Anza Trail Blog

The Critically Endangered Colonial Spanish Mission Horse

by Deb Wolfe, Preservation Breeder of Colonial Spanish Horses

Tagged as:   equestrian

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The pure Spanish horses transported to New Spain demonstrated their steady mind and hardiness long before they reached the beaches of eastern Mexico. Horses travelled to the Americas from Spain on ships, suspended from rafters, supported by huge slings around their bellies to prevent them from breaking their legs. The horse that survived the arduous voyage, multiplied and thrived in the New World.

Father Kino’s Mission Horses

As early as 1700, Father Eusebio Kino had established the practice of leaving bands of 20-30 of his Spanish "mission horses" at each small settlement that he founded or visited throughout the Pimería Alta (50,000 square miles of present-day Arizona and Sonora, Mexico). Using Spanish horses he obtained from missions to the south, Keno's breeding ranch at Mission Nuestra Señora de los Dolores in Sonora produced a horse that could carry a rider over 60-miles of rough terrain in a single day. Kino’s horses quickly adapted to the temperature extremes and punishing terrain, and could survive by feeding on the sparse vegetation of the arid Sonoran Desert. 

By 1775, direct descendents of Kino’s mission horses were widespread through present-day New Mexico and Arizona. Sonoran-born Juan Bautista de Anza likely grew up riding them. They would have be the same type of sturdy mount he would rely upon for his travels to the Western frontier of Alta California. Records indicate that his expedition members rode on horses supplied from the Tubac area (140 Spanish horses on the 1774 expedition; 500 on the 1775-76 expedition).

Until the 1850s the pure Colonial Spanish horse that dominated the West remained in large numbers, largely unchanged. Tragically, by the 1950s, only 1,500 true Colonial Spanish horses could be found, after a century of systematic slaughter of Indian ponies and range horses by the U.S. Government on public lands, by ranchers on private lands, and by deliberate cross-breeding with European stock.  

A Remarkable Discovery

In 1987 -- 300 years after Kino established his horse ranch -- an isolated herd of 120 Colonial Spanish mission-type horses was discovered 50-miles west of Tubac, Ariz., on an isolated ranch. The Wilbur-Cruce family owned the ranch and in 1885 had purchased 25 mares and a stallion from a horse trader in Sonora. Importantly, the Wilbur-Cruce ranch horses were kept as a closed herd ever since.

Equine geneticist Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg evaluated DNA tests that were performed on all of the remaining Wilbur-Cruce horses. He found Iberian DNA markers and concluded, “The Cruce horses are one of a handful 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. They are the only domesticated rancher strain of horses that persists in the Southwest.”

Dr. Sponenberg then examined the horses and reported, “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."

Following confirmation that the horses were indeed Spanish, the herd was divided among five private ranches for conservation.

The Critically Endangered Kino Mission Horse Today

Despite volunteers' best efforts to expand their numbers, the Wilbur-Cruce mission horses, after surviving centuries in the harsh Sonoran desert, remain critically endangered. (A 2011 census by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy census found 92 horses remaining.)

Today, breed stewards, new horse-owners and volunteers are urgently needed to ensure that the bloodlines of these horses endure for future generations to enjoy – they are a living treasure.

For more information on preserving the Wilbur-Cruce Mission Horse, contact Deb Wolfe at or visit

Read more about Colonial Spanish horses at the American Livestock Breed Conservancy website:


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Transporting horses to New Spain. (Source: "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" by Zvi Dor-Ner)

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Spanish Colonial horses Finn, Abella and Stone Shield (Credit: Fast Winn)

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Diamond, a Wilbur-Cruce stallion, with the author (Credit: Maureen Kirk-Detbrener)

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Colonial Spanish horses Choctaw Atocha, Montoya, and Buffalo Shield (Credit: Fast Winn)

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