The History of Californias' Horse



1769 and the Spanish Missions


This unique story starts with the establishment of the Spanish Mission chains beginning in 1769 in San Diego, California and ending in 1823 with the establishment of the last mission called San Francisco de Solano.  Southern California became renowned for its careful breeding practices which produced exceptionally fine Spanish horses.  A trade route was established from Santa Fe, New Mexico, up into Utah, crossing the Escalante Desert to ultimately make its way into southern California.  Caravans bringing trade goods from New Mexico and furs from Utah regularly traveled this route to barter for the fine California horses and mules.  This trade route became known as ‘The Old Spanish Trail’. *  From 1830 until the mid-1848 thousands of Spanish horses and mules made their way from California into Utah en route to Santa Fe, although many escaped or were stolen during the frequent raids from Indians desiring the horses.**  During this time escaped horses found their way into the Mountain Home Range, where they remain to this day.



Leroy R. Hafen, 'The Old Spanish Trail'


The book titled “The Old Spanish Trail” by Leroy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen states that, “Loss of tame animals by theft was always a matter of concern.  Soon the more irresponsible traders and certain adventurers found it easier to obtain livestock by raid than by trade.  By 1832 raids on the herds of missions and ranches had become so frequent and devastating that Californians were alarmed.”  There were many illegal raids, but the most notable and most famous of all of these raids was done by Ute Indian Chief  Wakara and Thomas “Peg Leg” Smith in 1840. During this raid it is said that they stole about 3,000 pure Spanish horses from the California missions and that the Spaniards were able to retrieve about 1500 of them back. With such a large amount of horses, it isn’t surprising that some escaped into the Utah mountains and founded our Spanish herd up in the Mountain Home Range in South West Utah. These raids by Chief Wakara on the Spanish California horses continued until Wakara’s death in 1855.      


The most significant part of this history is the path that the Old Spanish Trail comes very close to the Needles Mountain Range in southwest Utah.  Here is where we find a very unique herd of wild Spanish horses that are now known as the California Vaquero Horse (Spanish type Sulphur).  These horses were found on the Mountain Home Range that has been encompassed onto the Sulphur Springs Herd Management Area by the Bureau of Land Management. Due to the proven theory that there are in fact different genetic groups (not only observed physically, but proven genetically in Dr. Cothran’s 1997 genetic study on the Sulphur HMA), the Spanish type horses coming from the Sulphur HMA were dubbed the California Vaquero Horse in order to distinguish them from the mixed and non-Spanish horses that are also found on the Sulphur HMA.  These historical horses are the very last of the famous breeding practices of the Spaniards of California.  They predominantly come in the dun and grulla coloration as that color pattern was believed by the Spaniards to make the most courageous and best working horse.  Other colors are red dun, chestnut, black, and bay.  They do not come in any other color patterns.  White is very minimal or not present at all.  The breed typically stands 14-14.2 HH with the maximum height at 14.3HH though some individuals may slightly exceed or be slightly smaller than the typical heights.


Genetics and scientific curriosity


In 1997, Dr. Gus Cothran from the University of Kentucky (he now works at Texas A&M) did a genetic study on the California Vaquero Horses (Spanish type horses from the Sulphur herd).  His study showed that the California Vaquero Horse herd clustered in the Iberian breed group genetically.  He also discovered that they only show the D1 and D3 Iberian/Barb genotype (mtDNA).  He states that, “Highest individual similarity values were to the Chilean Criollo, Puerto Rican Paso Fino, and American Paso Fino, all Spanish breeds.  Mean similarity and distance to other major groups of breeds for the [California Vaquero Horse] Sulphur herd were consistently lower. ” Dr. Cothran also found old Spanish genes in his study proving the California Vaquero Horse to genetically be an old Spanish horse. A very interesting mutation was also found that Dr. Cothran, “never observed in any other non-Sulphur horse and we have tested over 140 other populations and over 200,000 individuals.” This mutation indicates a singular founding population of this rare old Spanish herd.


What is the future of California’s Spanish horse breed?


Right now, they are considered critically endangered with less than 100 known individuals worldwide.  The goal of this article is not only making people aware of California’s rare Spanish horse breed and its plight for survival, but is also written to encourage other owners of the California Vaquero Horse (Spanish type Sulphur) to contact the registry in order to document your horse and bring their existence to light to other owners and breeders in order to maintain a healthy gene pool, organize promotional events, and to eventually organize breed shows.


What can California’s horse do?  The California Vaquero Horse is a loyal and hard working horse that has exceptional courage (especially noted in stallions), sensitive to his rider, very agile, sure-footed, and has great stamina.  These natural qualities can be put to use in many different areas of equestrian sport such as:  classical dressage, reining, endurance,   cow work, trail riding, and high school arts.



“The Old Spanish Trail” by Leroy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen 1954 *

“The Horse of the Americas” by Robert M. Denhardt, 1947 **


Sulphur Herd Genetic Study by Dr. Gus Cothran 1997