Hope for rare horse breeds

March 2, 2007

Phillip Sponenberg has been working to save the Colonial Spanish horses for three decades, writes Susan Trulove.

"Marsh Tacky" horses were used to manage cattle and to chase wild hogs across swampy terrain in the South Carolina low country. © Phil Sponenberg

Colonial Spanish horses were the horse responsible for the Spanish conquest of the Americas. They changed the culture of Native Americans, were used on cattle ranches measured in miles instead of acres, and moved cattle across half a continent to make cowboy history. "The Spanish colonial horse can go and go," says Phil Sponenberg, who set out three-plus decades ago to help save the breed.

As a student at Texas A&M University, Sponenberg read America's Last Wild Horses by Hope Ryden, a journalist concerned about wild horses.

"I became interested in the history but I was more interested in going out there and seeing what remained."

His first trip was to East Texas, but he soon learned about the Choctaw horses of southeast Oklahoma - descendants of the colonial Spanish horses.

This Choctaw mare and foal exhibit the spotting patterns that occur in some of the remnants of this strain from Southeast Oklahoma in what was historically the Choctaw nation.
The legendary horses arrived with Columbus and Cortez.

Columbus left his on the Caribbean islands. Cortez brought 32 to conquer Mexico, and these and later imports multiplied to thousands. In 1680, the Pueblo Indians revolted and stole the horses. From New Mexico, the horses were rapidly traded north. By the time Lewis and Clark headed west, the horse culture had advanced. "The Mandan villages on the Missouri River, where Lewis and Clark spent the winter, represented the largest metropolitan area in North America. It was trade and horses that made that possible," says Sponenberg. "The explorers reported seeing horses with Spanish brands."

The Spanish influence extended up to the Carolinas and all across the Gulf Coast, as well as throughout the West. "The Choctaws were one of the tribes displaced from Mississippi, and they took their livestock with them," Sponenberg says. In Oklahoma, he met Gilbert and Bertha Jones. "They lived in the mountains and saved a lot of the horses there and also had a lot of the Southwest bloodlines from when they lived in New Mexico."

That began Sponenberg's informal education on colonial Spanish horses. He stayed connected with the conservation efforts throughout his college career and after coming to Virginia Tech in 1981. He has collaborated with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy since 1978, and with Iberian researchers since the early 1990s. Sponenberg developed strategies for saving rare breeds, and has published widely to document rare populations and how to save them.

The Pryor Mountain horses are a Bureau of Land Management herd that Phil Sponenberg helped establish as colonial Spanish. Here they are on an alpine meadow summer range. © Phil Sponenberg

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contacts him to identify Spanish-type horses in wild herds to help the bureau conserve the horses. The work has taken him to Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Arizona. His task has been to evaluate the overall conformation of the horses and to assure that good candidate populations follow up with detailed bloodtyping or DNA typing by colleague Gus Cothran at Texas A&M. They have never disagreed.

As a result, several new strains of horses have been added to the conservation effort. "Equally important, several strains have been excluded," which also helps conserve the bloodlines, Sponenberg says.

Through the years, he has maintained friendships in Oklahoma, and as a result became owner of a Choctaw horse.

In 1994, a stallion from southeast Oklahoma ended up in Giles County, which is a few miles down the road from Blacksburg.

"He is a fairly short horse so the owner was going to geld him." Fortunately, the folks in Oklahoma heard about it first and called Sponenberg to save Icktinicki - which is Omaha for "Spirit of a good joke."

"Icki was the end of his bloodline," says Sponenberg, who was able to buy the stallion and return him to Oklahoma to sire more Choctaw horses. The well-traveled stallion, still owned by Sponenberg, is now in Vermont with Hidalgo writer John Fusco and a select group of Spanish Choctaw mares.

Hidalgo is a story about legendary endurance rider Frank Hopkins, who championed "Spanish mustangs." But Sponenberg says the colonial Spanish horses are not the same as the wild mustangs. "There are 1,000 Spanish horses in wild herds; another 2,000 are privately owned - mostly by families who can trace their heritage - the horses' and the families' - for several generations, although not back to colonial times."

