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The Criollo horse, handiness and endurance
By Gérard Barré, webmaster of

The chosen mount of legendary Gauchos, the Criollo horse is the symbol of equestrian cultures in Latin America. This hardy little horse is exceptionally easy-handling. To invoke its name is to fuel dreams of adventure…

The Horse of Conquistadores : Heritage

The Criollo horse or breed, literally "creole", has no actual name of its own. It is the direct descendant of horses brought to the New World since the arrival of Columbus, imported by Spanish conquistadores during the XVIth century and notably by Don Pedro Mendoza, founder of Buenos Aires, in 1535. Many of these war horses escaped or were abandoned, and rapidly returned to a more primal state in an environment perfect for their development, the Pampa. For the next four centuries, the Criollo breed adapted itself to the vast South American plains through the pitiless process of natural selection. This adaptation to the rude conditions of life on the Pampa was determined by selective factors acting on wild populations, which permitted them to develop qualities of physical hardiness and resistance to diseases.

The indigenous people became riders upon contact with the Spanish military and colonialists, and began raising these horses in semi-liberty in the vast plains. Much as the Gauchos would later do, they transformed the horse into their mode of transportation, their hunting or working companion, their partner in games. Since then, the Criollo has always been a cattleworking horse for the Gauchos or peones.

Horse of the Lengendary Gauchos

To speak of the Criollo horse is to speak of the Gaucho, the Pampa and the difficult way of life it offered this rider. Rain or shine, he was always outside with his "recado", which doubled as saddle and bed. The horse is his indispensable accessory ; it is said that a Gaucho without a horse was the same as a man without legs. All their daily activities (bathing, hunting, game playing…) were accomplished from the back of a horse.
The Gaucho is without a doubt the most well-known of all cultural symbols in Argentina. He incarnates the principal characteristics of Argentine mentality : pride, courage, honor and above all, a love of liberty, which he wouldn't trade for all the benefits brought from Europe to the new society in the XIXth century.

Modern gaucho
Photo © Denis Capecci

Criollo stallion, Photo © ACCC

Solanet, father of the breed

In the beginning of the XXth century, one man, assisted by a few friends worked to develop the registry of the Criollo breed in Argentina : Dr. Emilio Solanet. The Argentine Rural Society adopted this breed standard the 28th of September, 1922.

It was around 1910 that Dr. Solanet, professor at the School of Veterinary Medecine and Agriculture in Buenos Aires, brought together around 2000 specimens of the Pampa horse in his estancia, El Cardal. These horses came from the west of the Chubut province (Patagonia, Argentina). Each animal exhibited the characteristics he was looking for. He carefully selected 15 mares that would become the breeding stock of the Argentine Criollo breed. Indeed, the doctor has a personal idea of the qualities neccesary to make a good working horse, and based his selection on the needs of rural workers. If Solanet didn't actually create the Criollo horse, he at least invented the breed standard which was the fruit of his effort.

At this time, Doctor Solanet raved about the power, frugality, endurance, intelligence and longevity of his Criollo horses. Soon a raging controversery developed, opposing fans and sceptics of this horse from the Pampa. To decide the issue, Solanet offered two of his horses to a Swiss school teacher who desired to make an intercontinental voyage from Buenos Aires to New York. Aimé-Felix Tschiffely made Mancha and Gato famous in Argentina and wrote their names in the history books of the world.

The enthusiasm created by these two horses, and the fact that they not only completed the journey without incident but also lived for more than 40 years, has made Argentines take Criollos seriously ever since. Many people then copied the doctor's example and began raising them in semi-liberty.

Today, the Criollo is widely represented all over South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chili, Paraguay, Uruguay…) with only slightly differing breed characteristics. It is in Argentina that we find the Criollo closest to the standard defined by Solanet.

Photo © Daniel Alfredo Jensen


Strong potential for many equestrian disciplines

Used for working cattle by the Gauchos, the Criollo is still an element in the daily work of peones, the herders and cowboys of South America that prize the horse for its hardiness, endurance and strong physical condition.

The Criollo is also appreciated in many traditional equestrian games , including polo, a national sport in Argentina. One must also mention pato, the origin of today's horseball, the paleteada, which demonstrates horse and rider's capacity to work catte, or the jineteada, derived from traditional, often brutal horsebreaking techniques in South America and not unlike the North American rodeo. Each of these games shows off the extreme easy-handling of Criollo horses and the level of horsemanship of their riders.

In polo, it must be noted that purebred Criollos are very rarely used these days. Players needing greater speed began to cross the local horses with Arabians, Thoroughbreds or even Quarter Horses.

