East/West Crosses: Crossbreeding Spanish Mustangs

The prevailing theory about Mustangs is that they arrived in North America by one of several routes. The majority probably arrived with the early Spanish explorers, conquistadors, and monks up through Mexico into the southwest and high desert plains of what is now the United States. The earliest Spanish horses weren't just one horse, but probably were several different horses bred for specific purposes: a pack horse, a smooth-gaited and comfortable riding horse for long hours in the saddle, and a heavier, more muscled battle horse. many of these horses escaped into the wild or were traded to or captured by indigenous peoples. In the wild, the different strains most likely cross bred, creating a horse-type commonly associated with the Mustang. 

Whether the indigenous peoples of the plains of North America adopted the horse the Spanish brought or already knew and utilized a horse native to North America is a hotly debated topic in some circles, with people claiming evidence to support their theories on both sides of the argument. Whichever theory comes to be proven true, it is a fact that what we call Mustangs today are a beautiful mix of horse types bred by the Spanish explorers and conquerers and later Spanish settlers and ranchers and Native Americans.

Another path into North America for Spanish horses were shipwrecks along the East coast of North America. These eastern Spanish Mustangs lived in wild herds on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and on some of the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Today some of these herds have been interbred with later modern horses, but some still survive in isolated, but endangered bands like the Corolla and Shackleford.

Ultimately, when humans get involved in the breeding of horses, it always comes down to one person or one group's preference for a particular look (color and conformation), athleticism (speed over a certain distance, endurance, agility, jumping), alignment with a particular kind of work (strength carrying or pulling, gait for a comfortable ride during long hours in the saddle, ability to work in given environments, or ability to work around other animals), or temperament (behavioral qualities that people appreciate in a horse or that make them bond well to humans). In a time period in which horses were essential for work and livelihood, breeding tended to the far more utilitarian. Western ranchers cross bred the Mustangs they found with modern horses to give them horses that were better suited to working cattle.

As a kind of reaction to this utilitarian cross-breeding, later western breeders took on the task of preserving what they felt were the most "authentic" Spanish Colonial Horses. They pulled breeding stock from the wild to align with the qualities they most appreciated. While this did preserve a beautiful strain of horses, it also led to a fragmentation of registries arguing over whose version of Colonial Spanish Mustangs was most authentic.

Some breeders took a different approach to preservation and looked to cross the Mustangs of the West with the Mustangs of the East, creating the East/West Cross. In this cross breeding initiative, people like Vickie Ives and Tom Norush, and even earlier Dale Burras of Hatteras Island, have bred the western ranch horse type Mustang to the eastern Banker horses.

Tom Norush and Kelly in Missouri for the Horse of the Americas national meeting in 2015

I've been fortunate to have the support of both Vickie Ives at Karma Farms in Marshall, Texas and Tom Norush in Indiana. They are both wise and generous elders for me and they have taught me a lot.

Kelly and Vickie Ives with Titus Unlearning at Karma Farms in Marshall, Texas.

I have three of Tom Norush's East/West Cross Mustangs in my Windhorse herd. Dancing Bird, (aka Birdy) is a beautiful mare and a great riding horse. My two newest additions are a buckskin mare, Inanna,(named for a Sumerian Goddess) and a gelding, Diego (named for the Mexican painter Diego Rivera).

Birdy (in front), running with another Norush East/West Cross, Angel of Fire, a horse I brought back for one of my students.

Birdy, ready for a ride.


Diego and Inanna

Diego and Inanna