Sulphur Horse

Sulphur Horse
  • HEIGHT: 13–15.1 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Southwestern Utah
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Horses of Spanish Colonial type, many of which are dun or buckskin
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Trail and endurance riding, ranch work, pleasure riding, and all Western sports

If you look at a road map of Utah, you will observe that the western side of the state seems to be crossed by very few “principal highways” and only an open meandering network of “other roads.” The few towns appear as very small dots on the map. The towns and roads are widely spaced because even in these days of wondrous technological advantages, the terrain and climate are astonishingly inhospitable. In the southwestern quadrant of Utah, along the western edge but not quite to the southern border, is a range of mountains labeled on the map as either the Mountain Home or the Needle Range; locals call it the Indian Peak Range. The southern end of this area has long been home to bands of wild horses.

When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began to oversee the wild herds after 1971, it designated an area of nearly 143,000 acres, including the Needle Mountains, as the Sulphur Springs Herd Management Area (HMA). In his essay “Wild Horses of Utah’s Mountain Home Range,” Ron Roubidoux described this area as follows: “The highest elevation is 9,790 feet . . . elevations of the surrounding valley floors are between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. Low areas are generally sandy while the mountain slopes are very rocky. . . . From the dry, lifeless hardpan of the valley floors the land gently rises over native grass–covered flats to sagebrush-covered benches, and finally to the pinion-juniper covered mountains. Benches and mountains are broken up with many rugged canyons and draws.”

Most of this land is unfenced and although it is difficult country to travel, the Bureau of Land Management has routinely rounded up wild horses in the area, eventually putting some of these up for adoption. Between 1971 and 1979, the BLM inventoried the horses but none was removed. In 1980 they captured the first nineteen animals and put them up locally for adoption.

In 1985 and 1986, while removing seventy-eight horses from the Sulphur Springs HMA, BLM managers noticed that some of the horses that had come from the northern end of the Needle Range had unusual characteristics. A number of them were dun-factor horses, and their conformation was also unusual. A report described them as “a bunch of heavily marked-up line-back duns with strong Spanish characteristics.” Line-back is another term for the dorsal stripe characteristic of early Spanish horses.

Because of these obviously significant and unusual traits, the BLM released many of these horses back onto the HMA. An official Sulphur Herd Management Area Plan was signed in 1987 with the objective to: “increase the occurrence of animals with good conformation and those displaying the characteristics of the wild Tarpan type of horse and with colors that occur less frequently to increase the adoptability of horses removed for management purposes.”

The BLM captured seventy-eight more Sulphur Horses in 1988 and 1989 and put them up for adoption within the state of Utah. In 1992 the BLM discovered seventeen horses that had been illegally captured. Three of the animals died; the agency released two and put up the others for adoption.

Sulphurs come in all colors except pinto. This one is a claybank dun.

Spanish Blood

As part of the investigation of the attempted theft of the horses, the BLM took blood samples and sent them to geneticist Gus Cothran at the University of Kentucky. He blood-typed and tested the mitochondrial DNA of the samples and subsequently tested blood from more than fifty adopted horses from the area. He concluded that the test results confirmed a strong Spanish heritage in the Sulphur Horses, saying, “The total analysis shows a more clear Iberian relationship of the Sulphur herd than for any other feral horse population.”

The BLM hired Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, famous horse geneticist and Spanish Colonial Horse expert, to visit and evaluate the Sulphur Horses in 1992. In a 2003 update to his original findings, he stated, “The Sulphur herd management area in southwest Utah is one area that still has Spanish type horses today. This region is along the Old Spanish Trail trade route, along which many horses traveled during Spanish and later times. Both traders and Ute Indians used routes through the area repeatedly, and the feral horses are thought to have originated from this source. Chief Walkara and others made many horse raids into California, and it is likely that the horses in this region have a California origin, making them distinct from other feral strains. Many of the horses from the northern end of this management area have very Spanish type. The usual colors in these herds are dun, grullo, red dun, bay, black and a few chestnuts. These horses show remarkable adaptation to their harsh environment.”

Grullas, blacks, and roans occur in the Sulphur Horse breed.

When sixty-eight horses were rounded up at Pot Sum Pah, Utah, in August 2003 and placed for adoption, the herd included a bay horse with excellent conformation but a curly coat. The Sulphur Horse Registry adopted this horse, and he has become a traveling emissary for the organization, demonstrating the diversity of horses that may be properly included within this unique group of Spanish descent.

