Imagine on a remote and rugged ranch in Arizona a herd of horses whose ancestry can be traced back to Colonial Spanish times. Horse whose lines have been remained pure and are non-feral. And unlike most historical artifacts, these animals have not been frozen in time. Fighting for survival over the rough terrain and harsh environment, these horses continued to develop their self-reliant character, ruggedness and innate intelligence.
Such a scenario presented itself in 1990 when Mrs. Wilbur-Cruce donated a herd of 77 Spanish horses to the American Minor Breeds Conservatory (an organization dedicated to conserving endangered breeds of livestock unique to this continent). How did these horses get there and how is it that their bloodlines could remain pure while over time other American “wild” horses became a mixture of many breeds?
In the late 1600s, Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest and missionary, brought the Spanish horses into the Pimeria Alta, the area made up of Southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. Father Kino established headquarters in the San Miguel River Valley, approximately 25 miles east of today’s Magdalena, where he founded Mission Dolores and Rancho Dolores. It is from this area that Wilbur-Cruce horses originated. His mission remained active in the production of livestock for many decades, producing stock that was destined to be spread northward as each mission was established.
In 1879, Dr. Ruben Wilbur bought the original Wilbur-Cruce horses form Juan Sepulveda at Rancho Dolores to stock his homestead ranch in what is now Southern Arizona. Through three successive generations, spanning over 110 years, the Wilbur-Cruce Spanish horses were kept in isolation on the family ranch. They were allowed to run in wild bands in rocky and mountainous terrain developing qualities that only the harsh selection process of survival of the fittest can produce.
Only in 1990, when the ranch was sold and the horses donated to the Conservancy, did the world begin to know about these equine treasures. The Conservancy (now known as the “American Livestock Breeds Conservancy”) coordinated the task of trapping and removing the horses, ensuring that the blood samples were taken for typing. Dr. Gus Cothran, Director of the Equine Blood Typing Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky, concluded that the Wilbur-Cruce horses were “a cohesive group based on type with nice genetic variability,” in other words, no inbreeding. The most significant find was that the results of the blood typing provided evidence of Spanish ancestry supportive of their oral history.
Enter Robin Keller. A student of animal behavior for most of her 50+ years, she had worked with and studied both domestic horses and several exotic species, including marine mammals. But her passion was always horses. Wife of famed hunter/jumper trainer Richard Keller and a student of many years of legendary horseman Jimmy Williams, Robin spent most of her career working with a variety of sport horses. Because hunter/jumpers are chosen for their physical and mental qualities, a variety of types and breeds are represented in the world of show jumping. When she first met the Wilber-Cruce horses, she recognized many traits shared by horses she had worked with from Europe, Russia, Africa and Great Britain. She was intrigued by their character, amazed by their athletic ability and impressed with their incredible dispositions.
Robin became one of the individuals chosen to have 18 of the Wilber-Cruce Spanish Colonial horses. Committing to keeping the bloodlines pure, that herd has now grown to 50 horses, all stallions and mares. When asked what she would like the public to know about the horses (now known as the “Cruce Colonial Spanish Horses”) she replied, “In all my years of working with some of the finest examples of domestic sport horses, I have never seen the consistent, highly developed character that the Cruce horses possess. In the modern quest for fine horses through technology, it seems to me that the emphasis is on performance rather than character. Character is rarely spoken of, nurtured or bred for. Working with these fine animals for the past 24 years has given me insight into the kind of relationships our ancestors in the world’s great horse cultures developed with their horses. Through these horses, I am given hope that this type of brave, empathic, willing athletic and NOBLE horse will be preserved and will be allowed to contribute to horses of the future. The existence of the Wilbur-Cruce horses offers the chance to reach back and reclaim a part of our equine history. ‘Once thought gone forever’ I would like persons who appreciate and love horses to have the opportunity to meet the Cruce horses and to see for themselves the unique qualities they possess.”
Robin (Keller) Collins has committed herself to the preservation of these rare horses on her ranch in the California foothill town of Madera.
Additional information available is available on the Rancho del Sueno website from D.P. Sponenberg, DVM. PhD, Associate Professor, Pathology and Genetics, Technical Panel Chair, American Rare Breeds Conservancy, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Blacksburg, Virginia.
For more information about Heritage Discovery Center/Rancho Del Sueno or to support the preservation of the Cruce Colonial Spanish Horse, visit www.ranchodelsueno.com or contact Robin Collins at [email protected].