Dr. Sponenberg, a professor at Virginia Tech University, is an influential expert in the genetics of domestic animals. He is well known for his studies of the genetics of coat color, and has also worked extensively on the identification and preservation of the Colonial Spanish Horse in the United States. The Colonial Spanish Horse is a horse descended from the Iberian horses brought to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese, unadulterated by more recent mixing with draft horses, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Quarter Horses or other breeds.
At one time (about 1700 AD) the purely Spanish horse occurred in an arch that stretched from the Carolinas to Florida, west through Tennessee, and then throughout all of the western mountains and great plains. In the northeast and central east the colonists were from northwestern Europe, and their type of European horses were more common than the Colonial Spanish type. (see article here)
Colonial Spanish Horses - and there are several dozen sub-types or breeds, based in various regions of the USA where they survived - are visually identified by specific conformation and show distinctive DNA markers in common with Iberian horses, such as the Andalusian and Sorraia.
I emailed Dr. Sponenberg about his work recently:
GHC: At what point in your life did you develop an interest in horses?
Dr. Sponenberg: [I] became interested in horses pretty young, but didn't grow up riding or anything like that. Was always just interested in why they looked like they did, and why they did like they did.
GHC: When did you first become aware of the Colonial Spanish Horse?
Dr. Sponenberg: I became aware of Colonial Spanish horses in about 1971, after reading Hope Ryden's "America's Last Wild Horses." I also visited with Leanna and Buddy Rideout, and through them became acquainted with the Spanish Mustang Registry. From there things snowballed to the present!
GHC: Do you think the awareness of CSH and the efforts of the ALBC to conserve the CSH have been effective?
Dr. Sponenberg: I think we can claim modest success. The frustration for me is that in South America the Colonial Spanish horse is what people think of when they think "horse," while up here this is not the case. These remain outside the mainstream of horses and horse use, which is frustrating to me.
GHC: Has the increased attention to conserving the CSH had any negative effects (such as breeders promoting horses as CSH that don't really fit the criteria...)?
Dr. Sponenberg: I am not sure on this one. I do think that folks need to think "type" when picking matings and future directions. This cannot be stressed enough, as it is possible to drift from a good type pretty quickly.
GHC: The US has a bit of a "free-for-all" going with registries. Besides the Spanish Mustang Registry there are broad registries like the Horse of the Americas registry, and very specific registries like the Steens Kiger registry. Does it matter that some breeders are mixing lines, some are isolating lines? Is it more important to preserve the CSH in general, or is it vital to maintain the specific sub-types?
Dr. Sponenberg: I think there are some 20 registries at this point. [They] do serve to keep the strains out there as pure entities, which has some advantages. That said, the umbrella registries serve well to keep strains as well as the composite. I do think in general that joining together would make most sense.
GHC: I have not seen anyone address the socio-economic side of the CSH. My impression has been that the CSH has survived in rural and poor areas, because the wealthy were able to "improve" their horses with Thoroughbreds and other European imports, which were high-status horses. Any thoughts on this socio-economic element in the conservation of the CSH in the US?
Dr. Sponenberg: Well, this sort of situation is likely to persist unless and until these CS horses become synonymous with "really good and highly desired horse" in lots of people's minds. This is the challenge. I think we are making some progress, though.
GHC: If funding were no object, what specific projects would you love to undertake (or see others undertake) to promote the CSH?
Dr. Sponenberg: Promotion is tricky. The best would be horses being used and being successful.
GHC: I do have to add, when I rode in Costa Rica recently I was completely sold on the Criollo horses.
Dr. Sponenberg: I hope that the Central American countries get together to save their Criollo horses - not a whole lot has been done there yet!
Many thanks to Dr. Sponenberg for taking time from his busy schedule to answer my questions. For more about Colonial Spanish Horses, see this post.