Earlier Evidence

Some argue that the first horses to reach the area probably came along well before Chief Walkara’s horse-theft raids in the mid-1800s. An extraordinarily detailed, includes in its history section a long list of Spanish explorers, associated dates, and the areas they explored. From this information it seems plausible that some horses were brought to the area as early as the mid- to late sixteenth century. Furthermore, escaped horses, and those stolen from the Spanish and brought by very early Indian horse traders on their travels north, probably crossed the area.

Whatever the original geographical source of the horses, the heritage is distinctly Spanish. The conformation and genetic markers of Sulphur Horses indicate a long-isolated population of horses of early Spanish ancestry. This tiny pocket of horses is surely a genetic and historical treasure worth saving.

History of the Breed Registries

The philosophies of the major breed registries differ. For the Sulphur Horse Registry (SHR) the goals are: “to encourage and promote the establishment of captive herds of Sulphur horses for the purposes of preserving the gene pool as found in the wild, and to establish a registry and stud book for the registration and preservation of the pedigrees of adopted Sulphur Mustangs and their progeny.” At this time, the Sulphur Horse Registry does not require DNA or blood marker parentage verification except for some captive-born foals.

The American Sulphur Horse Association exists to preserve, promote, and perpetuate the Spanish/Iberian American Sulphur Horse, in cooperation with the Cedar City Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and to enhance the wild herds of Iberian Mustangs that currently inhabit the Mountain Home Sulphur Herd Management Area. Founded in 2003, the ASHA was formed to support the true Spanish American Sulphur Horse breed.

The ASHA has three divisions in its registry. The first division is for BLM Sulphur Horses that have passed an inspection. This division is called the Foundation Division. BLM freeze-branded foals are registered in the Foundation Division after inspection at two years of age.

Captive-born Sulphur Horses are placed into the Permanent Division of the registry. If the horse is from non-registered parents, it must pass inspection. If it is from registered parents, DNA must be on file to verify parentage, but these horses do not have to go through the inspection process. All registered horses must have DNA on file before offspring can be registered.

The third division, the Half Sulphur Division, is for half-Sulphur Horses. The foal resulting from a cross must have at least 50 percent pure Spanish American Sulphur Horse for it to be eligible to be registered. The Sulphur parent must be registered in the ASHA and have DNA on file within the registry.

Breed Characteristics

The Sulphur Horse shows distinct Spanish qualities in its conformation and color.


The American Sulphur Horse Association (ASHA) has established the following written breed standard.

“The height is 13.1 to 15.1 hands. The head is of medium length, narrow, and clean-cut with the lower jaw not too pronounced and the cheeks inclined to be long. The side profile is straight or convex. The eyes are large and almond shaped, expressive, and confident. The ears are medium to long, narrow, and expressive. The neck is of medium length, clean-cut at the throatlatch, deep at the base, and well inserted between the shoulders, which are long, slanting, and smooth muscled. The neck may be slightly crested in some individuals.

The wild Sulphur Horses of southwest Utah may be the descendants of animals used by early Spanish and Indian traders.

“The withers are prominent and always higher than the croup. There is a smooth transition from the neck to the back. The chest is narrow as seen from the front but deep when viewed from the side. The back is short to medium in length and straight; it forms a smooth connection between the withers and the loins. The croup is strong, of medium length, and slightly sloping. As viewed from the rear, the hip shape may range from rafter-shaped to round. The tail set is medium to low.

“The cannons tend to be long, with well-pronounced tendons. The hocks are long and strong. The pasterns are relatively long and sloping. The fetlocks have little hair. The hooves are medium sized, well formed, and extremely hard.”


The ASHA accepts all solid colors but excludes pintos. The colors most common to the Sulphur Horse are dun, red dun, clay-bank, grullo, bay, black, Palomino, sorrel, roan, Buckskin, brown, and chestnut. Stars, strips, snips, and white stockings are allowed.


According to the American Sulphur Horse Association (formed in 2003):

• The association registers only horses with either BLM certification of Sulphur HMA origin or proof of descent from Spanish-type Sulphurs.

• Horses must pass a physical inspection before being admitted to the registry.

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