Initial Breed Designation

by Hardy Oelke

Many North American and Latin American horses were assumed to be derivatives of Spanish horses. Their status was first confirmed through mtDNA analyses carried out by Jansen et al.*) which showed the same mtDNA types in Iberian horses, North American mustangs, Latin American Criollo horses and some domestic breeds developed in the Americas.

Some 400 years ago, all horses in the Americas were descendants of Iberian horses brought over by the conquistadores and the civilians in their wake, until non-Iberian immigrants took over most of North America. They brought with them other breeds of horses, and a certain degree of interbreeding took place, and new, American, breeds were developed.

In some regions, small pockets of horses were left to themselves and managed to survive largely unnoticed. They didn’t grow into large wild populations, they may have been abandoned comparatively recently, but their status is technically a feral one. In the case of the Abaco horses, they originated as a feral herd just long enough ago that no definite information could be obtained. The precise circumstances really don’t matter–when efforts to their preservation began, it was obvious that they were unclaimed, feral horses. Given the nature and location of the island, the phenotype of the horses, and the circumstances they lived under, it was natural to assume that they were of Spanish colonial ancestry, and warranted preservation. Later genotyping confirmed their Spanish descent.

Some of these horses showed a tendency for a lateral gait, which is also consistent with a (North) Iberian ancestry.

These horses were first dubbed “Spanish Barb”. As a breed called “Spanish Barb” never really existed, and the term is likely an American invention or possibly a British one, I commend those responsible for the preservation of the Abaco horses for now naming them “Abaco Colonial Horses.” This has to be the most correct term for them. Nothing we now of their history contradicts their decent from Spanish colonial horses.

Iberian horses fall mainly into two categories, a leaner, taller horse of the southern half, and the mountain ponies of the north of the peninsula, and the Iberian domestic breeds that became world-famous, the Andalusian and the Lusitano, are a mixture of the two basic types. It is a misconception that the were influenced to any substantial degree by outside blood. It was the other way around–Iberian horses were famous as war horses and as parade horses for the European royalty, and have influenced most breeds in Europe and elsewhere. The Barb horse is its cousin in North and Northwest Africa, it has been influenced by the Iberian horse in historical time, but may have constituted part of a common population together with the South Iberian horse in prehistoric times, when the landbridge at Gibraltar was still connecting the two continents. There was never a “Barb breed” on the Iberian Peninsula, not even during the Moorish occupation. However, so sought-after were Spanish horses, that there was a time when by decree no breeding stock were allowed to be exported.

The Barb has played no significant role in Iberian horse breeding, or in American horses, both, feral and domestic. The horses of Latin America go back to Spanish colonial horses, brought over by Columbus and those after him. A number of domestic breeds have been developed from that stock, but whenever we find horses that appear to be close to the original stock, we ought to do all we can to preserve them.

My hat is off to the enthusiastic and tenacious work that has been done by the advocates of the Abaco colonial horse, in spite of consistent obstacles, draw-backs, tough luck and resistance. I sincerely hope that these tireless efforts will eventually lead to a secure population of these interesting horses.