All the Pretty Horses and the Vaqueras Bravas!!

February 4, 2014 

All the Wild Horses and  the Vaqueras Bravas!! 

My Original Essay : working draft 

The important part of the background of the Colonial Spanish Horses is that they are indeed Spanish. These are descendants of the horses that were brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, and include some feral, some rancher, some mission, and some native American strains.....These horses are a direct remnant of the horses of the Golden Age of Spain, which type is now mostly or wholly extinct in Spain. The Colonial Spanish horses are therefore a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long gone.  D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD

One needs a lot of faith to survive in the desert. "La Pistolera," Eva Wilbur Cruce, walked out of the darkness of anArizona prison cell into the blinding light of the relentless Arizona sun. She had sacrificed 9 months of her freedom in 1945 fighting for the protection of the horses her “Rock Ponies”as she affectionately called them ever since childhood. The memory of freedom, or the loss of it, must have been palatable as Eva was never without a gun. Stories say she never hesitated to use her gun when it came to protecting her horses or her freedom. In Eva’s memoir, "A Cruel, Beautiful Country," published when she was in her 80s she recounts memories of a childhood growing up on a remote ranch in the borderlands of Mexico and the United States. As a young woman Eva left college and returned to run the ranch to find herself in the middle of one of the worst range wars in the American West as reported by the LA Times. Eva finally lost her many court battles but not the love and her passion to save the horses. Harsher were the ways of man and injustice compared to nature’s indiscriminate balance in the desert.

Eva's horses are the Colonial Spanish Barb horse. They were the noble and courageous war horse of the Berbers of North Africa and later the Spanish Conquistadors. They were favored by royal courts throughout Europe. The Spanish Barb shares a direct linage to the horse traditions of Spain and to Mexico’s Haciendos and Vaquero traditions. The Barbs' compact size, their great lung capacity, and agileness on the rocks made them the perfect companion for long distant explorations into the unknown frontier. Eva's strain of the Spanish Barb came in 1687 with the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino, "The Padre on Horseback." Kino rode over 50,000 miles exploring, mapping and saving souls, establishing a network of twenty four missions and ranches in the northern frontier of New Spain, now the borderlands of Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Security never came later in life for Eva or the horses with the sale of the ranch to the Nature Conservancy. Eva’s rock ponies, were endangered again slated for removal or slaughter. Synchronicity, a chance of fate, it just so happened wildlife biologist Steve Dobrott, had just finished reading Eva’s book. Dobrott wondered if the horses were related to the horses of Padre Kino. Calls and tests were made. Dr. Phillip Sponenberg,
DVM, Ph.D. confirmed the rare genetics of the Wilbur Cruce horse strain as “critically endangered” by the Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The genetics of the Colonial Spanish Barb horses is one of the rare strains scientifically verified to be of the
direct descendants of the very first horses reintroduced to America and of Padre Kino’s breeding stock. Eleven thousand years ago the vast wild horse herds disappeared from the continents of North and South America. Presently a 2014 census registers just more than 150 Spanish Barbs in the world. The Wilbur Cruce horses were saved by the miracle of Eva’s stories.

The Spanish Barb Association was formed and brought together people passionate about conservation and preserving the lineage of the Barb and it’s special place in history. These people inspired and seasoned by the elements and the landscapes they call home and have chosen to live life in a similar cadence with their horses. Each lives in a location remote and spacious where the Apaches of Geronimo and Cochise roamed; where the Spaniards explored and where the ancient Hohokam and Mogollon Native cultures left signs in fragments of obsidian and grinding stones. Breeders and owners agree, the "animas" or the "spirit" of the Spanish Barb horse is inspiring as their personal affection and bonding with it’s rider are endearing. “One of the most important things about saving the Spanish Barbs is their genetic diversity which is more diverse than all modern breeds. The characteristics of the modern Barb is very similar to the Barbs described in the 14th century," says breeder, Marjorie Dixon. She and her husband Jerry raise descendants of the WilburCruz Barbs at their ranch in Arizona's Dragoon mountains near Tombstone. In 2011 Arizona's then Governor Jan Brewer declared the Spanish Barb as the official horse of State of Arizona.