When bloodlines can be traced back decades, it is then possible to use DNA analysis to take them back to the Spanish breeds still in Europe. While these are the horses with the longest heritage in North America, people did not keep track of pedigrees.

Colonial Spanish horses are short, narrow, and built for endurance. Phil Sponenberg evaluates a Marsh Tacky mare, from the McKenzie herd in South Carolina, for this conformation. © Jeannette Beranger
Their own family histories are often interrupted because of the displacement from the South.

What about other horses in the South - the Chincoteague ponies, for instance? They started out as Spanish horses, Sponenberg says, but have been crossed with other breeds too much now. Some of the horses on the Carolina Outer Banks still qualify as colonial Spanish horses, however.

Sponenberg recently identified another group of the Spanish horses still in the South. In late June, he went to the South Carolina low country to look at "Marsh Tacky" horses, which were used to manage cattle and to chase wild hogs across swampy terrain.

They turned out to be Spanish-type horses. Sponenberg is now helping to get breeders to come together to preserve this type of horse.

Pineywoods cattle

Sponenberg also ran across another Spanish livestock breed in his travels through the South - Pineywoods cattle. They are now largely in Mississippi and Alabama, although some are in Florida, where they are called Florida Cracker Cattle.

© Phil Sponenberg
Small, rugged, horned, heat-tolerant, and disease-resistant, "these cattle are exquisitely adapted to this environment," says Sponenberg.

They are also long-lived and productive. "Oakley Barnes of Alabama had a 31-year-old cow that calved every year - which is why she was allowed to live to be 31," says Sponenberg.

As with the Spanish horses, Native Americans helped spread Pineywoods cattle. The Spanish had a string of missions across the deep South that worked with five tribes - the Choctaw, Seminoles, Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw, who became agriculturalists and took cattle to their communities.

"They still had these cattle at the time of the 'removal' during the presidency of Andrew Jackson," Sponenberg says. "And when the tribes were moved to Oklahoma, they left many of their cattle behind."

The livestock was a boon for the European settlers. Now the remaining strains are named after the families who continue to preserve them - although there was so much disruption in the 1860s that some family history begins only after the war.

"For instance, the Carter strain in Mississippi began when Print Carter, a 16-year-old Civil War veteran, swam a herd of red cows over the Pearl River," says Sponenberg, whose book, A Rare Breeds Album of American Livestock (by Carolyn Christman, Sponenberg, and Donald Bixby), is full of such stories of people as well as the descriptions of animals.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, the older generation began dying off," says Sponenberg. "These were the people who started life before electricity and left it during the Space Age," and from whom he had learned a lot about managing the old lines. But their families often were no longer interested in raising cattle and began to sell them off.

Sponenberg worked hard to locate and encourage the families that still had herds, like the Barneses in Alabama and the Carters, to document their stories and persuade them to continue their efforts. "Many rare populations are poorly documented, which helps to contribute to their slide to obscurity and extinction," says Sponenberg. "The remaining owners are excited to have someone interested in their family heritage." And now, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is providing technical support for recapturing them for pure breeding.

Disruption occurred again in 2005. Katrina tore up Mississippi. "I was afraid the farmers would start to sell out," says Sponenberg. "It knocked down fences and, with the agricultural land interspersed with developments, the cows were running through people's yards. The hurricane dashed the hopes of many farmers throughout the region. They might have sold out, but we went there in November and again in March to identify cattle.

Fortunately, the various threads were able to be found and reassembled, and the breeders have been encouraged to save what easily could have been lost and register their herds."

Sponenberg is the registrar for Pineywoods cattle. "It gave them a sense of ownership and of belonging to a larger group. It helped them network."

Sponenberg also found more Spanish horses, cotton patch geese, old Spanish goats, and some locally adapted Spanish sheep.

