In 1519 Cortes arrives at Vera Cruz, in North America, and with him comes the first 16 horses, eleven stallions and 5 mares. These Spanish horses found the vast American ranges similar in climate and soil to their native arid homeland. These ranges were as virgin in fertility to them as to the European farmers and settlers that were to follow.
Both the horses and the cattle of the Spanish found new predators; but none that stopped their extraordinary growth. Twenty years after Cortes arrived, Coronado had no problem assembling 1,500 head of horses and mules for his expedition into New Mexico. The Spanish generals established haciendas for raising livestock throughout their domain and Queen Isabella maintained a desire to populate the New World with some of the best stock of Spain. The Spanish had a rich history of horsemanship and breeding and the Spanish Mustangs brought by Columbus were now making their way into the North American West. Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, had eleven or more haciendas during his years in office, 1535-1550, horses were raised on all of them. Oaxaca, Chiapas, Honduras and Nicaragua became extensive horse-breeding centers.
The first and most important center of distribution of the Spanish horses, into what is now the United States, was the settlement begun by Onate on the upper Rio Grande in 1598. This was Santa Fe, which later became the capital of New Mexico. At the time there were abut 100 mares and colts in addition to 700 horses and mules. By 1630 these numbers had sizeable increased. Although the horse population among the Spanish settlements went up and down the population of horses among the Indians, during this time, went steadily upwards. In 1660 the pueblo uprising forced the Spanish to abandon New Mexico and leave their livestock behind. There were replacement horses coming up to New Mexico from the south both before and after the pueblo uprising. Thus, it is New Mexico that becomes the initial base for the supply of horses for the Indian tribes of the region and to the north.
The horses of California multiplied astoundingly but had little effect upon the horse life of the Western plains. By the time of the first Californian settlements, in 1769, Indians, both above and below the Missouri were horsed. It was the mountains and the deserts to the east, in and out of California, that barred the spread of their horse population eastward.
One of the reasons for the huge rise in the horse populations, even with the raiding by the Indians is that the original horse stock could breed. The caballeros preferred riding stallions to mares and the stallions were rarely gelded plus most expeditions had both mares and stallions.
The expeditions of Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto into Florida and the Southern Coast did not add to the establishment of Spanish horses. Both expeditions ended in tragedy and no horses survived to populate those areas and all the horses were stallions. In “The Barbs of Spain” by H.H. Knibbs, he writes that one of the stallions of the De Soto expedition breaks free and roams and finds a mare that has broken from another expedition and they form the Mustang herds. This was mere legend and has no trace of proof.
When the Spanish learn that the French were in Texas, in 1690, they form expeditions into the region. They saw no horses when they arrived. By 1719 Du Tisne counted 300 horses among the Pawnees. All the horses wore Spanish brands. A hundred years later Stephen H. Long, a military scout, reported seeing the Pawnee warriors with 6,000 to 8,000 horses.
It should be noted that the American Indians captured the horses for food and not to ride in the 1500Õs. At Santa Fe in 1598 the Indians were still hunting buffalo on foot. They raided horses for meat. As late as 1775 the Indians were destroying the mares to such an extent that 1,500 horses were sent to New Mexico for riding and breeding from the south.
It is the Apaches that become the first Indians to acquire horses in the United States. Soon horses were the most wanted things that the Spaniards had for trade or to steal. The Spanish traded horses for buffalo robes. By 1680 Indians on the Pecos were using horses to pay for their women.
Once the American Indians realized the importance of horsemanship and viewed the horse as an asset, rather than a meal, the expansion of the Spanish horse throughout the West quickly began. So, it is the American Indian’s adaptation to the horse culture of the Spanish that spreads the Spanish horse and brings about the Spanish Mustang herds on the plains of the United States.
Quoting Charles Hamilton Smith, “The genuine wild species is migratory, preceding northward in summer to a considerable distance and returning early in autumn. The mixed races (feral horses) wander rather in the direction of the pasture than to a point of the compass.” This quote from “Horses (Vol XX in Jardine’s The Naturalist’s Library”, published in 1854, gives us an idea of how the Spanish Mustangs so quickly expanded their range in North America
It is interesting to pounder that the most devastating environmental upheaval in history lead to the most exciting and memorable parts of American history: The conquistadors, of the Spanish, The Age of the Horse, for the American Indians, and the cowboy era of the west for the European Settlers.
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