The Criollo horse is a South American breed from the Pampas, a vast grassland extending between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The name “Criollo” is derived from the Spanish term for “native” or “local,” and it reflects the horse’s origins in the region.

This breed descends from Iberian horses brought to the continent by Spanish explorers. Once used by the gaucho horsemen and cowboys of the Pampas, Criollo horses are famous for their hardiness and endurance.

Today, Criollos are still one of the most popular horse breeds throughout South America, with several countries operating registries for the breed. All Criollo horses share similar temperaments and physical traits that make them versatile mounts.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Criollo horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Criollo horses.

Criollo Horse History

The Criollo horse has a long history in South America. These horses played a significant role in shaping civilizations in the Pampas. Many are still used for the agriculture work that the breed was first developed for by colonial farmers.

Origin

Modern Criollo horses trace their ancestry back to a shipment of 100 Spanish horses that arrived in Rio de la Plata in the year 1535. Imported by Pedro de Mendoza, the founder of Buenos Aires, these horses served as foundation stock for early local breeding programs. [1]

Many of these horses were left behind to form feral herds a few years later when the Spaniards abandoned Buenos Aires. Horses that withstood the region’s temperature extremes went on to reproduce, leading to a population of thousands of wild horses when settlers returned in 1580.

Over time, through natural selection and adaptation to the often harsh environments of South America, these horses evolved into the resilient breed we know today.

Native horses were crossed with imported Thoroughbreds and draft horses throughout the 19th century. The cross-breeding nearly erased the breed’s classic Spanish characteristics until breeders in Argentina developed a new breed standard to restore the traits of the original Criollo. [1]

Historic Use

Settlers brought horses to the Americas as working animals to explore the land and establish homesteads. Natural selection shaped the breed’s feral ancestors, ensuring that they adapted to their new environment. [2]

Indigenous people in the region captured feral horses to establish selective breeding programs incorporated these horses into their cultures. When Spanish settlers returned to the area, they also captured the horses for riding, packing, and farm work. [2]

Criollo horses gained popularity with the gauchos (cowhands) of the 18th and 19th centuries. These nomadic skilled horsemen used the Criollo horses to herd cattle on the grasslands, a now famous part of the region’s cultural heritage. [1]

The original Criollos had remarkable endurance abilities, allowing them to work long days with the gauchos. To improve the breed, breeders once evaluated horses for breeding in La Marcha endurance events that tested horses over a 750 km course. [1]

Professor Aime Felix Tschiffely famously trekked his two Criollo horses Gato and Mancha over 21,500 kilometres from Buenos Aires to New York City between 1925 and 1928. Both horses went on to live past the age of 35.

Today, Criollos are used for various equestrian disciplines, including endurance riding, polo, and traditional South American rodeo events.

Breed Registry

Argentine breeders founded a purebred Criollo breed registry in 1918. Dr. Emilio Solanet took leadership of the country’s breeders association in 1934, establishing new breed standards for Criollo horses and incorporating bloodlines from Chilean horses. [3]

Other countries in South America and Europe operate their own Criollo breed registries. There is no official breed registry for Criollo horses in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

Modern breed standards for Criollo horses emphasize their Spanish ancestry and the physical traits that allowed these horses to survive in feral herds on the Pampas. Criollo horses are still used as working cow horses in South America, but the breed can also excel in equestrian sports.

Conformation

Criollos are sturdy, compact horses with an average height of 14.3 hands. Today, they display a distinct Spanish type, evident in their sloping croups and slightly convex necks. Their overall conformation should appear well-balanced and harmonious.

Their heads have straight or convex profiles, broad foreheads, tapered muzzles, prominent cheeks, expressive eyes, and small ears. These horses are strong for their size, with short backs, wide chests, sloping shoulders, and round haunches.

Criollo horses have relatively short, strong legs with good bones and strong feet. Their gaits are loose, agile, and active. While most Criollo horses only have standard gaits, some can perform a lateral gait.

Colours

Nearly all coat colours occur in the breed, and some Criollo horses have primitive markings. Dun is the most popular colour for Criollo horses.

The complete list of coat colours represented in the breed include:

  • Dun
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Bay
  • Chestnut
  • Buckskin
  • Grullo
  • Palomino
  • Roan
  • Gray
  • Pinto

Their manes and tails are typically thick and long.

Temperament

Criollos are intelligent horses with a willing work ethic. While these horses are often confident and independent, most owners find they are eager to please and learn new things quickly in training.

The breed is also known for its bravery and calm temperament. One study found Criollos had more parasympathetic nerve activity associated with calm behaviour than Thoroughbreds. However, individual personalities can vary in horses regardless of breed. [4]

Disciplines

Their easy-going temperaments make Criollo horses well-suited for riders of different levels. These horses also serve as calm and brave trail-riding horses. Most have excellent cow sense, and many still work on cattle ranches in South America.

Criollo horses can also excel as competitive mounts in Western disciplines. A purebred Criollo horse named F5 Licurgo Tapajos represented Brazil in reining at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.

The endurance ability of the Criollo rivals the Arabian and other popular horse breeds used for the discipline. These horses have a reputation as capable mounts for long-distance endurance races.

Criollo Horse Health

Criollo horses can live exceptionally long lives with good care and management. However, this breed is susceptible to similar health problems as their Iberian ancestors.

Genetic Diseases

Criollo horses are a phenotypically uniform breed, but genetic studies show this breed has high genetic variability. This means that while they appear similar in physical appearance, their genetic makeup reveals significant diversity.

Genetic diversity in a breeding population is beneficial for improved adaptiveness to adverse environments, disease resistance, and fertility. [5] These horses have a lower risk of inheriting genetic diseases than breeds with more of inbreeding.

While Criollos are generally less susceptible to genetic diseases, there are documented cases of Criollo horses with syndromes that resemble inherited disorders found in other breeds.

HYPP

One case study identified hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP)-like syndrome in an Argentine Criollo horse. HYPP is a genetic disease found in Quarter Horses that affects muscle tissue. [6]

While the affected Criollo horse displayed the clinical signs of the disease, they tested negative for the gene associated with HYPP. [6] It is not clear whether this condition was caused by a different gene mutation or another cause altogether.

Wobblers Syndrome

Another case study reported on a Colombian Criollo horse with Wobblers syndrome, also known as cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy (CVSM). [7] Wobbler’s syndrome is a neurologic disorder characterized by a wobbly or uncoordinated gait, resulting from spinal cord compression in the neck.

This condition arises due to malformation or degeneration of the cervical vertebrae