Answers Found Along the Andean Equine Trail
(for Western Magazine )
Eight to ten thousands years after the equids mysteriously disappeared from the Americas, the Spanish conquest of the New World reintroduced the Equine species to the Western Hemisphere. For nearly three-quarters of a century the Spanish exported war horses and breeding stock to the Americas. However, 1523 marked a sharp decline in horses that left Spain for the Americas due to a costly embargo that was placed by King Charles. After 1541 only a minimal number of shipments were made. Less than 50 years were decisive in populating the majority of the Americas with horses.
The fact that most of these voyages originated in ports in southern Spain, has propagated the misconstrued conclusion that the ancestor of the horse breeds of the Americas were of the Andalusian breed. Historians cannot be blamed for the often-repeated conclusion, as in those days it was geographical origin rather than type that determined the identity of a horse. Thus, equines shipped out of Andalusia were in fact, “Andalusians”, be they of any extraction.
It is important to note that the formal concept of “breeds” in domestic livestock was little known in the 15th century. In fact, the planned intent to develop the Andalusian breed was not initiated until 1567, broodmares were not purchased for the project until 1572 and not until 1599 did its mastermind, Diego Lopez de Haro, consider the breed established. Formal registries that affirmed the purity and predictable phenotypes of most other breeds evolved in subsequent years.
What must be understood clearly is that in the 2,200 years preceding the historic journey of Admiral Columbus across the Atlantic, the Iberian Peninsula had the influence of many types of horses. To assume that the equine representatives of Spain that reached the shores of America were a homogeneous lot would be wishful thinking at best. Even by mid 16th century the Spanish Royal Stud was unable to find 1200 broodmares of a determined type to start the breeding program petitioned by King Phillip II. History clearly justifies the heterogeneous nature of the horse population in Spain.
The newly formed Kingdom of Spain encompassed equine genealogies that were brought by the Celts, the Iberos, the Carthaginians, the Numidians, the Lybians, the Romans, the Germanic “Barbarian” tribes, the mid-eastern Arabs, the Moors from the Barbary Coast, in addition to some prehistoric horse types that were considered native to the peninsula. The Celtic Pony, the “Marismeña” or French Camargue, the African descendents of the Dongola horse, a smattering of the Syrian horse, the ancestors of the Baltic Norwegian Fiord, Kleppers and Jmouds, the cold-blooded Percherons, Belgium and Flanders types, the ancestors of the Barb and later the more modern “improved” version that had and a small influence of the Arab, all found their way into the Iberian horse populace prior to the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella. The ancestors of the Sorraia horse and Garrano ponies were probably already present when all these outsiders were introduced. Although for centuries the influence of many of these horse types was regional, the re-conquest of Spain by independent kingdoms of the north that progressively pushed the Moorish presence south brought about the presence of a wide assortment of horses in southern Spain.
What types of horses were chosen for export to America is anybody’s guess. This risky trans-Atlantic journey often took the lives of 30-50% of the horses transported. In lieu of failing winds and limited water supplies, horses were cast overboard. Upon arrival to their destination, survivors faced the reality of a hot and humid, insect-infested, swampy undeveloped land with scarce infrastructure. The frequently-mentioned suggestion that the ancestors of our American breeds were horses of the highest caliber from the “Andalusian” lineages of the Guzman and Valenzuela stock seems very unlikely.
In fact, the discovery of America coincided with the surge in popularity for the Moorish “Andalusi” type horse, and over the course of the next century, the Andalusian itself. The changing strategy of warfare that now counted on the use of the musket, required more mobility than could be obtained through the ambling tendencies of the “Castellano” and “Fieldon” warhorses. Still these courageous amblers found their way into Andalusia after making up half of the Christian mounts that overtook the last Moorish stronghold in Alhambra.
In keeping with the European demand for the taller, faster and nimbler war horses, not only were the ambling breeds condemned, but also the smaller typey northern “jacas”, the less elegant “rocines” and the course, primitive Sorraia types, as well. During this era when mule production ran rampant, the scarcity of the horsepower motivated cheap imports of English and French “hacks” to meet the blue collar needs of the coach and light draft power. Many of these horses were of the overo color that was popular in Western Europe at the time, but minimally present in Spain where blacks and bays predominated.
