Meet the Wilbur-Cruce Spanish Colonial Mission herd that calls Return to Freedom home...

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range
No creature means so much to man as does the horse. The Spanish horses introduced to California and the American southwest are known as the finest in the world. These horses were the first to populate the new world, pre-dating all other breeds. Selective breeding produced three types: the proto-Andalusian, the Jinete, and the Gallego, having characteristics which were incredibly beneficial to the early colonization, ranching, and agriculture of California. These horses are rugged, surefooted, willing, and versatile. The Heritage Discovery Center has the conservatorship of a herd of these horses known as the Cruce Colonial Spanish Mission Horse.

The Wilbur-Cruce horse is a horse strain derived from Spanish colonial times which persist into the present day in as pure a state as can be determined. The need to continue to conserve this herd is great, since it represents a unique genetic resource. It also fits perfectly into the content of the Living History Museum, as it’s a major component in the development of colonial California.

Picture Gallery: Wilbur-Cruce Spanish Colonial Mission Herd


Old World Spanish Horses

By the time Spanish explorers were setting sail for the New World, Spanish horses had become world-famous and much sought-after by the Royal Stud farms throughout the world. There were three main types of Spanish horses being bred, and all three were brought to the New World as part of Spanish Exploration. These horses were the foundation for exploration, development of the Mission Chain, Military, Maritime trade, Ranching, Agriculture/Farming, transportation, games, sport, hunting, and became a pivotal part of Native American culture. These horses were the Andalusian/Carthusian, Ginete/Jennet, Gallic/Barb.

Andalusian/Carthusian: Proto-Oriental/Andalusian, substantial trotting and galloping horses used for war, mounted games, and racing. These horses were close-coupled and round-bodied, and came in all colors. Francisco Goya painted many pictures of the Royals and the Royal Soldiers on their colorful steeds. Many statues throughout Europe demonstrate the partnership between famous leaders and their noble mounts.

Ginete/Jennet: Ambler-Gaited type, small, but substantial. These horses have a short back, rounded croup, arched neck, and full mane and tail. Prized for their docility, courage, and easy gaits. Noted for being a smooth riding equitation mount.

Gallic/Barb: Coarser type, sometimes gaited and affordable by the peasantry. Later mixed with the Moor’s Barb and influenced by the Sorria. Swift, agile, hardy. These horses were the foundation for exploration, development of the Mission Chain, Military, Maritime trade, Ranching, Agriculture/Farming, transportation, games, sport, hunting, and became a pivotal part of Native American culture.

Wilbur-Cruce Herd

This amazing legacy rediscovered in the Colonial Spanish Wilbur-Cruce Mission Strain is how many of the characteristics of all the Spanish/Iberian horses remain and are still evident in this isolated genetic group. These Colonial Spanish horses are very important indeed to overall conservation and are closer in type to the historic horse of the Golden Age of Spain than are the current horses of Spain/Iberia.

“The horses looked as if they had just walked out of the past.”

In 1519, Hernando Cortez landed in Vera Cruz, Mexico, with ten stallions and six mares. These Spanish horses would become the foundation of the great Mission and Rancho herds of the New World. The superior quality and versatility of these Spanish horses made them sought after by Royal Stud farms throughout the world. This is the breed that became the ancestor to all indigenous breeds of the Americas.

In 1885, Dr. Ruben Wilbur purchased 26 horses from Father Francisco Eusibio Kino at his historic Rancho Delores in Sonora, Mexico, to stock his homestead ranch near Arivaca, Arizona. Through three successive family generations, spanning more than 120 years, the Wilbur-Cruce Spanish horses were kept in genetic isolation on the ranch.

