The Spanish Barb Horse
A Short History
When the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century, they brought along a small-bodied, swift-moving horse native to North Africa’s rugged Barbary Coast. Crossing this transplant with native Iberian stock produced the Spanish Barb, a durable and courageous mount with amazing stamina and an exceedingly smooth gait. Rock-footed, barrel-chested, and easily trained, the Spanish armies conquered a large part of the western hemisphere while riding on its back.
Conventional history has it that the American West was settled from east to west during the 1800's. But for the horseman, the west really began in 1519 when Hernan Cortes unloaded his horses near Vera Cruz, starting Spain’s astonishingly rapid conquest of Northern New Spain that included the American southwest. Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, received back word from his terrified warriors that the invaders were swift beasts with two heads and six legs, carrying sticks that spit fire and made loud noises. Rumors quickly spread that their horses fed on human flesh. Spanish settlement moved from south to north astride the sturdy Spanish Barb, so that by the 1700s, the Spanish cavalry and clergy had laid claim to a vast swath of land that included Mexico and the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Texas, homeland to myriad tribes of foot-bound indigenous Americans. As the Spanish expanded cattle ranching in the newly conquered lands, the tractable Spanish Barb became the horse used by the Mexican vaquero.
The sturdy Spanish Barb also became the foundation for most of the ponies bred by native people in the Americas, not only on the Great Plains, but also tribes east of the Mississippi River. In Texas, it was crossed with English breeds like the Thoroughbred and others, and became the foundation stock for the Quarter Horses used today on American ranches as well as for racing, horse shows, and rodeos all over the west.
Pureblood Spanish Barbs are hard to find these days. One herd still exists in Arizona, descendants of Mexican stock brought across the border to the Arivaca ranch of Eva Wilbur-Cruz. Chile was the last stronghold of the Spanish before they were driven out of the Americas, and today Spanish Barbs are prized there as work horses and for competition in the Huasco, Chile’s version of rodeo. In 2011, Diane and I climbed the Andes Mountains on their backs, crossing swift-running, belly-deep glacial rivers to look for the vanishing South American Condor. We didn’t see the Condor, but the horseback ride was exceptional. All of which brings me to the point that the horse should be America’s symbol, no offense to the bird intended. I mean, what has the Bald Eagle done for us lately?
Pure Spanish Barb horse
Chilean cowboys at the Huaso
Mexican ranch horse with vaquero - 2012
Diane in the Andes on a Spanish Barb horse