Spanish Heritage Breed of California

By: Kimberlee Leslie

During the 18th century, the territory of California began to be cultivated and established as a colonial territory for Spain via the building of the great missions, presidios, and ranches. The Spanish brought up fine Spanish horses out of Baja, California and primarily Durango, Mexico. With the territory of California being established by using finely bred Spanish horses, it didn’t take long for California to be known to produce the best of the best in Spanish horses in North America. From 1827 – 1855 records the most prolific period of when people from diverse backgrounds would routinely buy, trade, and steal thousands upon thousands of these pure Spanish horses with most of the horses being herded down the Old Spanish Trail that goes East out of California. The horse thieving got so bad that laws were created to try to track the legal sale and purchase of horses with the largest recorded herd being over 4000 horses purchased by the Mormons going into Salt Lake. The horses ended up being driven to many parts of the US, but most of the horses were destined for Utah or New Mexico.

With the importation of the Thoroughbred, as well as a different style of ranching being introduced brought an end to the massive herds of pure Spanish horses in California. The Californio style of horsemanship survived as well as remnants of the saddles and tack that were once used, but where did the horses go? Were there any left? During the early to the middle part of the 20th century, a spot located on the Mountain Home Range in South West Utah began to be known for having high quality Spanish horses that were remarkably uniform in type and came in the dun color pattern that the Spanish had bred for in California. The Mountain Home Range borders the Old Spanish Trail to the South as well as the trail going North into Salt Lake that the Mormons used to herd their California horses on.

The history of the area, as well as the conformation/type of the horses matched a California origin, but what about their genetics? In 1997, Dr. Cothran (University of Kentucky) released a detailed genetic analysis that confirmed what people were seeing physically: these are old Spanish horses by breed and not just influenced. What was more was that they had a unique genetic mutation not seen in any other breed that indicated a singular founding population. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had established a herd management area (HMA) in the late 1970’s that encompassed 200,000 acres and called it the Sulphur Springs HMA, which included the Mountain Home Range. The Spanish horses were known by the locals, but not by the BLM. Thus, this HMA was never created with the knowledge or purpose of preserving the Spanish horses on the Mountain Home Range.

Today, most Sulphur HMA gathers by the BLM produce very few Spanish horses and most are common mustangs. Thus, the Spanish horses are now critically endangered. It is not up to the BLM to preserve this historic population, but this special breed can be saved by preservationists. This breed has gone by many names in the past with the most recent being a Sulphur horse. However, their original name made known in historical books is the California horse. To stay true their history, they are once again being called this name in hopes to draw attention to their importance to the Spanish history of California as well as their incredibly unique historical quality that their ancestors were not bred by Americans, but they were developed by the Spanish and under the crown of Spain. They are a living history of a time when the state of California was a territory of Spain.

With their acceptance as a study breed with the Equus Survival Trust as well as a registry to document the bloodlines of our historical Spanish California horses, it is our hope that instead of becoming a breed you can only read about in the pages of a history book, that they once again take their rightful place as our state heritage breed. Whether you want to trail ride, do endurance, compete in working equitation, reining, or dressage, this breed has the work ethic, intelligence, and athletic ability to do the job well. Please contact the California Vaquero Horse Association at or look us up on the web at

Photos courtesy of Hannah Field Austin, Ron Dotson and Rob Martin