“For, after God we owe victory to the horses.”
Imagine the scene, a small sleepy stage-coaching town in California, a barbeque set up at the side of the road, people milling about in a garden full of statues and works of art. Fairy lights and the smell in the air of charcoal grilled meat mingling with the scent of sage on a a hot evening in September; glasses clinking, wine and beer flowing; and a horse. A horse? When I saw the horse I stopped dead in my tracks. What was a horse doing at a barbeque. Not only that, he was loose, free milling about just like the guests, he even behaved like a guest. “Who owns the horse?”
“Come and meet Robin.” someone said. I was taken over to an attractive lady who lead me over to the horse. “Meet Francisco.” she said with a broad smile.
“What breed of horse is Francisco?” I said amazed as I patted the intelligent noble head, with his lovely big eyes, twinkling like blue glass. He was skewbald with wonderful speckled colouring in his coat. His head was slightly Roman, he looked as if he had just stepped out of a Velasquez painting.
“Tell me where has he come from what kind of horse is he?”
Robin laughed, and over a couple of days she told me this amazing story. Francisco was a descendant of horses brought over to the new world by the Spanish. It all began with the conquest of Mexico.
Bernal Diaz de Castillo was a soldier and historian who served under Cortez. In 1519 Cortez and his army arrived in Mexico. The horses they brought with them were so highly thought of that detailed descriptions both of colour and character were recorded. The Spanish relied on their horses. They were more than just transport they were companions, valued friends, servants, they were partners in peace and war. It was due to the toughness and character of these horses that enabled the Spanish to conquer Mexico. Following the conquest the Spanish continued to bring horses across the Atlantic, but they wisely established studs on Cuba and the Caribbean islands from which they then transported them the short trip to the mainland. So it was from these studs that horses were taken to replenish the Spanish townships and armies in the New World.
Much later in the settling of the Americas the importance of the horse to both indians and settlers cannot be underestimated. They provided both transport and food and the adaptation and survival of the horse was linked to the success of the pioneers. The Spanish horses that came into Mexico were cross-bred with other breeds such as the Belgian, Thoroughbred and Morgan horse. There are studs in Cuba still producing the Spanish type of horse, but most of that pure blood has become tainted over the centuries. Unbeknown to many people a certain group of horses, now known as the Wilbur-Cruce horses were kept in isolation and by a curious twist of fate remained pure. Their story is unique.
The first description that comes to mind is of a paint or skewbald. But that does not wholly explain the colour for it is more of a roan. (That is with white hairs in the coloured areas) These curious roman-nosed roan paints with blue eyes in these two paintings by Velasquez (Isabel and Margarita)and in similar paintings of that period, were thought to have been bred out. The Spanish breeds that survive today show none of this particular type and colorings.
The story of the survival of the Wilbur-Cruce horses is remarkable. In the 1870’s Dr Ruben Wilbur bought the original Cruce horses from Juan Sepulveda at Rancho Dolores to stock his homestead. For a little over 110 years those horses were allowed to run wild in rocky and mountainous terrain continuing the process of the survival of the fittest. In 1990 Eva Antonio Cruce, donated the 77 descendants of the original herd to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization dedicated to conserving endangered breeds unique to the Americas. The identity and purity of these horses is only just now becoming evident. Dr D. P. Sponenberg Associate Professor, Pathology and Genetics and chair of American Rare Breeds Conservancy and Dr Deb Bennet have both recognized their uniqueness and the importance of their heritage.
Then Robin Keller heard about the horses. She was at that time married to the hunter/jumper trainer Richard Keller. She is a passionate horsewoman and a student of the legendary Jimmy Williams. Her enthusiasm is matched by her ability to train horses for films and show rings. When she first met the Wilbur-Cruce horses she was enchanted attracted to their disposition their courage and also their athleticism. She recognized the importance of their unique ancestry. Mr & Mrs Keller were chosen to acquire eighteen of the herd. Robin has fought for their survival, she is in every sense a partner in their success.
Robin told me that; ”Working with these horses over the past five years has given me an insight into the kind of relationships our ancestors in the world’s greatest horse culture developed with their horses. In the modern quest for horses through technology, it seems to me that the emphasis is on performance rather than character. Character is rarely spoken of, nurtured or bred for. I would like people who appreciate and love horses to see for themselves the unique qualities these horses possess.”
I too have met them now and am impressed with their nobility and calmness. They seem to possess an innate confidence and sense of place it was as if Francisco had stepped out of the paintings of Velasquez, hovering in front of me like some legendary time-traveller. These are without any doubt in my mind the horses of the Conquest. Their purity is important and needs to maintained, if not just for their unique coat colour then even more for their qualities of patience, nobility and an innate desire to work with man. I would treasure their partnership above gold.
We took Francisco up to La Purisima Mission, near Lompoc and there we photographed him taking part in a re-enactment around the mission grounds with many of the locals who make up a vital support group who run tours and workshops. Francisco did everything that Robin asked, he stood in archways, backed up, turned his head this way and that. Looked like Joe’s best friend. Took time out with the padre, and enchanted everyone who met him. Right at the end as I was packing up my gear I turned to see this stallion standing with a group of children around his legs and crawing under him. Without so much as a hair turned he took it all in his stride and when it was over put himself back into his trailer. What a horse!
Just a note about this mission at Lompoc which also has an interesting history. It was built near a Chumash Indian village and in 1787 the site was dedicated by Father Lasuén. There a samll group of indians, two padres and about five soldiers prospered until 1812. That year was known as El Año los Temblores, (the year of the earthquake) La Purisima was shaken into dust. Four years later the mission was rebuilt about four miles from the original site. The mission was finally deserted in 1834 and fell once again into ruins. In 1934 a rebuilding project began. Every single brick and tile was made by hand in the old method and gradually the mission grew once again restored to its ancient elegance amid the oaks and wild mustard of the California valley. The Mission is now a State Historic Park and for one day at least they were visited by a descendant of the horses of the Conquistadors.
There is at present a search going on to find more of these unique and important horses. If you have any information or would like to be involved in supporting this rare breed please do get in touch with;
Robin Keller, 40222 Millstream lane, Madera, CA 93638
Horses of the Conquest, R. B. Cunningham Graham.
Conquerors, Dr Deb Bennet
The Conquest of New Spain by Benal Diaz.
Caroline E Anns-Baldock