Spanish Colonial Horse

Spanish Colonial Horse
  • HEIGHT: 13–14.2 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Original genetic contribution from Spain, with different influences in many parts of North America
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Spanish conformation, natural herding ability, endurance
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Ranching, trail riding, endurance riding, and pleasure riding

To most people, the term mustang suggests a feral or free-ranging horse from the western plains. In the case of the Spanish Mustang, that image is not necessarily correct, although the similarity between the two names leads to a good bit of confusion. For many generations, quite a few Spanish Mustangs have been bred and raised as domestic, not free-ranging, horses. But they are nonetheless direct descendants of horses brought to this hemisphere by the Spanish Conquistadores, and have had very little, if any, other blood mixed in over the centuries.

Some Spanish Mustangs may have feral strains included in their lineage. Others have bloodlines from specific isolated ranches that used only Spanish stock, while at least one line is descended from early Spanish mission-bred horses. There are also Spanish Mustangs descended exclusively from Native American lines.

To reduce the confusion about the names, some researchers, particularly Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, prefer the term Spanish Colonial Horse to Spanish Mustang to designate horses with particular genetic markers that indicate lineage from early Spanish horses. This definition also encompasses several East Coast populations, such as the Shackleford Banker Ponies of North Carolina, which most of us wouldn’t immediately think of when we hear the words Spanish Mustang. Although the term Spanish Colonial Horse is more scientifically accurate and reflective of the history of these animals, the name has not quite caught on yet with the general public.

Whatever their name, these horses descend from Spanish lines, from an early period when Spanish horses were widely used for improving other horse types throughout Europe. As Sponenberg points out, other breeds, particularly Arabians and Thoroughbreds, eventually surpassed the dominance of Spanish horses in Europe. For the five centuries since the time of Columbus, horses in Spain have been selectively bred for various purposes, and modern Spanish horses are consequently quite rare in Europe and may in fact be in need of conservation in Spain, if any remain at all.

Those genetically isolated remnants of the first New World Spanish horses that still exist in this country are actually closer to the historic horses of the Golden Age of Spain than are any other horses, and they are also highly in need of genetic conservation. The use of DNA to identify populations of historically significant horses has greatly aided the research, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done to save important populations that are in peril of genetic dilution and extinction.

Over the years, several breed registries and associations have been founded to document and protect various Spanish horse lines in North America, but not all associations have approached the problems related to the management of rare populations in quite the same way. Philosophical and political differences of opinion have caused some of these groups to merge, while splinter groups have split off from larger organizations. Despite their differences, however all of these groups are still unified in their appreciation for the history, talent, and abilities of the Spanish Colonial Horse.

Spanish Colonials are more closely related to the horses of the golden age of Spain than are any other breeds.

The oldest of the Spanish horse–based organizations is the Spanish Mustang Registry, spearheaded by Robert Brislawn, of Wyoming, who in the mid-1950s bought as many of these horses as he could identify. The group’s intent was to identify and preserve the last of the true, old-type Spanish Mustang lines and to form a breeding herd with a large and diverse gene pool in order to avoid heavy inbreeding and eliminate the need to resort to crossbreeding. They have worked closely with geneticists since DNA testing became available.

A very different and equally valid approach was taken by the Spanish Barb Breeders Association, which has chosen to put heavy emphasis on preserving the Spanish phenotype as well as on bloodlines. They began with a tiny group of horses and have chosen to maintain both type and quality through careful selection and inbreeding.

These young foals show the intelligence and alertness necessary in a free-ranging horse. With improved nutrition, they will probably grow to be larger than their ancestors.

Some of the other associations also dedicated to the preservation of horses of Spanish heritage include the Kiger Musteno Association, the American Indian Horse Association, the Sorraia Mustang Association, and the Ranchero Stock Horse Association. Almost all of these organizations use some combination of selection based on type, as well as DNA and pedigree research, to select individuals for registration. Many horses are listed in more than one of these registries.

Breed Characteristics

The Spanish Colonial Horse is still valued for the qualities that brought it to the New World centuries ago. They are tough, strong, quick, and willing to work; many have a particular aptitude for working cattle. Comfortable to ride, they make good endurance and trail horses. Quite a few are gaited. Enthusiasts prize them for their steadiness, intelligence, and ability to form a strong bond with their owner.


Because several different organizations register Spanish Colonial Horses, and many horses are registered with more than one, it is not possible to get an accurate estimate of the total number of these horses. One group, the Spanish Mustang Registry, reports approximately 3,100 horses on its books.


These small horses generally stand no more than 14.2 hands and weigh between 700 and 800 pounds. Some can reach 15 hands, and with better nutrition and selective breeding, it is likely that the average height will increase somewhat over time. They display the classic Spanish-type head with a broad, straight forehead and tapered, convex nose. The chest is narrow but deep, with long, well-angulated shoulders and prominent withers. They have a short, strong back, muscular hindquarters, and a sloping croup with a low tail set. The legs are sound, with small, upright hooves.


These horses come in a wide variety of solid colors, including black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, grullo, red dun, buckskin, palomino, and cream. They also show a range of pinto and spotted coloring, notably a frame overo pattern that is found predominantly in Spanish-type horses.

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