“The Spanish Colonial Cruce horses are a most significant discovery of a type of horse thought to be gone forever.” —D.P. Sponenberg, DVM, PhD

In 1990, the riparian portion of the Wilbur-Cruce Ranch was sold to the Nature Conservancy. Due to the horses’ genetic importance, Dr. Wilbur’s granddaughter, Eva-Antonia Wilbur-Cruce, donated the direct descendants of the original herd to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). The Conservancy confirmed that these horses were pure and direct descendants of the original Spanish horses brought to the New World.

The ALBC asked 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.

“The life of the Spanish horse for the past 3,000 years has been bound up with the history of civilization.” —D.P. Sponenberg, DVM, PhD

The Wilbur-Cruce herd bloodline was added in 1996 as a separate division within the SBBA for observation of its production for phenotype. In 2005 the Wilbur-Cruce horses were inducted into the general registry of the SBBA, having proven to meet the required high standards.

“Comparing the better horses in order to appreciate their greater perfection, I must place the Spanish at the top and give it my vote for being the most beautiful, the most noble, the best conformed, the bravest, and the most worthy of being mounted by a great King.” —Salomonde la Broue, 1593

Throughout the centuries, royalty and commoners have been noted, documented, immortalized, and presented with their equine partners in Art. Weather drawn, painted, sculpted, or simply with the written word, man and horse together have shared presented/preserved more of the world’s greatness and changes than any other partnership. History, traditions, and legends of all peoples link man with the horse since earliest times. Deities, stars, oceans, and cities have been named in regard to the horse.

The Iberian horse is the most ancient riding horse, whose 6,000 years of history are well-documented. It is essential to understand the historical influence of this unique horse and his genetic impact on most breeds throughout Europe. The finest horsemen and horses undisputedly were derived from Iberia. So it is to say that the New World inherited/acquired the finest for their equestrian beginnings.

The colonial development of the Mission chain and California were destined to become the equestrian period of the West, often known as the “El Dorado.” Spanish horses are the common thread through our Colonial development and our ‘seeds of change.’ They arrived with Spanish explorers aboard their mighty gallons. They carried the great Soldados and colonists to the sights that were to become great missions and pueblos. They were the backbone of our legendary ranchos and the work horse of our agricultural wealth. They forever changed the lifestyle of our Native American peoples and helped bring the Golden Age of Spain to California and the West.

As is typical of landrace type populations, newly discovered herds of Colonial Spanish horses continue to come to the attention of breeders of this type of horse. A herd of horses found in Sasabe, Arizona, fits into the rancher-strain category and is also the last remnant of Spanish Mission type horses.

These are the horses of the Wilbur-Cruce family who utilized, partnered with, and maintained these horses for three generations on their ranch. The horses originated in the region of Mexico that was the area of the esteemed Father Kino’s renowned missions. This strain was begun with 25 mares and a stallion that were bought in 1885 from Juan Sepulveda who brought the horses from Father Kino’s Mission Dolores in Sonora. This area had been a source of high-quality horses since around 1700.

The Wilbur-Cruce herd was brought to the attention of breeders of Colonial Spanish horses in 1989 and illustrates an important point when dealing with landraces such as the Colonial Spanish Horse. It is critical to the conservation of the genetic resource of these populations for the organized studbooks to remain open and receptive to inclusion of new pure herds as they are recognized and documented. These new discoveries will always contain valuable genetic material for conservation.

The Wilbur-Cruce horses are more variable in type than the horses in some registries. This is extremely important because three main types of Iberian horses are represented in this herd, the Carthusian/Villano warhorse type, the Jinete/Jennet elegant riding horse, and the Gallego/Barb agile bullfighting and cattle working type. These horses were essential to our western colonial development and became the mount of our legendary Vaquero. This unique Colonial herd still represents the horses of the Golden Age of Spain and is more like the original horses of Spain than exist in Iberia today. The Cruce Mission horses are a most significant discovery of a type of horse thought to be gone forever. The need to conserve this herd is great, since they do represent a unique genetic resource. These noble/notable horses are our Ambassador to The Heritage Discovery Center … as the common thread and partners throughout our colonial history we wish to follow their path and tell the story of our Spanish roots and our great Hispanic Heritage.

