Anything Equine,  Equestrian topic


North American Wild Horses photo by Rennett Stowe used with permission by Creative Commons license

Thunderous hooves powered by the ‘gifts of the gods’, a balanced, well-built body, a large heart, excellent lungs, intuitive sentience, inner will, a highly efficient metabolism, and lively, elastic sinews. They lived in the highest esteem for themselves, taunting and provoking the jealousy of man.

Imagine what it must have been like to see a horse, let alone ride a horse like that in the wild country, to feel with your own senses, a horse that was so mentally keen, so physically agile, that it seemed supernatural.

This horse would be making hundreds, perhaps thousands of calculations every second, taking the pulse of his environment – feeling it from its depths and sensing its wavelengths — his mind moving at the speed of light; decisions coming just as fast.

People know nothing of this highly sensitive and functional interrelationship with the ever changing world. They don’t exist with this type of ‘engine’ and awareness. They no longer eat things directly from the ground, no longer feel the different vibrations, no longer receive the different frequencies of sunlight all day long…

But, to what heights would a rider soar if they could possibly understand this marvel?

The wild horses (some consider them ‘feral’, which may have been the case when they escaped or were stolen from domestic captivity, but those born in the wild, had no such heritage…they were born and lived in the wild) of this continent were the foundation of every American breed today; endowing them with these timeless traits…

These were the Spanish Barbs. The descendants of the ancient pony of the steppes. Hardy. Tough. Breathtaking.

In a domesticated existence, a horse of such Spirit must lay aside his security, his instinct, and his safety in order to submit to a slower, less comprehensive and alternate source of perception and decision making.

Even with tempered input and output for the horse, in fair exchange, the rider must put aside his ego, in order to unite with such faith and generosity.

The rider must be an honest, empathetic, wise and courageous compatriot; a conscientious partner. He must always keep the horse safe. Only then might the rider realize what it is like to merge with the heart of a Legend.

The New World

During the late 1400’s, ancestors of our wild stock found themselves upon the vessels of Christopher Columbus, who discovered the New World completely by mistake. Only the strongest horses survived the dangerous journey. Those who starved and suffered from extreme dehydration were thrown into the ocean.

Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas with fewer than ninety men on three ships; the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He made a total of four expeditions to the New World, his second in 1493. Focused primarily on settlement in Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic), it included 17 ships, 1200 sailors, colonists and ‘gentlemen volunteers’, horses, sheep and cattle. Among the 200 ‘gentlemen volunteers’ was another famous explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon.

Of the other conquistadors, Hernando Cortez settled on Hispaniola in 1504, and sailed with Diego Velasquez to conquer Cuba in 1511. Seven years later, Cortez set sail for Mexico with approximately five hundred and fifty Spaniards, three hundred Indians, a few Negroes, thirteen horses and cannons. He landed on the shore of Tabasco, on the 4th of March, 1519. There he had a battle with the natives, and terrified them completely. He was responsible for the eventual downfall of the Aztec civilization. Over time, haciendas were established. Farming, animal husbandry and mining along with them.

According to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, their first white contact was with Hernando de Soto in 1540. He landed in Port Charlotte, Florida, south of Tampa on its western coast, with 223 horses, 620 men, and vital supplies. They had sailed from Havana. Their intention was for conquest and settlement, and it may very well be that some of these horses were the foundation of the wild horses found in the Outer Banks today. Ultimately, de Soto and his men were bound for New Spain, or Mexico, never having made it…

“Historical records report the presence of around 70 horses on the first colony of La Espanola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) by the year 1503. Subsequently, horses were brought into Panama (1514), Mexico (1524), Brazil (1531), Peru (1532), Argentina (1535), and Florida (1538). By 1553, there were some 10,000 free-roaming horses in the area of Queretaro (Mexico) that spread throughout North and South America.”

(Bastos-Silveira, 2006)

Of all the Native Tribes who were exposed to horses, the Apaches were the most daring and enterprising. They took what they could from Mexican settlements, spreading the horse culture further into North America. Horses escaped. Horses were stolen. Horses were traded. And this was their beginning. Their cleverness and endurance was highly valued by some; a deterrent and a serious obstacle to others. By the mid 1800’s, there were millions of them.