What all these horse types had in common, was the fact that they were hardy horses that were acquirable for a very small sum of money. Precisely, it was these characteristics that assured their selection for crossings to the Americas, where they were well-suited for, the rigors of the journey, the inhospitable environment of the mountainous terrain of the America and the hand-to-hand combat that would prevail for centuries to come.
It is this variety of Spanish genealogy that offered a wide genetic pool from which to select the traits that were most functional for the various regions of the Americas. As the breeding centers of Central America and the Caribbean provided the conquistadors with horses on which they could explore and settle new lands, it was only logical that the horse types that were less valued by the breeders be the first considerations to sell to these precarious missions that could not be choosy about the quality of their steeds.
As a result the short, choppy, gaited horse that was preferred in the Caribbean basin gave rise to many formal breeds and informal types of native horses that can be seen all around this region. The Paso Fino that developed in Puerto Rico was also appreciated in Columbia where the mountainous terrain made the short, elevated and smooth stride more functional. For analogous reasons, the Dominican Republic, Cuban and Costa Rican Criollos also had similar gaits. Centuries of selection for adaptation to the hot and humid climates of the tropics gave rise to thinner-skinned horses with limited muscle mass.
Culling out the undesirable types served the conquistadors well, as the thicker-skinned horses with a double-layered hair coat and more abundant mane, tail and forelocks would find their way into the highlands of the Andes. In Equador pacing horse types such as the “quiteños” and moreover, the “parameros”, showed a tremendous ability to adapt to altitudes that are rarely considered suitable for equines.
As the horse progressed further south and found itself in the sandy arid expanses of what is now Peru, a flatter, longer-striding, over-stepping pace with a distinct paddling of the forelegs (known as “termino”) developed in the “costeños” that were the precursors to the present day Peruvian Paso. Smaller and coarser varieties of this greatly admired breed, such as the “serrano” and “morocucho”, came about as the horse was introduced into the areas of higher altitude. The later incredibly exists in lands as high as 4,000m (13,000 ft) a.s.l. belying the research that indicates limitation of equine fertility at this altitude. The same can be said for a small pony that has propagated itself in the Bolivian region between Lake Titicaca and the Valley of Sorata. This feral equid known as “pitizos” is thought to be closely related to the “sunicho” ponies. These in turn are of a similar background to the Peruvian “morochucos”, but even smaller in stature with an extremely thick hair coat.
During the colonial period, the rolling plains found at the lower altitudes in what is now Bolivia, was known as the region of Charcas. This area became a prolific producer of more rustic trotting horses that had less appeal around the capitol of the Peruvian kingdom. However these hardy ponies would find themselves very useful in the cattle growing regions of meridional South America. The northern sectors of Argentina around Salta, Juy Juy, Tucoman and Mendoza were largely populated by horses from Charcas or descendents that found their way into Chile. On the eastern side of the Andes the Criollo breeds quickly found themselves active participants in the cattle explosion of the wide expanses of the Pampa and Patagonia. Here, coarse horses were selected for endurance with long, effortless strides at a gallop.
In the more temperate side of the Andes, the captainship of Chile was also populated with horses from Charcas. The arduous journey across the Andes screened out survivors that proved easy-keepers, sure-footed, with strong hooves and tolerance for the cold inclement weather. The endless precipitous terrain, not only on the skirts of the Andes, but also in the transversal mountains and along the coastal mountain range, encouraged the Chilean Horse to take on physical characteristics that are typical of mountain bred horses of northern Spain. Greater muscle mass, sprinting ability and steady, dependable temperaments, all made suitable horses on treacherous Andean trails and also proved aptitudes that were advantageous in working cattle. Three-hundred and fifty years of selection for cow sense and athleticism has made this breed one of the most privileged cow horses.
Although there is a pride that is emanated by horse breeders around the Americas that lay claim to a definitive ancestral link to the prestigious yet pampered Andalusian breed, there are solid reasons to think that the influential equines arriving from Spain were of a much more diverse background. If we analyze the propensity to pace, the physical traits and the extreme hardiness of the horses along the historic trail traveled between Hispañola and the southern Andes, it would seem that a stronger case can be made for the influence of Iberian horse types that were more influenced by genes that entered over the Pyrenees Mountains.
Randall Ray Arms, PAS
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