Mrs. Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce highly praises these horses in her book, A Beautiful Cruel Country.

“These horses were hardy, swift and agile … our partners from sun-up to sun-down … and none so beautiful.”

Mrs. Cruce, in her wisdom, insisted that her horses be preserved and maintained in a conservation program designed by Phil Sponenberg and herself for future generations to know and appreciate.

Evaluation of the Cruce Herd of Horses

—D.P. Sponenberg, DVM, PhD; Associate Professor, Pathology and Genetics; Technical Panel Chair, American Rare Breeds Conservancy; Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine; VPI & SU, Blacksburg, VA 24061

The Cruce horses are one of a very small handful (five would be a very optimistic estimate) of strains of horses derived from Spanish colonial days that persist as purely (or as nearly as can be determined) Spanish to the present day. Most other strains have long been absorbed into the Quarter Horse breed (with draft and Thoroughbred influence) or have undergone extinction. They are the only known “rancher” strain or pure horses that persist in the southwest. The Cruce horses are of great interest because they are a non-feral strain. The only other stains of Spanish horses that persist to this day are the feral strains in certain isolated areas (Kiger and Cerbat BLM herds currently, although examples of pure horses of other populations now extinct or contaminated are present in owned, managed herds), and the Choctaw/Cherokee strains which originated in the Southeast.

To this very short list can be added the Belsky and Romero/McKinley strains, but neither of these can claim the historic isolation that the Cruce horses have had, and both are somewhat doubtful purity as to Spanish ancestry. The Cruce horses, as a non-feral strain, are therefore truly unique. Visual examination of the Cruce herd indicates that the herd history is very likely accurate. The horses are remarkably uniform and of a very pronounced Spanish phenotype. In some instances, this is an extremely Spanish type, such as is rare in other Spanish strains persisting in North America. This type is illustrated in paintings of Spanish horses during the colonial period, and it was a pleasant, though great surprise, to see it persisting to this day. The horses varied over a very narrow range from this extreme type to a more moderate type that is more common in other North American strains and Iberian strains today.

The need to conserve this herd is great, since they do represent a unique genetic resource. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has become interested in rare breed conservation over the last fifteen years and their interest in horses is limited to those breeds that are uninfluenced by the Arabian and the Thoroughbred. The reason they have limited their interest and energy to horses without such influence is the incredible scarcity of such populations worldwide. The Cruce horses fit in this category very securely and are therefore of great interest and importance not only in North America, but also in the worldwide efforts to conserve genetically unique populations of livestock.

The American Minor Breeds Conservancy (AMBC) is very interested in this population. It must be emphasized that this interest is very great in the case of the Cruce horses and very limited with regard to most other horse types. For example, the AMBC has no interest in the conservation of western feral populations except for the few (two) of purely Spanish phenotype. The Cruce population is a most significant discovery of a type of horse thought to be gone forever.

In 1990, Robin Collins Keller, founder of Heritage Discovery Center (HDC), received a foundation herd directly from the Wilbur-Cruce Ranch. In 2002, Return to Freedom opened its Sanctuary to receive a small band of the horses from HDC. Isadora and Ines-Cruce were born at Return to Freedom. RTF recognizes the historical and genetic significance of these wonderful horses and continues to work collaboratively for the conservation of threatened rare strains of America’s original Colonial Spanish Horses, as well as the dwindling diverse herds that have become The American Wild Horse of today.

To learn more, read The Discovery of the Wilbur-Cruce Horse in 1989 and its history (courtesy Heritage Breed Southwest).


News About the Wilbur Cruce Spanish Colonial Mission Herd

Resource Information Regarding Spanish Colonial Mission Horses

Spanish Colonial Mission Horse Videos

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Peekaboo Masks is donating 35% of its sales from limited-edition masks that feature the wild horses and burros at our American Wild Horse Sanctuary.