California Riding Magazine • May, 2012

The California Vaquero Horse
Old Spanish breed has many California connections.

by Kimberlee Jones

Photo: Mikaela Krempa

The California Vaquero Horse is a genetically proven old Spanish breed who historically ties to the Spanish missions and ranches of Old Southern California. The breed was discovered high up on the Mountain Home Range in Southwest Utah during the middle of the 20th Century. This terrain is only 40 miles away from the Old Spanish Trail in which thousands of pure Spanish horses were driven down from Southern California during 1830 to 1848. Often, hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of horses were driven down the trail at a time. These horses were acquired by either trade or theft. One of the largest raids recorded was that by Ute Indian Chief Wakara and Thomas "Peg Leg" Smith. They stole 3000 pure Spanish horses from the missions and ranches in Southern California in 1840 with the Spanish hot on their tails. The Spanish were able to gather back about half of the stolen horses while the others were traded or clearly escaped.

When the horses were located during the middle of the 20th Century, it was a secret hot spot for many to gather the Spanish horses and either use them as riding horses or to trade them. When the BLM gained control over feral populations they had no idea about the genetic treasure trove that was only known by a small group of people up on the Mountain Home Range.

The BLM ended up encompassing the Mountain Home Range in their 200,000-acre Sulphur Springs Herd Management Area, which consists of these Spanish horses as well as different types of horses. When the BLM starting rounding up the Sulphur herd during the 1980s they were in for a real surprise when they gathered the Mountain Home Range section. Horses of a common type and color were observed and eventually, blood samples were gathered and sent off for DNA analysis to prove the theory that these were, in fact,
Spanish horses.

In 1997, Dr. Gus Cothran from the University of Kentucky (now at Texas A&M) published his genetic report on the Spanish horses of the Sulphur Springs HMA. His study showed that the Spanish looking horses in the 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 these Spanish horses are genetically 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.

Photo: Kimberlee Jones

In 2010, efforts were made to establish a professional and organized registry that would offer support to owners of these Spanish horses. Due to the different types of horses that come out of the Sulphur HMA, the name California Vaquero Horse was selected to establish their Spanish and historical heritage of Old California and to also separate them from the Mustangs that are found on the HMA. The California Vaquero Horse Association was thus established and has since gone on to gain its French government-assigned UELN number; it has the support of the California Andalusian Horse Alliance so that people now have a place to compete with their horses at Andalusian events using their licensed judges from Spain and the U.S. using the detailed CVHA breed standard. The association is also working toward obtaining general affiliate status with the USEF with goals of eventually becoming a USEF-recognized breed.

Currently, there are only a handful of owners and even fewer breeders of this critically endangered old Spanish breed. Currently, these horses are being bred mostly on the West Coast (with a main breeder located in San Diego) with a few owners on the East Coast. It is the goal of the CVHA to promote, support members, and document the pedigrees of the California Vaquero Horse and it is my hope that more people will become involved in saving California's heritage Old Spanish breed before it is too late.

Author Kimberlee Jones is founder of the California Vaquero Horse Association and owner of Rancho de España Antigua. For more information on the California Vaquero Horse, visit the CVHA's website