Only in the realm of outdoor nature riding can the full pleasure of riding a Criollo be experienced. It is a horse made for the great outdoors, ideal for long voyages or trail rides, trekking or western riding. Extremely easy-handling, its training as a cattle worker or even war horse seem a part of the not-so-distant past.

Paleteada, Yunta Felipe
Photo © Angeles Ballester

La marcha, Photo © CRZVD Verband

The qualities of a horse built for endurance

Multifaceted leisure horse, exceptionally sober and hardy, the Criollo also has a bright future in endurance competitions, as we can see in the famous marcha of Criollos organized each year in Argentina by the A.C.C.C. The competition takes its inspiration from life on an estancia. All horses participating in the contest must be present 30 days before the start. Without training or manipulation, strictly forbidden by the rules, they spend this time together in a pasture.

The goal is to homogenize the physical condition of the animals ; the contest aims at finding the horse with the best genetic disposition, not the best training. Exceedingly difficult, the contest consists of covering an itinary of 750 kilometers in 14 days, 53.5 km per day, without extra food or medicine. The horses feed only on the grass they encounter on the Pampa, and must carry 110 kilograms! Nutritional complements and drugs are forbidden. Each spring, around 20 horses take part in this adventure. The best horses contribute to the fame of the estancia that produced them.

A horse of strong character

Concerning its temperament, the Criollo can be fearless and independent. It is often said that the Criollo is a one-man horse; it is often very affectionate, but doesn't trust just anybody. Once trust is established, it gives all of itself with amazing courage and tenacity. It fears nothing and goes absolutely anywhere!

Noticia and Nino "de la Selva", born in 2001, Haras du Treuscoat France).
Photo © Haras du Treuscoat

As with other horses that remain close to nature (Camargues, Mustangs, Akhal-Tékés…) Criollo horses can be distant from man. Some people believe this to be due to traditional horsebreaking, but it is more likely part of its free life in the herd.

An International Breeding Program Arrives

The breeding of Criollo horses is now developping all over the world, especially in Europe thanks to aficionados from Italy, France and Germany. These breeders are, for the most part, recongnized by the A.C.C.C. (Asociación de Criadores de Caballos Criollos - Buenos Aires, Argentina. Association of Criollo Horse Breeders, established in 1923) and their production is registered in the Argentine studbook.

Currently the demand for Criollos is growing in North America, notably in the United States.

BT Malicia, Gran Campeona Hembra Ganadora de la Integral de Prado 2001.
Photo © Cabaña Septiembre

The Criollo Standard

The morphology of the horse varies slightly according to the environmental conditions of their region or the practices of breeders.

The Criollo is a medium-length horse, with a harmonious morphology and powerful body. Size : 1.38 m to 1.52 m. Head : rather short, with a wide forehead, rounded nose, straight, almost convex profile, dilated nostrils, alert eyes, small, pointed ears. Muscled neck, stout shoulders, withers slightly detached. Long, inclined shoulder, deep, ample thorax. Short, straight back, wide powerful loin. Well-muscled, medium-sized, rounded hindquarters. Tail well attached. Legs are rather short, solid with well-developed, resistant joints, short hocks, small, hard hooves, generally black. Thick abundant mane, often cut short. Varied colors, but breeders refuse partial or full albinos. Mule or zebra stripes exist in some colors.

Over one hundred colors are recognized for registration in the Criollo studbook. Except tobiano and overo, traces of depigmentation eliminate an unlucky candidate. Each color, described with extreme precision to indicate a different sub-type, demonstrates a certain imagination and poetry present in the Pampa, and in the heart of the Gaucho.

Cyber Criollos

Breeders associations across the world
" Germany : (Criollo-CRZVD)
" Argentina : (Asociación de Criadores de Caballos Criollos)
" Brazil : (Associação Brasileira de Criadores de Cavalos Crioulos)
" Italy: (Associazione Italiana Cavallo Criollo)
" Uruguay : (Sociedad de Criadores de Caballos Criollos)


A reference for the Criollo horse, I'm just a Criollo…

The author of this article is the webmaster of the site "I'm just a Criollo…" ( This site, complete and continually enriched, tells about the origins of the horse of the Pampa, describes its characteristics, a complete discription of Criollo colors and particularities and presents a summary of other Latin American breeds (crioulo, mangalarga, paso peruano, etc.). , now in the works, is progressively added online. The cultural environment of horses and equestrian traditions in South America are certainly not neglected, with emphasis placed on the history of the Gaucho.

A complete version of this article has been published in the magazine Conquistador (The world of spanish horse, volume 9 number 2).
Gérard Barré, translated and adapted by C. Ganné


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