The Colonial Spanish Mission Horse

Snuggled in the foothills of Madera, Calif is a hidden treasure historical in the early development of the West. This hidden treasure is the Wilbur-Cruce strain of the Spanish Colonial Mission Horse, the only pure strain, meaning non-feral, direct descendants of the horses Spain brought to the New World. They are the only known “rancher” strain of pure Spanish horses that persists in the southwest making them unique and worthy of preservation.

In the late 1600’s Father Eusebio Kino, Jesuit priest and missionary, brought the Spanish horses into the Pimería Alta, the area made up of Southern AZ and Northern Sonora, Mexico, Father Kino established headquarters in the San Miguel River Valley, (approximately 25 miles east of today’s Magdalena), where he founded Mission Delores and Rancho Delores. It is from this area that the Wilbur-Cruce horses originated. His mission remained active in the production of livestock for many decades, producing stock that was sent northward as each mission was established.

In 1879 Dr Ruben Wilbur bought the original Wilbur-Cruce horses from Juan Sepulveda at Rancho Delores to stock his homestead rancho in what is now Southern Arizona. Through three successful generations spanning over 110 years, the Wilbur-Cruce Spanish horses were kept in isolation on the family ranch. They were allowed to roam in wild bands in rocky and mountainous terrain developing qualities that only the harsh selection process of survival of the fittest can produce.

Only in 1990 when the ranch was sold in part and the horses donated to the Conservancy (now known as “The Livestock Conservancy”), did the world began to know about this “thought to be lost treasure”. The Conservancy coordinated the task of gathering the horses and ensuring that blood samples were taken for typing. Dr. Gus Cothran, Director of the Equine Blood Typing Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky, concluded that the Wilbur-Cruce horses were “a cohesive group based on type with nice genetic variability”, In other words, there was no inbreeding. The most significant find was that the results of the blood typing provided evidence of Spanish ancestry supportive of their oral history.

Enter Robin Collins of Rancho Del Sueno, the equine division of the Heritage Discovery Center a 501 3c non-profit organization. Robin has over 50 years’ experience as an owner and trainer of hunter/jumpers and studied with Jimmy Williams, one of the most recognized trainers of many disciplines, as a youth and worked for him for several years. Hunter/jumpers are chosen for their physical and mental qualities, a variety of types and breeds are represented in the world of show jumping. When she first met the Wilbur-Cruce horses, she recognized many traits shared by the horses she had worked with from Europe, Russia, Africa, and Great Britain. Robin was given 18 of the Wilbur-Cruce horses, all mares and stallions, and has grown the herd to 50 horses keeping the genetic pool pure.

When asked what she wanted the public to know about these horses, she replied: “In all my work with some of the finest examples of domestic sport horses, I have never seen the consistent highly developed character the Cruce horses possess.   In the modern quest for fine horses throughout technology, it seems to me that the emphasis is on performance rather than character. Character is rarely spoken of, nurtured, or bred for. Working with these incredible horses for the past 20+ years, has given me insight into the kind of relationships our ancestors in the world’s great horse cultures developed with the Cruce horses. Through them, I am given hope these brave, empathetic, willing allowed to contribute to the horses of the future. The existence of the Wilbur-Cruce horses offers the chance to reach back and reclaim a part of our equine history. ‘Once thought gone forever’ I would like people who appreciate and love horses to have the opportunity to meet these horses and see for themselves the unique qualities they possess.”

In addition to being a conservation/preservation center for the Wilbur-Cruce horses, Rancho Del Sueno also offers equine assisted learning and wellness programs for adults, youth, veterans and people with special needs. Also the horses have been used in films and are available for future projects. Please like us on our Facebook page and visit our site for further information.
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