Imagine a horse that doesn’t need shoes, can live on less hay, and rarely gets sick. A horse that is inherently sound, has incredible endurance, and bonds closely with humans. If all this sounds too good to be true, it’s not! These characteristics belong to a rare and special breed of horse called the Spanish Mustang.

Unlike many modern breeds, Mother Nature—not mankind—is responsible for the Spanish Mustang’s endearing traits. After arriving in North America with the Spanish in the 15th century, the ancestors of today’s Spanish Mustangs eventually found themselves living in the wild. Escapees from Spanish ranches, they adapted quickly to the harsh Western landscape, and grew to number in the millions. Native Americans learned to tame and ride these horses, creating the Indian ponies so reviled by the U.S. Cavalry. The Indian horses’ speed and agility enabled tribes fighting for their land to outrun and outmaneuver government forces time and again.

The Indian nations were eventually subdued and placed on reservations, and the U.S. government began an extermination process to get rid of the horses that had made beating the Indians so difficult. Government agents shot and killed as many Indian ponies as they could find. Draft horse stallions were turned loose throughout the West to infiltrate elusive feral herds. The goal was to eliminate the speed and agility of the wild breed, and in doing so, take away the Indians’ most potent weapon.

The government plan worked. By the turn of 20th century, the Indian pony of Spanish descent had become extremely rare. The only remaining Spanish Mustangs lived in extremely remote areas of the West, numbering only in the hundreds.

In the 1950s, a Wyoming horseman named Bob Brislawn discovered a herd of these distinctly Spanish horses in a remote canyon while working for the U.S. Geological Survey. Impressed with their unique appearance and hardiness, Brislawn began a quest to save this dying breed. He started the Spanish Mustang Registry [www.spanishmustang.org], and purchased similar horses rounded up in other Western states. These horses became the foundation stock of today’s registered Spanish Mustang.

Today only about 3,000 Spanish Mustangs exist, prompting The Livestock Conversancy, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving American heritage breeds, to place the breed in the “threatened” category.  The existing registered bloodlines are made up of several strains, identified by the area of the West where they originated.

The breed’s history is only one aspect of its unique nature. Spanish Mustangs have a distinct appearance. Compact and small, they rarely reach 15 hands, but can easily carry the weight of a grown man. They have classic Spanish heads, with a straight or convex profile; small ears with tips that point inward; wide foreheads; and crescent-shaped nostrils. Like Arabians, they have one less vertebra than most other breeds, resulting in a short, sturdy back. Their croups are round, and their tails low set. Their manes and tails are thick and flowing.

Spanish Mustangs are found in just about every horse color imaginable, and some that are rarely seen in other breeds. Grullas are common, and often come with “biscotti” ears that look like they were dipped in chocolate. Pinto markings—especially sabino patterns—are part of the breed’s genetics. Even Appaloosa-type coats can be found in the breed, with the exception of the leopard pattern.

Although Spanish Mustangs are few in numbers compared to many other breeds, they have been used in just about every discipline imaginable. Individuals have succeeded in dressage, hunter/jumpers, working equitation, endurance, competitive trail riding, driving and cattle work. They are versatile and willing partners, forming strong bonds with their human companions.

Hundreds of years in the wild made the breed tough. Spanish Mustangs are easy keepers, rarely need shoes, and are free from many of the lameness issues often seen in other breeds. They also conserve their energy, and don’t waste time spooking at small things. This trait makes them especially good trail horses.

Spanish Mustangs are scattered throughout the U.S. in individual homes and with small-scale breeders. Some sanctuaries, like Return to Freedom in Lompoc, Calif., and Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, S.D., maintain herds of these special horses in an effort to preserve the breed.

Although Spanish Mustangs may be hard to find, once you meet one of these special horses, you’ll likely never forget. Their special combination of beauty, brains and history makes them a real one-of-a-kind horse.