We have been to the Empire Ranch Fall Roundup, now Cowboy Festival, several times. It is always a pleasant day. This time we went specifically to see the horses known at the Spanish Barb horses. The Spanish Barb horses are direct descendants of the horses from the time of Father Eusebio Kino, who pioneered this area in the late 17th, early 18th century. The Wilbur-Cruce Ranch in Arivaca, raised hundreds of them and kept their bloodline pure by keeping them separated. They came from Dolores Mexico, the site of Kino’s first mission in Sonora.
I fell in love with these horses after reading Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s “autobiography” A Beautiful, Cruel, Country. She called them her Rock Horses, for their sure-footedness. The story of her growing up on the ranch is both beautiful and painful, but a good portrayal of what ranching was like in those days. This ranch did not compare to the Empire Ranch, which boasted over 100,000 acres in its heyday and gobbled up smaller ranches in its wake. She even describes a grazing war with one of the Empire Ranch Boice family who owned the Ranch property next to the then Wilbur Ranch. Many of the Spanish Barb horses and other livestock were killed in this cattle war. Eva went to jail for 9 months.
Eventually, when Eva was old and could no longer care for her horses, she decided to sell. She sold her ranch to the Nature Conservancy in hopes they could care for the horses and the horses could remain on the property. It became part of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The horses were removed due to drought and starvation. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy stepped in, and through DNA and blood typing the Rock Horses were found to be part of the old line of Spanish Barbs or Berbers, dating back to the 17th century. The push has begun to save the breed.
I am told there are only around 200 left. That the largest number of Wilbur-Cruce horses exist at Rancho del Sueno in Madera CA. Rancho del Sueno is a 40-acre non-profit dedicated to this magnificent breed. I only wish I had been brought up an equestrian, or a cowboy. Here is the link to Rancho del Sueno, an interesting site. There, you can read more about the breed, its history and if you are inclined, donate.
There are plenty of websites with more information. You can even purchase your own “Rock Horse”. I am told that once you have tried one, you can never go back. They are intelligent, confident, sure-footed, agile and friendly, not to mention beautiful. It was a real pleasure to experience these magnificent beasts. Check out the Spanish Barb Horse Association to look into owning your own Rock Horse.
Two books I can recommend are:
Arizona’s Spanish Barbs: The Story of the Wilbur-Cruce Horses by Silke Schneider. If you want a short overview of the history of the Wilbur Cruce horses, then this is the book. I am not sure but I may have met her and her horses, Juanita and Lorenzo, at the Empire Ranch that day.
You will find additional resources at the back of Schneider’s book.
A Beautiful, Cruel Country by Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce. This is the memoir of Eva Wilbur Cruce. Mostly her memories of growing up on the Wilbur Cruce Ranch. this was the book that introduced me to the Rock Horses and what life may have been like in those days in Arivaca. You can still visit the Ranch. It is a short hike. Read our Review of the book and the hike to the Wilbur Cruce Ranch here.