“… the immense herd of wild horses that ranged at that time between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was seen directly in advance of the head of the column and but a few miles off. It was the very band from which the horse I was riding had been captured but a few weeks before. The column was halted for a rest, and a number of officers, myself among them, rode out two or three miles to the right to see the extent of the herd. The country was a rolling prairie, and, from the higher ground, the vision was obstructed only by the earth’s curvature. As far as the eye could reach to our right, the herd extended. To the left, it extended equally. There was no estimating the number of animals in it; I have no idea that they could all have been corralled in the State of Rhode Island, or Delaware, at one time. If they had been, they would have been so thick that the pasturage would have given out the first day. People who saw the Southern herd of buffalo, fifteen or twenty years ago, can appreciate the size of the Texas band of wild horses in 1846.”

(Ulysses S. Grant, 1885-86)

These horses gave their Native American counterparts a distinct advantage. The fact that horses were sacred to them was exhibited by their artwork, symbols, artifacts, and burials. And yet, the fate of the Indian pony was chillingly opposite to the fate of any other breed in America.

Millions of these wild horses came to a sudden and tragic end during the late 1800’s, when the US Government systematically shot them to gain a tactical advantage over the Indians.

To prevent further proliferation of their superior ability, the Government replaced the wild herd stallions with larger horses whose blood had been imported from Europe. This resulted in the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Mustangs of today. They termed it herd improvement.

Saving the Spanish Mustangs

Small numbers of the original Spanish horses were kept safe in tiny pockets of secrecy on Reservations, and a few special people came to know about them.

A man named Robert Brislawn was one of these people. During his early years, he participated in the US Geological surveys, riding out in hard and rough country to complete assignments. He became intimately familiar with the Indian pony, and appreciated his heartiness above all other breeds of horses and donkeys. They outlasted, outsmarted, and outraced them all. They possessed remarkable ability within their compact bodies; a supreme intellect that summoned deep wisdom and powerful strides – a little horse whose endurance, speed and agility were crucial to this Country and her people.

Seeing that they were coming to the point of extinction, he spent the rest of his life saving the precious Indian ponies. As a result, many of their inner secrets were preserved. The work of a passionate man, for the love of a pony. He established the first ever Spanish Mustang Registry, with the unique mission of preserving the type, rather than trying to ‘improve’ it.

Individuals were painstakingly documented, and a photographic record established. He performed his own post-mortem investigations.

In addition to finding that the Mustang had only five lumbar vertebrae, he found a larger than normal heart housed within. In fact, he said of these hearts, that they were “blood-packed and half again as large as any other horse of comparable size.”

A treasure trove has zoomed forth to present day, greatly due to the work of this man, Robert Brislawn. This breed of Indian ponies, also known as the Spanish Mustang, can also be referred to as the Colonial Spanish horse, one that hasn’t been bred or ‘out-crossed’ to BLM horses.

In the years since, many smaller registries popped up in order to document and preserve variations of the different strains of Spanish Mustangs. The Horse of the Americas Registry, has united these smaller registries of Indian pony strains, and brought them under a broader umbrella.

As a ‘breed’, they are extremely well balanced, resilient, flexible, strong, agile, intelligent, and tireless. They have strong beautifully shaped feet, dense bones, and excellent placement of the shoulder and its angle, and the placement of the pelvis and its angle. They are built for speed and endurance by the most unforgiving judge of all: Nature.

Their heads are nicely shaped, some extraordinarily so. Their crescent shaped nostrils protect the primary nasal cavity, trachea and lungs from dust and other irritations while they are at rest. They have ample bone and facial musculature to manipulate the nostrils, opening them greatly during periods of exertion. “The horses were very strong, formed much like the Norman horse, and with very heavy manes and tails.” (Smith, 2001)

Maya at the Center For America’s First Horse Photo credit: A. Neary

The Spanish Mustang ‘under saddle’

The Indian pony or Colonial Spanish horse served this country in many ways. Ulysses Grant, an avid and appreciative horseman was particularly impressed with the hardy wild horses. The US army occupied Corpus Christi in 1844, and began to move out during March of the following year. The terrain consisted of almost 200 miles of harsh and desolate prairie, in between Corpus Christie and Matamoros just beyond the Rio Grande.

