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Criollo - Horse Breed & Info

Characteristics of the Criollo

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The Criollo horse became only really known beyond its homeland through the famous ride by Swiss Aim Tschiffely with two Criollos from Buenos Aires to New York City. The two horses, Mancha and Gato, were 15 and 16 years of age, respectively, when he set out. He was received by the U.S. president in Washington when he arrived there three years later, after approx. 13,500 miles that took him, among other hardships, over the over 18,000 feet high Condor Pass in Bolivia. That both, Mancha and Gato, afterwards lived to be over 40 years of age is further testimony to the extraordinary toughness and vitality of the Criollo horse.

Emilio Solanet founded the studbook for Criollo horses in 1918 which was officially recognized by the Rural Argentine Society in 1922. Solanet's horses have the status of foundation horses, and are marked in pedigrees with a B (for basis).

Other South American countries followed by founding studbooks for their Criollos, like Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, where the breed is called by its Portuguese name, Crioulo. They are unified by the umbrella organization Asociaci n de Criadores de Caballos Criollos (ACCC) and recognize each others registries. Interbreeding is allowed, and practiced to some degree. Some Brazilian and Uruguayan breeders have, for instance, obtained horses in Chile, where the Criollo horse is bigger and heavier than in Brazil and Uruguay. The Argentine Criollo is also one of the heavier ones. Size and heaviness usually betrays a certain draft influence.

Many Criollos look no different than Spanish mustangs and why would they, having a similar heritage, although on average the Criollo is somewhat bigger than the Spanish mustang. A lot depends of course on the environment and available feed. The Kiger mustang of southeastern Oregon, for instance, is comparable in size to the Criollo horse, because its Herd Management Area usually provides good conditions, while Sulphur Springs mustangs make a living in a harsher environment and mature to their full potential only in domestication.

It is not uncommon to find Criollos that resemble the primitive Sorraia horse, which undoubtedly was one of the Criollo's ancestors.

The hardiness of the Criollo horse is the pride of its breeders. In Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, endurance competitions are organized over a distance of 750 km (465 miles), covered in fourteen days, and called Marcha Functional . The horses carry a good load of 110 kilos (245 lbs) of rider and saddle and feed only on the grass found in the region covered. The horses for these competitions are gathered 30 days in advance and all put onto the same pasture, must not be trained, or supplemented in any way, so that all have an equal chance. The horse who finishes the competition without being eliminated by the judges or the veterinarians will have lost weight, but appears just as energetic as on the first day of the contest. Interesting also: 90 per cent of the competing horses are mares, and stallions never win first place.

The Criollo horse is still the choice of the South American cowboys, the best-known of which is Argentina's gaucho. On cattle drives or gathers, the Criollos are usually ridden for a week, then returned to pasture and substituted by new ones. All along, the native grass is their only feed. Horses on the ranches are not necessarily registered Criollos, in fact, they seldomly are. The registered Criollo horse has become too valuable to be exposed to the dangers and hardships of many ranches, but those horses used for ranch work are still criollos in the original sense of the word. It is a bit confusing that the breed carries the name of a horse that, traditionally, was not a breed, but a wild or semi-wild horse without a pedigree. Now the pedigreed horses carry that same name: Criollo. In that respect, too, the situation is similar to that of the mustangs of North America, where mustang also described a wild-living horse without a pedigree, but registries exist that use the term to describe their registered animals.

Just like from the work of the North American cowboy, several events resp. contests have derived from the South American herdsmen's work, some are similar to those in North America, some are quite unique. The Criollo horse excels in all of them.

Criollos of Central and South America were the basis for several specialized breeds, such as the different Paso breeds, or the Mangalargas of Brazil.