The science of saving rare breeds

Sponenberg loves field work - discovering a new pocket of preserved livestock, making friends, and working with the people who manage the animals. His success is a result of the friendships and interest he has created - but also because of the strategies he has developed through scientific research.

Gilbert Jones lived in New Mexico and Oklahoma and saved many Spanish colonial horse bloodlines. When Sponenberg met Jones in 1973, Jones was in his 80s and had been saving horses since 1918.
Managing populations of rare breeds is basically managing inbreeding, Sponenberg says, and he has been able to develop systems of population management that are theoretically sound as well as practical in the barnyard. "It has to work for the livestock owners, too - that is the challenge," he says.

Sponenberg's newest book, Breed Survival: Why and How, written with Bixby, looks at how breeds work genetically and how breeds have to work biologically and politically to survive. "People who are raising the same breeds have to communicate, organize, and work together. To me, this is all about the people involved," he says.

"Systems have to be theoretically sound to meet the challenge of managing inbreeding in small populations, because inbreeding can slowly rob a rare breed of its vitality and usefulness in production systems," Sponenberg says. Addressing these concerns in a number of breeds has resulted in specific strategies for conservation that are included in the Conservation Breeding Handbook, written in 1995 by Sponenberg and Christman, which explains the importance of livestock breed conservation and provides step-by-step approaches to managing breeding programs. An upcoming book will build on this to provide insights into the genetic management of breeds and the management of breed associations.

Sponenberg's research began 20 some years earlier when he and fellow Texan and college roommate Jeff (Jefferson Davis) Burhus were trying to save a strain of Texas longhorns. "We subdivided the population and used linebred males across different groups of females. We were constrained by where we were going to go two generations into the future."

Linebred means the male was related several times to a specific ancestor, but for each male, the ancestor was different.

That provides genetic distance across the population. The longhorn experiment was not completed, but Sponenberg and other livestock owners have succeeded with other populations, including herds as small as 11, with just four males. "We've used the system with Pineywoods cattle, Choctaw horses, cotton patch geese, and a number of other breeds."

Sponenberg himself raises Tennessee myotonic (fainting) goats. He has two old lines from New Braunfels, Texas, that he is preserving.

International connections

Sponenberg's theoretical and philosophical frameworks are appreciated in Latin America, Portugal, and Spain. As a result of a symposium in 1992 at the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, where Sponenberg was invited to speak on the conservation of the Spanish breeds of horses and cattle in America, he has become a popular academic speaker. He has lectured in Spain on his system for population management.

The Ibero/Latin American group (Red Iberoamericana de Razas Criollas y Autóctonas) technically limits membership to researchers from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries whose governments support the conservation of these resources.

They have, however, identified Sponenberg as a member and participant despite his not hailing from a Latin American country.

That has allowed him to help shape conservation programs more broadly than in North America alone. For example, he is involved in such ongoing multinational research projects as DNA characterization of turkeys in Mexico, which extends earlier conservation work targeting only North American turkey populations; DNA fingerprinting of horses in Spain, an extension of his work to locate and characterize remnant populations of the colonial Spanish horse; and DNA fingerprinting of Iberian-type cattle in the United States so they can be compared with Portuguese, Spanish, and Central and South American populations.

Sponenberg is also helping an international group of researchers from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal locate and assess livestock that remain from the Iberian colonial connections, such as Florida Cracker and Pineywoods cattle, and Gulf Coast sheep.

"These have long been used in the Deep South for local production of meat, milk, wool, and oxen that were useful in the early lumber industry. They are all in danger of extinction from crossing with higher producing but much frailer breeds."

Such efforts sometimes raise philosophic questions, such as "What is a breed?" and "Why does it matter?" Sponenberg says.

"Livestock breeds are populations that have undergone successful genetic adaptation to a wide variety of environments, and their utility in agricultural production systems has immediate value to human survival. With breed extinction go many successful adaptations that would be difficult or impossible to reconfigure.

"But they are not only genetically interesting, they are a record of human accomplishments - a cultural record of how people used animals and what that meant to the people and to the animals," says Sponenberg.