The Wilbur-Cruce horses are the jewel in the crown of the Spanish horse legacy. The Wilbur-Cruce strain of colonial Spanish horses’ dates back to the period of exploration when the Spanish first found the shores of the ‘New World’, and even before, during the development of Spanish horse types of the Iberian Peninsula. Amazing to say the least, the DNA results, determined by Dr. Gus Cothran, Texas A&M University, demonstrated a timeline from the early foundation equines of Europe to the development of horse types of Iberia and the connection of the early horse populations of Iberia that arrived from across the ocean to the New World … The Americas.
Many of the Spanish soldiers that arrived on the shores of what is now known as Mexico, worked their way north to the Sonoran territory. Jesuit Missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in the New World in 1681. He settled in Cucurpe in the Pimeria Alta in1687 and built his first mission just north at Nuestra Senora de los Dolores del Cosari. Over the next twenty-four years he established 24 missions and set up the foundation for modern agriculture and livestock raising. As a map maker, he travelled and explored extensively and proved that California was not an island. It was from Padre Kino’s efforts that the vast herds of Spanish livestock were developed, documented and managed.
The horses and other livestock that originated from Father Kino’s Mission herds in Sonora, Mexico, accompanied the explorer Gaspar de Portola, his Lieutenant Moraga and friar Miguel de la Campa and colonist/settlers in 1771 from Padre Kino’s Sonoran Missions. Later joining with Father Junipero Serra in Santa Maria and continuing to Monterey/Carmel and establishing the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo…. Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, his lieutenant Jose Joaquin Moraga with Friar Pedro Font, left Tubac, Sonora in 1775 with a group of Colonists and 1,000 head of livestock from Padre Kino’s Missions, traveled through the Devils Pass to Borrego Springs and up the Alta California Coast to San Francisco establishing a Presidio and the Missions San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) and Santa Clara de Asis.
These early explorations and settlements established Spanish horses and other livestock in Alta California. The lifestyles and industries of colonial California were designed and driven/developed around the utility of the horses, other equids, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and foul that the Spanish introduced. The existence of these animals helped to sustain the new residents, create lifestyles and wealth. Horses were indispensable to the great Cattle Ranchos, Californios and Vaqueros … legends of our West.
As the West developed there were many opportunities for exploration. One such journey was made by Dr. Rubin Wilbur (a Harvard graduate) on a mining expedition from the East to Sonoran territory. While on his tour, Dr. Wilbur met a lovely lady from Magdalena, fell in love, married and decided not to return east. The new couple purchased land along the Arivaca Creek in Sonoran territory and started a ranch. Dr. Wilbur purchased his horses and livestock from Padre Kino’s Mission Dolores. All the livestock in that period and area were still from the original Spanish herds that Padre Kino so carefully managed. Juan Sepulveda was taking some of the Mission horses north, Dr. Wilbur selected his first foundation stock at that time. Thus, starting the Wilbur-Cruce strain of Spanish mission/ranching horses. (Juan Sepulveda’s grandson came to our ranch and visited WC horses in 2016. He also owns horses to maintain his family’s history with horses.)
As time passed, states were created and the Wilbur-Cruce ranch became part of Arizona, just 10 miles above the newly identified Mexican/American border. Three generations of the family resided on the ranch by the creek. In 1989 the Nature Conservancy had finally, after many attempts, convinced Dr. Wilbur’s granddaughter to sell part of the remaining ranch. Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce, now in her middle 80’s, and compromised by a stroke agreed. Eva Antonia found out that The Nature Conservancy only managed land and wildlife and that they were going to remove the horses … Eva Antonia again said NO.
The Nature Conservancy collaborated with the Minor Breeds Conservancy, now the ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) to negotiate with Eva Antonia to place the horses with conservation breeders to save and perpetuate her beloved Spanish horses. Dr. Phil Sponenberg, Technical Advisor for the ALBC conferred with Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce to select the conservationist, locations and conditions of the agreement/contract. The Wilbur-Cruce horses (referred to as ‘Kino horses’) were carefully removed from the ranch, taken to the old Tucson livestock grounds, there each horse was identified, numbered and blood typed. In May of 1990, three separate parties and locations were agreed on as recommended by Dr. Sponenberg. A contract with strict guidelines for the care, breeding, ownership and location for the Wilbur-Cruce horses was created by Eva Antonia. All participants had to agree and sign a contract, I was one of the individuals chosen. We went to Tucson the end of June, 1990 to select horses and finalize the arrangements.
Eva Antonia came to say good-by to her lifelong friends and partners, July 1, 1990, I loaded 18 of these precious equines, and headed home to California … little did I know what was on board my two horse vans. Later, Eva shared information about the special qualities of her horses, we talked on the phone and wrote letters until she passed. Eva’s information was so inciteful about the character that her horses possessed and had shared with her family … every day I find her words have more meaning and truth. And, every day I share Eva’s love for her horses.From Eva’s book, ‘A Beautiful, Cruel Country’, 1987: “The strain of the Spanish horse -- our ‘rock horses’ that I have praised so highly in this book… a colorful remnant of the past… We loved our voiceless co-workers dearly… They were our companions from sunup to sundown and sometimes deep into the night… They worked with their riders with courage and outstanding intelligence… Years of close association taught me their language… They had speed, stamina, and intelligence… The Spanish horse was made to build the West, and that he did… and none more beautiful!” Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce – working on the ranch
Thanks to Dr. Gus Cothran’s life time’s pursuit and DNA documentation of vast breeds from around the world, it is possible to better identify a horses’ genetic history. DNA testing indicated the presence of ancient breeds such as the Caspian, Turkoman, Akahl Teke in the ancestry of the WC horses. Now we can better understand the uniqueness of the Wilbur-Cruce horses. Eva Antonia once said to me “Sometimes you don’t know how or why you know… but you just know”. She was referring to the inexplicable special and diverse qualities that her horses possessed, “you can just feel it”. Yes, I know... and now because of Dr. Cothran’s amassing such a phenomenal amount of DNA data, I can begin to understand why the Wilbur-Cruce horses demonstrate such a wealth of special qualities.
Dr. Gus Cothran:
“The WC [Wilbur-Cruce] horses show the greatest genetic resemblance to ‘Old Spanish’ breeds & North African Barb. These horses based upon the analysis I have just done are probably the best or near best representative of the old Spanish type that was brought to the New World. It is not normal for DNA results to show these earlier types. These horses are like a genetic time capsule.”
Dr. Phil Sponenberg:
"They are one of very few known ‘rancher’ strains of pure Spanish horses that persists in the southwest. The Cruce horses are of great interest because they are a nonferal strain . . . truly unique. The Cruce population is a most significant discovery of a type of horse thought to be gone forever. Gus is saying that the WC horses have good variability genetically, and that the evidence points to an Iberian origin centuries ago. Importance, to me, is that the Wilbur-Cruce branch of this type of horse is quite different from history/use than the Central and South American horses. So, unique by foundation, isolation, and type.”