Official documents, historical artwork, the fossil record, and the reaction of the encountered indigenous peoples confirm that Columbus and the 16th century Spanish explorers brought the first horses to the Americas since the Ice Age. The first of these came on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. Once here, the Spanish established breeding operations to supply the colonies with quality horses for transportation, farming, and conquest.
The Spanish brought several related types of horses to the New World for colonists and explorers including the Andalusian, the Jennet, the Spanish Barb, and the Sorraia, sturdy, athletic, small- to medium-sized horses with stamina and a smooth “gaited” ride that embodied the best traits of their Spanish and Moorish ancestors. The Spanish Barb and Sorraia were excellent all-around horses ideal for riding or packing, sure-footed in rugged terrain, and hardy in harsh conditions because they tolerated heat, insects, drought, humidity, and scarcity of food. The Jennet was a palfrey, a smooth-gaited horse for riding long distances, suitable for nobility or ladies. Andalusian stallions were strongly-built chargers, prized by royalty and nobility for their advantage in battle while conveying privileged social status. Their thickly-arched crests, long, full, wavy manes and tails, highly-carried head and feet, smooth ambling gait, and haute ecole dressage maneuvers were the height of style while helping protect their riders in battle. They took years to train completely in the Spanish riding style and were limited in availability, thus very expensive.
Spanish horses came in all the basic coat colors of black, brown, bay, chestnut, and gray, but some also carried the cream dilution gene producing Queen Isabella’s favored palomino, cremello, and buckskin, the dun gene producing yellow dun, red dun, and grullo/grulla, as well as patterns including pinto, roan, and leopard complex/Appaloosa.
Most American breeds have some influx of Spanish blood, but the Carolina Marsh Tacky, Florida Cracker, Paso Fino, Peruvian Paso, Galiceno, and Criollo breeds are are directly descended from these early Spanish imports and retain many characteristics of their appearance, hardiness, and movement.
Day, A. Grove. Coronado’s Quest: The Discovery of the Southwestern States. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1940.
Flint, Richard, and Shirley Cushing Flint. Documents of the Coronado Expedition: 1539-1542: “They Were Not Familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects”. Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 2005. [Annotated transcriptions of original Spanish documents from The Coronado Expedition with English translations]
Hendricks, Bonnie L., and Anthony A. Dent. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. “Introduction to Coat Color Genetics.” Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. Accessed May 13, 2019. http://www.vgl.ucdavis.edu/services/coatcolor.php.