“The day we started was the first time the horse (a recently captured three-year old mustang colt) had ever been under saddle…after that (the first day), I had as tractable a horse as any with the army, and there was none that stood the trip better. He never ate a mouthful of food on the journey except the grass he could pick within the length of his picket rope.”

(Grant, 1885-86)

Approximately fifteen years later, the mustang was chosen for the last and most treacherous leg of the Pony Express. The section that traversed the desert and the Sierra Mountains. He was the most capable, sure footed animal with the toughest constitution. One that could survive on minimal forage and with minimal intake of water.

During the 1860’s, a poster offered a job…

“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week”

(Gold Rush Chronicles)

These boys were to ride horses for the Pony Express. It was a trial of courage, for which the horses were carefully chosen. The boys volunteered.

“The physical limit of a horse depend[ed] on where they came from and where [they were] used. In the plains area (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and parts of Wyoming) the horses used were of the Thoroughbred type. The other 4 States (Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California) relied more or less on the Mustang horses that were living in those areas. The stamina of these animals hardier than those on the Plains States.”


Spanish Mustang traits

It would be a guess that these animals; forged and tested by the wilderness, would also be free from the neuropathy that sets itself in the Thoroughbred, and possibly other breeds of today. Modern Colonial Spanish horses are not plagued by breathing anomalies, fatigue or exhaustion. His contribution to our History is unmatched.

They are natural jumpers, and lovely movers. They are the pinnacle of economy and talent. Size, in the opinion of some, is their only challenge as their height ranges between 13.2 hh and 14.3 hh. They are good natured Souls with so much to offer, and so much to lose in this world. And they are capable of any task…

The Colonial Spanish horse was so named because of nationality of those who brought them to this continent…horses whose very roots were ripped from the same voluptuous strains that were poured into the genetic fountain of some of the English Thoroughbred’s predecessors.

“It may be that the trait [the large heart] evolved in central Asia then came to the TB from the founding stallions but you should not forget that there was Spanish in the founding mares, at least to some degree.  So it is possible it only arose once.”

Dr. Cothran in a personal correspondence

Might the blood of the Spanish horses have been the template for the Godolphin horse (ch.2)? The Byerley Turk(ch.2)? Eclipse(ch.1)? Phar Lap (ch.1)? Secretariat (ch.1)?

The Godolphin horse shared the qualities of the Spanish horses in all ways. After Roman invasion of Spain in the 5th century AD and before the Moorish conquest of the early 8th century AD, the Romans exported Spanish horses far and wide, from England to Syria.

They “also took Spanish horses to North Africa and elsewhere to use as race horses because of their speed, manageability, and nerve.”

(UiBreaslain, 1995)

From Spain they were spread throughout Europe, the Middle East and beyond. And then they came from across the ocean, once again to be tested by Nature herself in the Americas.

“These Spanish horses of the most rustic kind were able to live from the snows of the Andes to the tropical heat of Panama, Columbia and Venezuela. They were unfaltering at altitudes of 19,680 feet in Equador and Peru. They thrived in the cold of Patagonia, and the dirt of Pogo; were untroubled by the frozen plains of North America or the deserts of Arizona and Sonora…even hidden in the canyons of Utah and Colorado where human beings were hardly able to go.”

(UiBreaslain, 1995)

It was presented by Haun, in her work that the average heart size of Thoroughbreds during the 18th century – when Eclipse was alive – was 6 pounds, whereas the average heart size in the 21st century is 8.5 pounds.

If this is indeed true, then heart size is a work in progress, whereas the mustang is the representation of consistency and finished artwork. The large heart had become somewhat ‘homogenous’ in the mustangs.