The rules and breed standards in the various Criollo horse registries vary a little - the ideal height is defined somewhat differently, and the tobiano spotting pattern is not allowed in all of them but they agreed to a common breed standard which includes:

- Size around 14,1-14,2 hands, but horses between 13,3 hands and 14,3 hands are acceptable.
- The conformation should be harmonious.
- The head should be powerful and short, with a straight or subconvex profile, a broad forehead, medium-long ears that are not hooked, a small muzzle that should not look square.
- Compact build with good muscle, but not as heavy and defined as in the Quarter Horse.
- Broad chest and sloping shoulder.
- Medium-long, strong, arched neck, set well on the shoulders.
- Pronounced, but not high, withers, reaching well into the broad back, which should have a wide, strong loin and be well-coupled with the strong, sloping, round croup.
- Tail to hang loosely and even when excited not carried high.
- Barrel wide and deep.
- Well-developed joints, short and strong cannon bones, legs not fleshy, with little or no fetlock hair.
- Hooves of medium size, hard, fairly steep, preferably black.
- Disposition lively and brave.
- Movements are agile and elastic, lateral gaits normally not present.
- Lots of mane and tail hair.

These standards already show that some non-Iberian characteristics have found their way into the Criollo horse as a breed. The typical Iberian horse has a rather narrow head, a short back (and Criollos often are a little long in the back), is not wide in the chest, but deep, and has long cannon bones. It is interesting to see how other Iberian characteristics remained popular with the Criollos, which were lost in other breeds of Iberian descent, like medium-long, fairly straight (not "hooked) ears, the arched neck, the round croup, the tail that shouldn't be carried elevated. Regarding the head profile, the standard at least allows for a subconvex profile, without putting the emphasis on a convex profile as is befitting for an Iberian breed, or one of Iberian ancestry.

Crioulos (Criollos from Brazil) have been trained as reining horses and a few have impressively and successfully performed in U.S. reining competitions.

It is difficult to imagine a horse with more endurance than the famous Argentine Criollo breed. This native horse of Argentina descends from the horses of the Iberian conquest.

When parties went to explore and conquer South America, horses were shipped to the river Plate from Iberia, and as in all the Spanish and Portuguese conquests, they brought the toughest, hardiest horses they could. Conditions were tough on such voyages with insufficient food and water. Many horses died or were unable to regain health. Whether it was the primitive characteristics that cropped out under the wild conditions in the New World, or whether some of the shipments were of rather primitive Iberian horses in the first place, fact is that until fairly recently, the Argentine Criollo and the Criollo in general, bore a considerable resemblance to the ancient Sorraia wild horse of Portugal and Spain (zebro, or encebro).

During long campaigns with Indians, many horses escaped or were turned loose. Also after destruction of Buenos Aires by Indians, many horses were driven into the wild. Natural selection resulted in physical hardiness and the survivors became the progenitors of the Argentine Criollo breed.

In Argentina summers are very hot but winters are severely cold. During seasonal migrations or drought, the wild horses were forced to travel hundreds of miles. Several explorers who ventured far out into the Pampas left records of the tremendous herds of wild horses, seen some two centuries after their ancestors had gained their freedom. The wild horses were known as Baguals, and some herds numbered into the thousands.

Many long rides of astonishing distances have been taken on Argentine Criollo horses, that only the hardiest horse could withstand. One of the most famous rides was that of A. F. Tschiffley, who alternately riding and packing two Criollo geldings, Mancha and Gato, rode from Buenos Aries, Argentina, to Washington, D. C, a distance of approx. 13,500 miles that took him, among other hardships, over the over 18,000 feet high Condor Pass in Bolivia. He was received by the U.S. president in Washington when he arrived there three years later. The two horses were 15 and 16 years of age, respectively, when Tschiffely set out, and both lived to be over 40 years of age after the journey. This is testimony to the extraordinary toughness and vitality of the Argentine Criollo horse.

When earlier in history the Jesuits were expelled from the Americas, the governor in Buenos Aires selected a man to take written news to the viceroy in Lima, Peru, a distance of at least 3,000 miles. The distance was covered on Criollo horses over extreme terrain, from waterless regions, salt beds, cactus forests, rocky desolate valleys, roaring mountain torrents, high regions near the snow line, braving icy blasts so strong the horses staggered, 16,000 feet and more above sea level, into steaming tropical jungles, delivering the message in 40 days.

