. Those treaties include a certain number of saddles, indicating that horses had become integrated into the indigenous culture.

The Chichimeca are no longer extant as a distinct tribe. The evidence currently indicates that while some Chichimeca became sedentary, others were integrated into the population that we now label Comanche. In fact, the Chichimece were Uto-Aztecan speakers, like the Comanche.

And for 300 years, the Comanche traded and raided horses throughout their Empire of the Summer Moon. From the time of the Pueblo Indian Revolt in 1680 through the 1880’s when Quanah Parker finally surrendered, Comanche territory extended from the Missouri River in the north and east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Sierra Madre in the south.

The biomechanics of the Wilber Cruce horses I have looked at are actually very consistent. Horses from this strain do consistently show a 90o angle at the hip and shoulder. However, a line drawn from the point of the buttock to the point of the shoulder has a distinct forward slope, like the original Rectangular Gallopers. The slope of the pelvis, from the point of the hip to the hip joint is slightly steeper than the true Galloper, 35o instead of 30.

Arivaca, one of the original Wilbur-Cruce stallions, is a Rectangular Horse or Galloper

What does vary among wlber Cruce individuals is muscle type. Some individuals show the smooth flat muscling of the endurance type of myostatin, some show the bulkier muscle type typical of the sprinter.

Further research could illuminate whether the Wilber Cruce horses descend from flat racers imported by Colonial Spanish breeders or modern Thoroughbreds with their British Isle pony mare maternal lineages. Testing mtDNA and the ‘y’ chromosomes would offer insight into the origins of the Wilber Cruce strain as would tests for muscle type.

The Wilber Cruce strain produces a high percentage of paint horses, so testing for the genes that produce white markings would also be informative. W20 is considered the oldest white mutation on record and is the most common white marking among Colonial Spanish strains. There are a number of lethal white variants that conscientious breeders of paint horses make every effort to breed out, a challenge that is especially important in a critically endangered strain.

Unfortunately, my requests for owners, breeders and registries to share the genetic information of the Wilber Cruce horses has not been welcomed. I haven’t found an on-line link to the original research done in the early 90’s, but the Wilber Cruce biomechanics indicate that the horses had more in common with Turkomen flat-racer types than Spanish Barbs. And, if you check the most recent report on Barb horse genetics, you will see why Dr. Cochran’s claim of ‘best representative’ Colonial Spanish horse was dubious in the 1990’s and has even less validity now.

I find myself having to repeat that unsubstantiated claims fuel schisms and skepticism, destroying the credibility of Colonial Spanish horses in general as well as the credibility of specific CS breeders and registries. I encourage breeders and registries that are preserving the Wilber Cruce strain to share the results of DNA tests showing the accepted genetics markers and degree of homozygosity thier horses carry.

Phenotype, genotype, and history are all essential aspects of preserving a strain. A library of genotypes, including mtDNA ad ‘Y’ chromosomes would also be an enormous aid in preserving genetic diversity within the strain. An objective biomechanically sound breed standard would also be a huge step forward, as long as preservation breeders realize it is a goal to select towards, not an excuse to attack other peoples’ horses.

The Wilber Cruce family ranch was sold in 1990 and the herd dispersed. Return to Freedom still supports a breeding population of Wilber Cruce horses through Robin Collins, ‘then President of the California Hooved Animal Humane Society and noted animal behaviorist and horse trainer, to administrate and oversee the preservation of the largest portion of the remaining breeding stock. Ms. Collins continues to sustain, nurture, and preserve the rare genetics of these endangered Spanish horses through the Heritage Discovery Center, a California 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.’

Talley Johnson acquired the Wilber Cruce stallion Arivaca along with a herd of broodmares directly from Dr. Wilber when the herd was being dispersed. Robert Painter eventually acquired Arivaca, picture below right, as an aged stallion.

In the 1990’s the Spanish Barb (Breeders) Horse Association set up a distinct sub-registry to track horses of the Wilber Cruce line. The descendants of the Wilber Cruce horses are now recognized by several CS horse registries, including the Horse of the Americas, the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association and the Spanish Barb Horse Association.

When a strain is critically endangered, having breeding populations that are managed by different groups is a bonus. So it is especially tragic that the people claiming to want to preserve the Wilber Cruce strain are all at odds with each other. Currently the Return to Freedom population, the SBBA population and the WC crosses bred and/or registered by Robert Painter, the SSMA and the HOA are all owned by people that refuse to recognize each other’s horses.


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