Spanish Barb Horse

  • HEIGHT: 13.3–14.3 hands
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: A critically rare breed of medium-sized, solid, well-built horses that exhibit Spanish traits
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Ranch and cattle work, all Western sports, and trail and endurance riding

The history of this world-conquering breed began with the Berbers of North Africa. In 711 CE, these highly adept warrior horsemen, riding hot-blooded, desert-bred horses, invaded Spain. During the nearly eight centuries that they remained, the Berber horses, later known as African Barbs, were frequently crossed on the heavier Spanish warhorses. The result was one of the most successful horse types in history, an ideal blend of elegance, agility, and durability. They were world famous during the Middle Ages and sought for royal breeding farms throughout Europe. They developed an extraordinary and heritable “cow sense” that made them useful in all herding and ranching situations, as well as for mounted bullfighting. They had exceptional endurance.

The name Spanish Barb was actually coined quite a bit later in the United States and refers to this heritage of crosses between the African Berber horses and Spanish breeds. When the Spanish set about to colonize the New World, they brought horses of this lineage with them. Originally transported to the islands of the Caribbean, the Spanish Barb was soon introduced to what are now Mexico, the United States, and South America. Horses flourished, and there were soon huge free-ranging herds.

Strong, intelligent, and adaptable, the Spanish Barb has influenced numerous other breeds.

Although the Spanish controlled most of the territory of North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during this period the English began to colonize the East Coast from the mid-Atlantic area to what became New England. At the same time the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek Indians acquired quite a few Spanish horses, which they frequently traded during their travels north and west. The English acquired some of these horses, but they seem not to have realized that they were actually of Spanish breeding.

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, wealthy plantation owners from Virginia began to import English racehorses, which at the time were very often line-bred Oriental Barbs blended with a good bit of Irish blood. When breeders crossed these imported racehorses back onto the horses they had acquired from the Indians, they were largely crossing Oriental Barbs to Spanish Barbs. The result was the deep-bodied little horse known as the Short Horse or sometimes the Quarter-Pather that they used for their popular sprint races. This type later became the Quarter Horse.

Until at least 1803, when the Americans acquired the western territories, and probably well after that time, Spanish Barb blood was dominant across much of the country. In the West, Spanish horses were raised on large missions and huge ranches, and they ran free by the millions. Spanish-bred mares often were used as broodmares when English stallions were brought west.

Destruction and Rescue

As the western migration began, however, there was an almost immediate attempt to control both the Indians and Spanish-speaking people. The military confiscated, sold, or destroyed their horses. Overwhelming racism meant that horses that either Indians or Mexicans might have used were considered unworthy for use by whites, despite the abilities of the horses. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, slaughter and extensive crossbreeding very nearly extinguished the old Spanish Barb. Had it not been for the foresight and regard of a very few western ranchers who recognized the abilities of the breed, it would have become extinct in North America.

The Spanish Barb Breeders Association (SBBA) was formed in 1972, having located about thirty horses to be used in its initial effort to perpetuate the breed. The founders began by noting the merits and faults of each horse in order to give direction to the breeding program. They were well aware that the only way to perpetuate the breed from this tiny nucleus of horses was by judicious use of line-breeding and inbreeding. The success of their breeding methods became evident in the quality of the foals and the stabilization of the desired attributes of the breed.

Registry Requirements

The SBBA is concerned primarily with accurately documenting and preserving the breed. For this reason, the registration process involves the inspection of every horse, regardless of bloodlines. To be eligible for registration, a horse must be out of two SBBA-registered parents and must also be evaluated on its own merit.

Before the age of three, accepted horses are given either Appendix or Tentative Registration papers. At three or older, horses are again evaluated. Attaining permanent status depends on several factors, the most important being the degree to which the horse conforms to all SBBA breed standards. In addition to overall merit, each evaluation involves fifteen different precise measurements of the horse. Only those horses most closely approximating the ideal for the breed are given permanent registration papers, and breeders are encouraged to select animals for breeding only from their ranks.

Breed Characteristics

The overall appearance of the Spanish Barb is balanced and smooth, with proportionate depth of neck and body, roundness of hips, short, clean legs, and a well-set, distinctively refined head.


These horses average 13.3 to 14.3 hands; a few individuals may mature slightly above or below this range, but they do not represent the norm. The Spanish Barb’s head is distinctively Spanish in type, lean, refined, and well formed, with a straight or slightly convex profile. The ears are short to medium, curved inward and slightly back at the tips. The eyes are set well forward on the head and are usually brown, although blue eyes do occur. Prominent bone structure above the eyes is characteristic. The muzzle is refined, short, and tapered, with a shallow mouth and firm lips. The nostrils are crescent shaped and of ample size when flared during exertion. The chest is strong, of medium width, and sufficiently muscled inside the forearms to form an arch. The ribs are well sprung, never slab-sided. The heart girth is deep.

The shoulders are well angled and in balance with the back and the heart girth. The back is short and strong and in proportion to the length of the shoulders, forelegs, and depth of girth. The loins are short, straight, strong, and full, with deep flanks. The croup is round and sufficiently full in width and length to be in balance with the body. The hindquarters are not heavily muscled. The tail set is medium to low.

The straight and well-formed legs have long muscling in the forearms and thighs and short clean cannons. The joints are well developed, strong, and free of excess flesh. Chestnuts on the front legs should be small, smooth, and non-protruding. When present, chestnuts on the hind legs should be extremely small and flush with the legs. Ergots are either lacking, very small, or appear as calluses. The pasterns are strong, medium in length and slope, and flexible, which contributes to the smoothness of gaits. The hooves are ample and well shaped, with excellent frog formation and thick walls that are extremely hard.

This breed exhibits a wide variety of colors and patterns.

The mane, forelock, and tail are long and full, the mane sometimes falling on both sides of the neck.


All colors are found within the breed. Dun and grulla are relatively common. Chestnut, black, bay, roan, and both overo and tobiano patterns appear, as do other color variants.


According to the Spanish Barb Breeders Association (SBBA) (founded in 1972):

  • 613 horses are currently registered.
  • About 20 new foals are registered each year.
  • The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists the Spanish Barb as a critically rare breed.
  • SBBA horses are most common in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, but are also found in Mississippi, New York, Colorado, and Tennessee.

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