Another outstanding ride was made on a single Argentine Criollo in 1810, leaving Buenos Aires and five days later arriving at the town of Mendoza, situated at the foot of the Andes, averaging 133 miles per day. There are many such stories, all authenticated, of the amazing endurance of the Criollo horse.

Today the Criollo is mainly a working cow horse, but is also used for pleasure and rodeo and other competitive events, because it is easy to handle, agile and quite fast.

Endurance rides are organized by the Criollo Breeders Association to prove and even increase the remarkable endurance of the Criollo horse. The Argentine Criollo organization is one of several in South America to put on these test rides, which are open only to purebred Criollo horses.

The participating horses are gathered 30 days prior to the ride, and pastured together to ensure that no special treatment is given to any horses. It's the best horse that is supposed to win, not the best trained one, or the best fed one, or one that has received medical treatment. The distance of the ride is about 465 miles (750 km) and the maximum time allowed is 75 hours, although the minimum is 56 hours. The ride is completed in 14 daily sessions, with the distance per day being shorter the first few days to assist horses that have been idle. The shorter distance is 80 km and is covered in 4 hours.

The only feed the horses are allowed during the 14 days is the grass they snatch along the roadside. Horses are checked by a vet at the end of each day and any doubt of fitness causes elimination. The primary purpose of the rides is to select animals for breeding purposes, ones that will pass on their unusual stamina to their offspring.

The Argentine Criollo is a hardworking horse that thrives on the grass it can find, without supplemental feeding. Even under hard work, this horse seems to bloom and grow healthier. The bone structure is said to be made like steel and problems in the legs and feet are extremely uncommon. The Criollo is probably as tough and sound as any other horse in the world, is unsurpassed in many ways, has plenty of bone, very strong joints and wonderful hooves. It is rarely unsound on any of these counts. It is the cow pony of the legendary gauchos.

Argentina's legendary polo ponies are the result of Criollo mares crossed with the Thoroughbreds.

The Argentine Criollo is found in a great variety of colors. Many breeders favor the dun, or grulla colors, which are said to be the color of the very toughest horses. A good number of Criollo horses are either dun or grullo (lobuno). This is a sturdy, stocky horse. The neck is of medium length and strong, the croup is sloped and round and the tail is carried close to the buttocks whether at work or rest. The mane and tail are thick. The head has either a straight or a slightly convex profile, whereas years ago this horse was always found to have the typical Iberian convex-shaped head.

Of the various criollo breeding countries in South America, the Argentine Criollo was the first to achieve official status as a breed, due to the efforts of Emilio Solanet, who founded the studbook in 1918, after he observed the degeneration of criollo horses in his country. Official recognition by the Rural Argentine Society followed in 1922. In the studbook, Solanet's horses have the status of foundation horses, and are marked in pedigrees with a B (for basis).

Crioulo Criollo Head Excellent mounts for rough terrain Reining Horse  Red Dun Criollo
Photos from left to right. 1) Young Brazilian dun roan Crioulo stallion. 2) In spite of the breed standard, the Iberian genes come through strong enough so that this Crioulo mare's head is still fairly narrow. 3) Criollos are excellent mounts to go cross country with. This grullo gelding shows a classic Iberian head profile. 4) A well-trained Brazilian Criollo reining stallion, performing in the U.S. 5) Red dun Criollo gelding.

6) Several million Criollo horses reportedly live in South America, which would include the unregistered ones and cruzados as well. Here, some are rounded up. 7) Criollo mare and foal. Criollos come in a great variety of colors, but the primitive dun and grulla colors are still not hard to find. Photo at the top of the page shows a Chilean Criollo.

Article © Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos ©Oelke or Oelke Archive.

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