Wilbur-Cruce Mission Horse

Wilbur-Cruce Mission Horse
  • HEIGHT: 14–15 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Southern Arizona
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: A strain of the critically endangered Spanish Barb; exhibits Spanish conformation, sure-footedness, courage, and inborn “cow sense”
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Ranch work, trail and endurance riding, all Western sports

A Jesuit priest named Father Eusebio Kino brought the first Spanish horses to the area that is now southern Arizona and northern Mexico in the late 1600s. He established his headquarters in the San Miguel River Valley, where he founded Mission Dolores and Rancho Dolores. Mission Dolores was Father Kino’s central breeding operation for Spanish horses, as well as for other livestock. The Wilbur-Cruce Mission Horses originated from this area.

Two hundred years later, a horse trader named Juan Sepulveda bought a herd of several hundred horses from Mission Dolores, intending to drive them to the stockyards in Kansas City for auction. His first stop on the drive was the homestead of Dr. Rueben Wilbur, who bought twenty-five mares and a stallion. Dr. Wilbur was a physician and the first rancher to settle in that district of the Arizona Territory.

He turned the horses out in the high desert mountains, allowing them to multiply and letting the forces of nature toughen his horses and eliminate the weak. Because they were already well adapted to the dry climate and the extremely rocky terrain, these sturdy horses managed quite well without human assistance. On the ranch, they were referred to as “little rock horses,” which nicely describes both the horses and their environment. For the most part, the rock horses stayed in the mountains. The ranch hands caught and trained only as many of the horses as they needed for work and left the rest alone.

The ranch remained in the family and the horses were isolated for 113 years, protected by their remote location and the dedication of the Wilburs. Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce, a granddaughter of Dr. Wilbur, took over management of the ranch in 1930. She deeply valued the quickness, sure-footedness, intelligence, and courage of the horses, and worked hard to keep the herd free from outside influences. She finally sold the ranch in 1990, feeling that she was too old to stay in the business. The Nature Conservancy bought the land but did not need or want the horses. Recognizing the genetic and historical value of the Wilbur-Cruce Horses, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) provided the funding to trap and remove them. Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, the technical coordinator for the ALBC, divided the total herd of seventy-seven into breeding groups and distributed those groups among conservation breeders.

Eventually the Spanish Barb Breeders Association (SBBA) created a division in its registry for the Wilbur-Cruce Mission strain, allowing these horses to be documented as a distinct population, which provides maximum opportunity for long-term conservation. The SBBA also keeps historical documents about the Wilbur-Cruce Horses.

It is easy to become confused by the number of names that may be correctly applied to the Wilbur-Cruce Horses. They are registered as Spanish Barbs, but it is also correct to refer to them as a strain of Spanish Colonial Horses, or even as Spanish Mustangs.

Wilbur-Cruce Mission Horses thrived for hundreds of years in the backlands of Arizona. They are now considered a distinct population within the Spanish Barb registry.

Wilbur-Cruces are a wonderful choice for pleasure, trail, and endurance riding.

Breed Characteristics

As a subset of Spanish Barbs, Wilbur-Cruce Horses have the typical breed characteristics, including a straight or slightly convex profile, very expressive eyes, a relatively narrow but deep body, a sloped croup with a fairly low-set tail, good legs, and extremely hard feet. Although there aren’t very many of them, they still make excellent ranch horses and good mounts for trail and endurance riding.


The Wilbur-Cruce stands 14 to 15 hands. The profile of the head is straight to slightly convex. The ears are short to moderate in length, often being notched at the tip. The eyes are expressive. The broad forehead narrows to a small muzzle. The neck is well arched at the topline, broad at the base, and blends into shoulders of good length and angle. The back is short to medium in length with strong and powerful loins. The croup may be rounded or slightly angular, with a medium to low tail set. The legs are of medium length, but the cannons are of excellent circumference. The hooves are ample in size and extremely tough. The mane and tail are full, especially in the stallions.

Blue roans are common in this breed.

This Wilbur-Cruce Horse is an excellent mover.


Like the Spanish Barb, these horses can be black, sorrel, chestnut, roan, grulla, dun, or buckskin. Although the Spanish Barb is usually a solid-colored horse, pintos are common in Wilbur-Cruce Horses.


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

• The SBBA has tracked Wilbur-Cruce Horses as a distinct type since 1995.

• The total number of these horses is between 70 and 80.

• About a dozen foals are registered each year.

Leave a Comment