California Riding Magazine
Living History
The Spanish Sulphur Horse
by Erin Gilmore

With its Baroque ancestry reflected in every flash of the hoof  and arch of the neck, the Sulphur Horse is Spanish grace and wild  grit thrown together. Zebra stripes adorn their legs, their manes flow long and thick, and their coats are hues of smoky grey and chalky dun. To some they may resemble mustangs, but this small and special group differ from their more common cousins by way of a very colorful history and the recent stamp of modern science.

During the discovery of North America by European settlers,
Spanish missionaries settled throughout what is now Mexico and
California and began spreading north and east. As they brought
legions of horses with them from Spain, horse thievery became common
practice. Native Americans constantly battled with settlers, stealing
horses and fighting to regain their homeland.
Around 1840, Indian Ute Chief Walkara and Peg-leg Smith famously
stole 1,200 to 3,000 head of Spanish horses from missions up and down
California. The stolen horses were direct descendants of pure Spanish
horses that the missionaries and conquistadors had brought with them
by ship to the New World.
While being driven east along the Old Spanish Trail, a trade
route that connected Los Angeles to New Mexico, some of those stolen
Spanish horses filtered off from the main herd. They ended up in the
Great Basin, an area in the remote Needles Mountain Range of Southern
Utah. The horses subsisted for years on the unforgiving land and grew
wilder with every passing generation. In the 1930s and 40s ranchers
in the area attempted to cross breed with the now wild Spanish horses
by releasing larger draft type domestic stallions into the wild. They
hoped to cull stronger horses for their ranch work, but the draft
horses and their mixed breed offspring were not tough enough to live
high in the Great Basin, and by remaining in lower valleys where the
land was not so harsh, the original herd was kept pure in its
During the 1950s, ranchers in the area began shooting growing
herds of mustangs, including Spanish Sulphur's, for encroaching on
their cattle's grazing land. Many mustangs were wiped out during this
time, but the horses that survived intact in the Needles Mountain
Range were the forebears of the Spanish Sulphur horses that exist
Modern Day Protection
In 1971, when the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was
created, the Sulphur's habitat became fully protected. The horses
gained their official name when their living area was renamed The
Sulphur Herd Management Area.
During 1980s herd roundups, Bureau of Land Management managers
began to notice the strong Spanish characteristics that the horses
from the Sulphur Management Area displayed, and returned some of them
to the wild to maintain the quality of the herd. The others were
adopted out, beginning in 1988, which sparked the intense interest
among Sulphur horse enthusiasts that continues to grow today.
The Spanish Sulphur's isolation of the past has been a huge plus
in the eyes of its fans today. This special strain of mustang retains
the blood of its purebred ancestors, leaning closer to a Lusitano
than a mustang in appearance. Their large crested necks, short backs
and long manes and tails are the easiest markers to spot. The
Sulphur's confirmation is also Iberian in its form, and their smooth,
flashy gaits have knee action that is very similar to that of their
Andalusian cousins.
Although their homeland is in Utah, Sulphur's have been adopted
by admirers all over the country. A scattered population of Sulphur's
live in both Northern and Southern California, and although they are
largely used for pleasure riding, a few owners show their Sulphur's in
Western disciplines and at Spanish breed shows.
A Valuable Link
A lifelong horsewoman, Deb Baumann of Lakeview Terrace is also a
trained historian. In reading the first person accounts and journals
of old California vaqueros, she was astonished to find a collective
mourning for the original California horse. All the vaqueros agreed
that the original colonial horses had been diluted and bred down by
European influences. "As I read, it became an obsession with me,"
says Deb. "What were those first horses like? In their accounts, the
vaqueros were describing a specific physical type. Then I came across
websites for the Sulphur horse and I was immediately struck by their
appearance. They looked like the Spanish horses that the vaqueros
were describing. When I read the history that the Sulphur's were
descended from horses stolen in the 1800s, it all fell into place."
As Managing Director of The Vaquero Heritage Foundation, an
educational non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting the
equestrian heritage of Old California, Deb has more than a personal
interest in Sulphur's. The VHF chose to use Sulphur horses for its
rare breed conservancy program. After much research, Deb adopted two
young Sulphur's- a stud colt and a mare. The stud, Sulphur's Vaquero,
is a son of Sulphur's Santiago, a stallion with remarkable Sulphur
characteristics that was adopted from the Sulphur HMA as a four year
old. The mare, Sulphur's Vahni, is one of the last daughters of a
very famous Sulphur stallion, Sulphur's Chance. With future plans to
breed the two, the VHF hopes to preserve the Spanish characteristics
of the Sulphur's and promote the breed's unique link to old California.
There are also wild Spanish Sulphur's living in California.
Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc is home to a free
roaming herd of Spanish Sulphur's. Founder Neda De Mayo recognizes
that separating wild horses from their family bands is a second
trauma on top of the initial shock of being taken into captivity. Her
sanctuary is unique in that, whenever possible, she tries to rescue
intact family herds of mustangs, and relocates them to the 310 acre
sanctuary. The result is a handful of intact family herds of wild
horses, among them the Sulphur Springs Herd.
Even with the growing number of people discovering the Sulphur
horse, there are only a handful of Sulphur's scattered across the
country. California, the state with the highest concentration of
Sulphur's, is home to less than 100. Exact numbers of the feral herd
in the Needles mountain range are difficult to come by, but roughly
300 horses are believed to make up the breed's population there.
Science Steps In
The Spanish Sulphur horse is not only unique by way of history.
Within the last ten years, the breed's individuality has also been
proven right down to its blood. In a study by Dr. Gus Cothran at The
University of Kentucky, Spanish Sulphur's were tested to have Iberian
markers in their genotype. This makes them proven cousins to pure
Spanish horses such as Lusitanos and Andalusians. However, while
other Spanish breeds are the product of generations of
human-controlled genetics, Sulphur's have evolved in a completely
different way, free of human intervention. It is nothing short of
miraculous that this breed has retained it's purity over a century of
feral living and natural selection, and the result is a very rare
foundation-type horse, essentially a genetic treasure trove.
Consequentially, maintaining the purity of the Spanish Sulphur
Horse is very important to Sulphur enthusiasts. Owners who breed
their Sulphur's for purebred offspring must be cautious of inbreeding
due to the small number of the breed in captivity. And genotyping is
extremely significant to those same owners in order to ensure that
the horses they are breeding retain those extraordinary Iberian
markers in their DNA. In addition, while Sulphur's culled directly
from the wild will clearly have more genetic diversity than those
bred in captivity, it is easy for non-Sulphur mustangs to be mixed in
with the Sulphur's in BLM roundups.
The specifics can be complicated, but beauty isn't determined by
a registry, and a horse's nobility doesn't increase due to genotype
markings. Sulphur horses are a striking link to California's past and
deserve to be recognized and preserved. And although those genetic
differences give them a special place in history, at their core they
remain wild horses. And all wild horses are under threat today, from
shrinking public lands to the recent Burns Amendment, which threatens
to send tens of thousands of wild horses to slaughter. In the same
way that the bald eagle represents liberty for America, wild horses
represent the tenacity and enduring freedom of the West. Spanish
Sulphur horses are an exceptional symbol among that group, and
deserve our attention and protection just as much as that once
endangered eagle.

                Credit source: California Riding Magazine

April, 2005