Horse News

Preliminary Genetic Analysis Reveals Fort Polk Horses have Strong Spanish Associations, Unique in Remaining Wild Herds

Source: PEGA

How could the Army have gotten it so very wrong?

Preliminary genetic analysis from random samplings of generationally wild, free roaming horses at Fort Polk in Louisiana confirm heavy Spanish association. While  variables weigh into genetic testing results, the Fort Polk horses consistently pair with Puerto Rican Paso  and Venezuelan Criollo , based on the preliminary genetic analysis by Dr. Gus Cothran, Ph.D.

The phylogenetic tree chart below shows groupings of modern horse breeds, based on their similarities and differences in genetic and physical characteristics.

phylo tree TX AM

phylo tree Fort Polk Horse mini


“In order to place a group of horses within a context of breeds and origins, we usually rely on three aspects. One is the physical type, a second is the history, and a third is DNA analysis.In the case of the Fort Polk horses, the physical type strongly suggests an Iberian origin. In this geographic location this specific physical type is consistent with an origin in older original horses in the area. This area was heavily influenced by Iberian horses in colonial times. The history of isolation fits with this interpretation, especially because this Iberian physical type is relatively easily disrupted by crossbreeding, so that crossbred or mixed horses rarely have this distinctive physical type.The conclusions of the third portion, DNA analysis, are not yet final, but early results put them in a group with other Iberian-based breeds from the Americas. The overall result is that these horses are remnants of some of the early Iberian horses in this area. This type of horse is now quite rare, and has both historic and biologic importance.” – D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, ACT (Honorary) | Professor, Pathology and Genetics |Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Preserved in the remote Kisatchie Region for generations, the Fort Polk and Peason Ridge wild horses are Spanish type remnants of our country’s pre-colonial history. They have lived and bred in the wild, without dependency of man and largely remained undiluted from lines that contributed to other modern horse breeds shown on the phylogenetic chart.


The Fort Polk Horses, Puerto Rican Paso & the Venezuelan Criollo share a common ancestral line.  At some point the lineages split into distinct “lines” or breeds, but the root ancestry is most similar.  The Fort Polk Horses clustered in this position indicate Spanish/Iberian lines. The fact that the Fort Polk Horses are clustered with aforementioned  Iberian/Spanish breed types suggest that they could be considered more unique, especially given they exist wild in an area associated with Louisiana’s earliest pre-colonial history.  Therefore,  it would be prudent to stop and consider the permanent ramifications of any further horse captures and removals from the historical Kisatchie landscape.

“The direness of the ongoing loss of genetic diversity in domesticated and feral horses cannot be understated. The need to conserve the remaining unique genetic characteristics among domesticated and feral horse populations is essential. Once a strain dies off, the genetically unique characteristics associated with that strain and related phenotypes are gone forever…”Amicus Brief filed to the Court by Dr Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, ACT (Honorary) | Professor, Pathology and Genetics |Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Spanish and North African Barb horses were brought from Iberian Peninsula and Canary Islands (Spain) by conquistadors to the Caribbean, Mexico and South American countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the years that followed, explorers brought them to Florida, Mexico and Gulf of Mexico regions. Native Americans, such as; Comanche  and others, acquired horses in the thousands in Texas from the Spanish and traded them north and west. Caddo, and Choctaw-Apache Native American tribes traded them eastward, across Louisiana to east of the Mississippi river.

The expansion of these Colonial Spanish type horses that were free ranged on vast areas of un-fenced land led to the development of the Spanish Mustang horse.

While Spanish Mustangs are not to be confused with the general term “Mustang“, (meaning a horse of unknown origin or owner-less beast), the mustang then spread across North America, before larger infusions of English bred horses that were not of Spanish origin, arrived on the east coast. The below map image shows explorer routes, Spanish origin horses across North America, a Spanish map overlaying the Kisatchie Region and Native American territories; before Native Americans were forced from their Kisatchie homelands 188 years ago.

maps historical

Along with the French and Spanish occupation, this is the Louisiana Purchase and Neutral Zone region. With settlement and colonization, it is where battles of the 18th and 19th centuries were fought and where Spanish horses drove herds of cattle to feed thousands of soldiers. This is also the region where wild cattle and wild horses were brought by the thousands from Texas to the markets in Natchitoches, Louisiana. In the WWII era, 60,000 troops trained with these hardy, compact horses that toiled alongside mules and regulation cavalry horses at Camp Polk, before it became Fort Polk in 1955.

As the army acquires thousands more acres of land, it seemingly eliminates what it deems as “trespassing”. Instead of honoring these living cultural and historical treasures, does it seek to destroy the horses by removing them from their homes in the grasslands and piney woods of the Kisatchie region?

US Army’s Removal Plan Designed to Benefit the Kill Buyer COA7

Because the army has failed to execute a sustainable solution for these unique wild horses, (very few like them remain in the wild), Pegasus Equine Guardian Association and Louisiana citizens need to forge a campaign toward enforcing state and federal animal welfare laws, that specifically protect non-livestock, non-game animals, including wild horses in Louisiana. Emergency help is needed to establish protections.

