State horse bill rides through Legislature
ST. DAVID - Arroyo may not have the size of a quarter horse, the speed of a thoroughbred or the elegance of an Arabian.
But this colonial Spanish horse can eat nearly any native grass, has hooves so firm they don't require shoes and is renowned for its stamina. In the late 1600s, its ancestors carried Father Eusebio Kino from Mexico into present-day Arizona, where he credited the breed for helping him establish missions.
As cattle ranchers sought bigger and stronger horses in the 300-plus years since, they cross-bred the colonial Spanish horse into many of today's most popular pedigrees. It's nearly nearly vanished in its native Spain and is a novelty breed kept alive by people such as Marjorie Dixon, Arroyo's owner.
Ten years ago, Dixon sold her quarter horses and began breeding the colonial Spanish horse at her 1,200-acre ranch set beneath the Dragoon Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Her passion inspired a suggestion from her husband, Jerry.
"My husband looked at me and said, 'Marjorie, these horses should be the Arizona state horse. You should really get on that,'" Dixon said with a laugh.
That could happen this year, as a bill inspired by Dixon and other members of Arizona's Colonial Spanish Horse Project is moving through the state Legislature. HB 2634, sponsored by Rep. Patricia V. Fleming, D-Sierra Vista, is awaiting a vote by the full House that would send it to the Senate.
If it passes, the colonial Spanish horse would join a list of state emblems that includes an official fossil (petrified wood), amphibian (tree frog) and neckwear (bola tie).
"These horses are a state treasure because of the history behind them," said Fleming, whose district includes St. David. "This is recognizing a piece of Arizona heritage."
Dubbed North America's first true horse, the colonial Spanish horse arrived in the New World with Spanish explorers. The breed made its first appearance in Arizona in 1540 with conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and returned to stay with Father Kino, who is nicknamed "the padre on horseback."
Yet Dixon said she knows of no other rancher in Arizona raising this breed.
Showing off some of her 30 colonial Spanish horses, Dixon said she hopes the designation also would inspire more people to raise and own the horses. She said the breed's unique physical attributes make it ideal for today's recreational riders.
"They really can do anything," she said. "They're easy to train, good at endurance and trail riding, very mild-mannered and are very intelligent."
But not everyone is on board with the idea of honoring this horse.
Tarly Pearson, executive director of the Arabian Horse Association of Arizona, said she sent a letter to the Legislature contesting Fleming's bill. She called Arizona "the mecca for the Arabian horse" and said her group would press for legislation honoring that breed if Fleming's bill fails.
"No one even knows what the colonial Spanish horse is," she said. "This would be doing the state of Arizona a great disservice."
But Maureen Kirk-Detberner, another member of Dixon's group and an owner of Arabian horses herself, said the colonial Spanish horse is by far the best to represent Arizona not only because of its history but because of its undeniable influence on modern breeds.
Country singer Rex Allen Jr. and groups such as the American Quarter Horse Association and the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance are among a dozen supporters listed on the group's website.
"The support we've gotten has been wonderful, and some have been really surprising," said Kirk-Detberner, a Tucson resident who quit her job last year to be project manager for the group.
Dixon said the organization's next step is establishing a foundation to help preserve the colonial Spanish horse.
"Saving breeds now that have the genetics and diversity that these horses have, and many other rare breeds, is really a passion for the preservation of animals in the future," she said.