Might we finally pay tribute to this magnificent animal…who brought the torch of fire to so many breeds, initiating him in the glow of spirit, and speed of the wind?

This legendary heart, this overly large heart, this tremendous lung capacity, this adaptability, this intellect and this will that drives the mustang to distances that live only in the dreams of others, also carries with it the overlarge capacity for love. His gift so inherent to his Nature that we take over long to understand…

How does one begin to compare the accomplishments of these remarkable horses?

Additional thoughts: race distances and weight carrying ability of these horses

Here are some points to consider. Secretariat’s testing ground was a common testing ground for American racehorses. He ran on a flat oval surfaces of dirt and turf, and at distances from 5 ½ furlongs (1 1/16 of one mile) to 1 and 5/8 miles; at top speed. He didn’t carry weight exceeding 126 pounds in any of his races. He raced as a two and three year old, and then he was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. He was 16.2 hands high, and weighed 1200 pounds.

During the 1700’s, the races were much longer, over natural undulations in the land. The ground was not tilled and groomed as it is today for modern Thoroughbreds. Eclipse ran two and four mile races under these conditions sometimes in back to back heats…he carried approximately 140 pounds on his back.

Man O’ War

A direct descendant of the Godolphin horse, Man O’ War, established his own legacy.

“…despite his rider’s choking hold”, Man O’ War beat Hoodwink by more than 100 lengths, setting a new world record of 2 minutes 40.8 seconds for a mile and five-eighths. Man O’ War then finished the regular season with record setting wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which he won by 15 lengths in 2 minutes 28.8 seconds, and the Potomac Handicap. Many horsemen consider the Potomac Handicap to be ‘Big Red’s greatest race. He carried a record 138 pounds to set a track record of 1 minute 44.8 seconds for the mile and a sixteenth and beat an all-star field …”

(BBC, 2001)

This ‘Big Red’ was also approximately 16.2 hands tall. He was a big boned and substantial horse, hearkening back to the days of his speedy, fiery Barb sire line and his other Turk forbears…

“The Godolphin Arabian”, “I can’t help but believe that his [Secretariat’s] big frame, his chestnut colour with markings, his stockings and his stripe, like those of Hurry On and Man O’ War, must be attributed to the Matchem (Matchem was a direct descendant of the Godolphin horse) line. These three, if not the three best, must be three of the best four horses to race in this century, if not ever.”

(Mourdant Milner, 1990)

The Melbourne Cup, held in Australia, (Phar Lap’s territory) boasts a length of two miles. The highest weight ever carried in this race was accomplished by a horse named ‘The Barb’ who carried 161 pounds across the finish line in 1869, without placing in the top three. The highest weight carried by a winner of the two mile race was 145 pounds, and the horse’s name was Carbine. The year was 1890.

The Colonial Spanish horses, the Godolphin Horse and the Byerley Turk moved over terrain that was both untamed, and unpredictable. Their ability to survive relied heavily at times on their ability to go without sufficient food and water, sometimes for extended periods of time. They carried ‘weight’, which included men with their saddles, weapons and equipment. Some wore armor, others didn’t, but weight carried (or pulled) by the horses was not determined by some handicapping protocol behind the scenes.

Recovery from such stresses had to be very fast, sometimes within hours, sometimes within a short night.

Elevation, climate, soil, rock. These were the conditions presented to the Barb, both in ancient times, and during the centuries leading up to the formation of the United States. Very, very tough. Would Secretariat, Man O’ War, Phar Lap or Eclipse have conquered these challenges? One would like to imagine that they would: their hooves would be tough enough, their bones dense enough, their will and intellect hardened and determined enough…

Weight carrying ability has been revered within Thoroughbred circles, and those horses are termed ‘Iron Horses’. They included Discovery, Man O’ War, and others.

But consider this. Mr. Edwards has direct experience with the wild horses – direct descendants of the Spanish horses.

