How America's Original Horse Was Saved By A Wyoming Family

Jul 11, 2014

This was almost the year of the thoroughbred horse, with California Chrome's run for the elusive Triple Crown. But here's the story of a smaller, scrappier horse that overcame long odds with the help of a Wyoming family. Wyoming Public Radio’s Micah Schweizer has this postcard from a visit with the Spanish Mustang.

Living history comes thundering over the ridge. This is America’s original horse.

It’s called the Spanish Mustang because it traces directly back to the horses first brought to the western hemisphere from Spain by Columbus in 1492. But let’s jump ahead to just 100 years ago. Bob Brislawn was a homesteader near Oshoto, north of Moorcroft. He discovered the Indian or cow pony, as it would have been called, while working with U.S. Geological Survey. So Brislawn set out to find more of the vanishing breed in remote, isolated canyons and on Indian reservations, where the bloodlines had remained pure over the centuries. From these mares and stallions came the Spanish Mustang registry, established in 1957. That lineage lives on at the Brislawn family’s Cayuse and Star Flower ranches, rolling grassy hills in the shadow of Devil’s Tower, the site of the original homestead.

A call from Kitty Breaslain and the promise of alfalfa cubes lures in the free-roaming bands of horses—each consisting of a stallion and a harem of mares, some with foals.

“You can pet him a little bit if he’ll let you,” says Kitty’s husband—Bob Brislawn’s son—Neil UiBreaslain. (He uses the family name’s old Irish spelling.) “He’s gentle enough. He just doesn’t want to be bothered. I always say I just keep them around for laughs, because they’re always up to something.”

“Way back, out on the deserts, there’s nothing to eat. They have to eat just the weeds and junk they can find. And these horses can live on brush, can never see grass, and do fine.”

That hardiness let the horse flourish in the West after being introduced by the Conquistadors. Spanish Mustangs are tough, small horses, measuring about 14 hands. Neil says they’re a smooth ride because their back is short and their legs are springy. They’re agile, able to make tight turns and stop on a dime, which can send the unexperienced rider tumbling. And they’re smart, which UiBreaslain says can get them into trouble.

“They think they know more about whatever you’re doing than you do.”

Years ago, Neil and Kitty had a neighbor who rode a Spanish Mustang mare for about two decades, but rider and horse never got along.

“So one day he decided, ‘OK, I’m gonna ride you to death,’” recalls Neil. “So he took off and he rode her in big circle, about 120 miles. He got back home, and she threw him off in the pig pen. So he pulled out his six shooter and killed her.”

In the late 19th century, the federal government slaughtered thousands of Spanish Mustangs with machine guns in the effort to bring Native American tribes under subjugation—even putting a bounty on the horses. And in the 1920s and 30s, the government diluted the bloodline by cross-breeding with bigger Eastern horses. So when Bob Brislawn set out to save the breed, the horses were scarce. There was also a lot of prejudice against them. Neil and Kitty remember people calling the horses ‘dirty little ponies.’

“You can’t fight ‘em, you can’t be mean to them; you gotta be nice to them,” says Neil.

Kitty adds, “And everybody thinks you have to have a big horse to have a good horse. The only good horse is a thoroughbred, so to have a good horse it has to have thoroughbred in it. Well, big is not better.”

A plucky Spanish Mustang is the hero of the 2004 movie ‘Hidalgo’, for which the Breaslains were consulted. Actor Viggo Mortensen plays a long distance rider who wins a race on his mustang against a pedigreed East Coast horse and rider.

East Coast rider: “Mustangs don’t belong in races with thoroughbreds. If you ask me, they belong in fertilizer.”

Frank Hopkins (played by Mortensen): “Mister, you can say anything you want about me, but I’m gonna have to ask you not to talk about my horse that way.”

Thanks to the Brislawn family standing up for the horse over the last century, things are different. There are now a couple dozen Spanish Mustang breeders around the U.S. There are also breeders abroad, from Germany to Australia. And even Spain is showing renewed interest, bringing the original Iberian horse full circle.

As you can see in the slideshow above, Laramie photographer Dan Hayward has been photographing these remarkable animals on the Cayuse and Star Flower ranches. He’s organizing a public photo safari to the ranches July 31 to August 3. Registration information is here.