Heidi Collings and her husband Jerry also breed and train their Barbs on their ranch in the oak and piñon country of New Mexico. “When we realized how rare these animals were, we knew it would be a huge loss if their important genetics were not preserved to share in the future. This is what compelled us to become conservation breeders ourselves" as Heidi throws a couple bails of hay into the back of the truck and smiles at the horses as they gather round to feed. “We have never encountered another breed that is so easily trainable, companionable, loyal & sensible.” Dr. Louise Cash of the Red Hat Healing Center offers chiropractic treatments for riders and horses in her office in Silver City and out on her ranch in the Mimbres Valley. “As an equine chiropractor I had adjusted a few of Heidi Collings’ Barbs before I even knew about the breed. I came to appreciate their strong & dense bones, healthy feet, and levelheadedness. These horses "think things through." Her partner, Bob Shelley, a 4th generation rancher, traded in his quarter horse, the common ranch horse of the West, for a Barb because,“they’re good on the rocks and get the job done.”

Silke Schneider is also a woman who appreciates freedom. As a young woman in Germany, Silke ran off to join a circus. Later she found herself horse trekking 1200 miles on old horse trails and then working horses in the Australian outback before calling New Mexico home. She also wrote a book, “Arizona’s Spanish Barbs, the Story of the Wilbur Cruce Horses." As cofounder of the Drylands Institute, she advocates the preservation of heritage livestock breeds in-between her work as a kindergarten teacher and time riding her Spanish Barbs.

Back in Sonora, Mexico, dusk has fallen on the Santa Cruz River at the Rancho Santa Barbara, one of Padre Kino's cattle ranches. The ranch is being restored by international lawyer Luis Parra and his family. Luis notes the connections of the past to the present. “The Spanish Barbs are an intricate part of our heritage in the Arizona Sonora Borderlands considering their contribution throughout history. Spanish Barbs blazed trails for the early Spanish explorers in North America and now through equine therapy they endeavor to provide joy and comfort to our handicapped youth.” The mountains are a pink gold in the distance in the last light of the day. Up above the river, grave sites of previous generations are worn beyond description and time as the young vaquero Ricardo heads home riding into the setting sun his horse a descendant of the Spanish Barb.

What is rare and perfect in this world is the legacy of the Spanish Barb. The advocacy for freedom and diversity are treasures worth protecting. Eva passed her final days of winter stoking a humble wood fire in her small adobe house in urban Tucson. It was impossible to take the ranch out of the girl whose first love was the land and the horses.

“Throughout history, agriculturalist have been stewards of the genetic legacy passed to succeeding generations.  What took centuries to develop can be lost in our lifetime. If lost, it cannot be recreated. Only a commitment to stewardship will protect this genetic legacy for future generations. “     American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Mil Gracias to my editor Jesus Huarte for championing my stories of the US/Mexico Borderlands and Conservation.  


Tumacacori Mission AZ

Desert Caballero Museum, Wickenberg, AZ  spring 2015
Cowgirls with A Camera Exhibit:
March 10, 2015 noon
Talk with Maureen Kirk-Debetner on the Spanish Barbs

Spanish published essay:
IBERIA Airlines:  Excelente Magazine March 2015:

BOOKS of Interest:




The ecstasy sandwich of seeing your hard work and passion in print for the first time. From the lens and life of Eugene Smith.  It is not unfamiliar to the great writers and photographers. Things get misconstrued. . The life we learn out in the field is often presented differently in editorial form.You give it your best and still have to do the work believing maybe a few photographs can help change the way people see the world and value life. Much gets lost in translation and you just got to keep to the doing of the thing; your work, your expression and follow the story lines.

In the spirit of the documentary tradition and the struggle we all face when seeing our work in print for the first time.  Insight into the life of photographer Eugene Smith whose work has been a a great influence.


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