The Corolla Wild Horses are believed to have landed on the Outer Banks in the 16th century, and may have arrived as early as 1521 via an expedition led by Lucas Vasquez de Allyon.
Spanish Mustangs of Corolla Photo credit: Kevin Collins used with permission under Creative Commons license

“My little riders and I tame and train wild Corollas (of the Outer Banks) that have had to be removed from the wild for various reasons. While our long rides are not done at tremendous speeds, they do illustrate the tremendous carrying capacity and strength of these horses.  We have completed rides of fifty miles in a day along with several other long rides on these horses. One Corolla stallion, Tradewind, is now one of our fastest horses and has completed several rides of 40 miles and more without a single trace of discomfort or unsoundness; and has never worn a shoe. (All of our horses are barefoot year round and are given the opportunity to live as naturally as possible, no stables, diets composed primarily of hay and browse, living in herds ,etc.).”

Mr. Edwards of NC in a personal correspondence

Holland is a Shackleford Spanish mustang.  He is 13 hands and 1/4 inch tall.  We have never given him the opportunity to make a run as hard as he can, but with a 160 pound rider who was holding him in check he completed a five mile run in 20:41.  He is one of my regular riding horses.  I weigh around 220 lbs. I have ridden him on fifty, and forty mile rides without him showing the slightest sign of being worn out.  The first time I took him in the woods, I let him choose the speed without any interference from me.  For the next 1 ½ hours he either cantered or gaited the entire time. Please note that I never asked him to do anything but walk. …I suspect that these horses do have larger hearts…”

Mr. Edwards of NC in a personal correspondence

Mr. Edwards confirmed that Holland’s estimated weight was at most 757 pounds. He was able to carry a 220 pound man, plus his equipment (saddle, and water at least) for hours at a time, day after day. This means that Holland can easily carry approximately 30% of his own weight, at a canter, for hours.

Now that is an Iron Horse; more than just size, more than just muscle. It is the foundation of greatness.

For comparison: in order to carry 30% of their weight, Man O’ War, and Secretariat would have to carry three hundred and sixty pounds…

The Indian pony and Trail of Tears

Of all the horses that have given America the opportunity to rise and prosper, this horse has endured heartless destruction. Whether we recall the brilliant Spanish Mustang; known as Barb, Cayeuse, Indian Pony or the Colonial Spanish Horse – or the BLM horses, the story is severe. They were hated and hunted to near extinction.

The pinnacle of the heart story isn’t told or shown by one individual, or even by one lifetime, but can be poignantly illustrated by the epic struggle of the Indian pony: a story of perseverance, sacrifice, needless suffering and humiliation.

Because the Indian had been cursed as a wretched creature by harsh and judgmental people, their horses suffered along with them. Being highly sensitive and remarkably intuitive, these special ponies also received the torment of ridicule, both directly and indirectly through their Native Indian partners.

As the great Indian Nation was systematically dismantled through force and deceit, horses’ and Indians’ lives became full of woe; their pride stripped and discarded like uneaten sandwiches.

Step by step, the horses carried those they loved along the Trail of Tears into to a bland existence; a place of obscure purpose, devoid of the proud and dignified identity they once had.

Trail of Tears map Photo credit: US National Park Service, restoration/cleanup by Matt Holly

Destined to cry out for their Broken Souls in the generations to come, only the faint echo of the Native people could be heard.

The descendants of the great horses of the Central Asian steppes and North African coast, once carrying fierce and brutal lords; capturing land and seizing goods, now shouldered the burden of a weakened and broken people.

A dignified and elegant creature, still willing to care for us and help us, even after all the harm we have caused…enduring centuries of persecution and hardships, emerges as a beacon for humanity.

One can only conclude that contained within the super heart of the Indian pony; ancient, immeasurable and unfathomable, resides one of the greatest gifts of all: that of forgiveness.

Go Back to Chapter One: Legendary Hearts

Go Back to Chapter Two: The Godolphin Horse and the Byerley Turk

Go Back to Chapter Three (going back in time): A Little Equine Evolution

Go Back to to Chapter Four (going forward in time): Central Asian Horses

Chapter Five (going full circle): The Spanish Horses

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