“The Army’s plan does not include the most basic, and necessary, baseline information that is crucial for putting together a responsible horse management or horse removal plan, including a basic survey of the herds, their migration patterns, their family relationships, their encounters with humans, and basic descriptions of the types of horses living at Fort Polk.”  – Declaration submitted to the Court by Dr. Bruce Nock, Ph. D.  from Rutgers University Institute of Animal Behavior. also a tenured neurobiologist at Washington University School of Medicine, and a Vietnam Veteran

Wild, free roaming horses are commonly referred to as wild or feral (interchangeably). Because they have lived and bred in the wild, without man’s interference, neither are livestock because federal definitions of livestock specify livestock is domestically owned, bred and raised. Further, case law has established that wild horses in Louisiana and other states like New Mexico and others, (that are not managed under the Wild, Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971) are subject to state and federal animal welfare protections once rounded up.

“…omissions from the (Army’s) plan suggest a lack of appreciation/ understanding of how stressors with associated captivity can negatively impact the health and welfare of wild horses, i.e., horses that have never been trained and have always roamed freely, and horses indigenous to Fort Polk who were born there, lived there their whole lives, and have never lived anywhere else.”

“Confinement in unfamiliar places, by penning or roping, also goes against the inherent proclivity of horses that have always roamed freely to avoid situations where the potential to flee is compromised. Then, the stressful effects of confinement are potentially compounded by social disruptions, i.e., confinement in close quarters with unfamiliar horses and the absence of life-long herd mates. Social disruption is a known, surprisingly severe stressor. And, in this case, the social disruption is likely to continue for as long as the horses live since there is no plan to release them back into their native environment, i.e., Fort Polk….”

“All-in-all, the whole process of captivity/confinement, social disruption, and relocation, represents a severe chronic stressor, if not a trauma….”

“A horse’s genes are fixed. A horse is stuck with the genes he is born with whether good or bad. However, the expression of those genes, how much protein it produces, is modi fiable. Changes to the micro-environment of the gene, the epigenome, can increase or decrease the expression of the gene. It can even turn the gene completely off. All sorts of things affect the epigenome, including the nature and quality of an individual’s environment and treatment, for example. The epigenome is where an individual’s genes, environment and what is done to and with the individual all come together. There is now evidence for stress-induced epigenetic changes that can last a lifetime and that may even be transmitted across generations. Stress during early development seems to be most impactful, making individuals more prone to anxiety, more reactive to stress, and more likely to show behavioral signs of depression.” –Declaration submitted to the Court by Dr. Bruce Nock, Ph. D.  from Rutgers University Institute of Animal Behavior. also a tenured neurobiologist at Washington University School of Medicine, and a Vietnam Veteran

While there are protections for “Any Animal” in Louisiana, livestock is one excluded category.  However, Louisiana’s livestock definition conflicts with the federal definition that is more specific. Louisiana definition needs to be overturned and changed to align with federal’s, so the applicable animal welfare laws to protect these non-livestock horses are enforced.

Over the last 3 years we have witnessed inhumane acts such as horses being illegally tranquilized and winched into trailers, inadequate capture and holding practices, free for all round ups that resulted in harm to the horses, roping of foals, foals being captured without their mothers, and a long list of alleged under-the -table dealings at the detriment of the horses.

Citizens must campaign for animal welfare protections for Louisiana’s wild horses; to remain on their homelands as well as if rounded up that they are not subject to rough or brutal handling by contractors, or rescues that allow such practices; nor should they be subject to neglect,  withholding veterinary care, nor the inhumane ending of slaughter.

That’s what is needed before they are all rounded up, their hoof prints in Louisiana History vanish, and the chance to establish protections to preserve the Fort Polk Horses of Kisatchie, a living Louisiana Treasure, is gone forever!

 “The Animal Genetics Lab at Texas A&M University in College Station recently did genetic typing of 17 horses recently captured on the Ft. Polk military installation.  The tests consisted of genotyping of 16 horse specific microsatellite loci.  In addition, we added the data from three other Ft. Polk horses that had been submitted for genetic testing by their owners for a total of 20 samples.  Allele frequencies of the total sample were calculated and the data from the Ft. Polk horses were compared to that of 82 horse breeds from many parts of the world using Restricted Maximum Likelihood clustering methods to produce a tree diagram or dendrogram.  The RML method groups the breeds into branches on the dendrogram based upon genetic distance.  The less the genetic distance between two populations (breeds) the closer they will group or cluster in the tree.  The Ft. Polk population fell into a cluster that included seven South American breeds and the Puerto Rican Paso Fino.  All these breeds are New World Iberian horse breeds.  Although this analysis does not yet prove that the Ft. Polk horses are of Spanish origins it is very strong evidence that this is the case. Further statistical analyses of the genotype data is underway to either support or discard the hypotheses of Spanish heritage in the Ft. Polk horses.  I am hopeful that the additional analysis can be completed by the end of October.”  – Gus Cothran, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University

Primary Contributing Author: Kimberly Sheppard

Expert Contributors: Dr Ernest G. Cothran, Ph.D Dr Phillip Sponenberg, Ph.D, and Dr Bruce Nock, Ph.D

Contributor: Emily Domagtoy

Contact: Amy Hanchey | 337.739.0036 |

8 replies »

  1. “Spanish” horses all originated in the Americas per the fossil record, and there is abundant evidence of native deep interior horse cultures well established before the maps shown indicate, including in some of Dr. Cothran’s published DNA studies.

    Liked by 1 person

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