Courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Museum
From left: James Rickard, Dwight Murphy, Francis Price, and T. Wilson Dibblee, founding fathers of the first Fiesta parade in 1924, at El Paseo courtyard
Santa Barbara’s Fiesta Horse Parade
One of the Largest Equestrian Parades in the United States
Originally published 12:00 a.m., August 1, 2018
Updated 9:34 a.m., August 3, 2018
Santa Barbara’s longest reigning spirit of Fiesta has never twirled a flamenco skirt or fluttered a Spanish fan.
It is the horse, with its head held high, its coat gleaming under the August sun, that has always captured the deeper meaning of the Old Spanish Days celebration—an ode to the Californio culture where horses were loved second only to family. As one historian of Santa Barbara’s Fiesta explained it, Old Spanish Days was never meant to be an exacting reproduction of that time between the Chumash civilization and the arrival of the Yankees, but instead “an attempt to capture the essential spirit of the time”—the time when California was controlled by Spain and then Mexico, when Spanish was the language spoken, and Santa Barbara was a close-knit pueblo where people dressed with flair, where music and singing was heard in every home, and where horses were honored and glorified.
And that honor is well-deserved, considering the remarkable evolutionary history of the horse, which originated in North America about two million years ago, long before any conquistador, señorita, or vaquero ever stepped foot here.
Courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Museum
Reginald Fernald on horseback in an early Fiesta parade
Heading into Fiesta’s 94th annual Desfile Histórico—one of America’s largest and most breed-diverse equestrian parades—ponder this thought: Modern humans originated in Africa about 300,000 years ago and first made their way to this continent between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago over the Bering land bridge between Russia and Alaska. But the horse—Equus caballus by its scientific name—is actually from here, a true native, that has managed to successfully adapt and survive on this planet for almost two million years despite great odds.
That’s one spirited animal.
Of course the Old Spanish Days founding fathers—who were determined to include a world-class equestrian parade in the first Fiesta in 1924—would not have known that the horses they so revered were actually native sons and daughters. Science had not quite pinned down the evolutionary lineage of the horse by then.
By Paul Wellman
Jonathan Hoffman, paleontologist at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said horse fossils have helped us understand the evolution of the planet and other species because records are so complete.
But fossil records for the horse are among the most well-documented and well-studied in the world. When mitochondrial DNA analysis showed up on the scientific scene in the 1970s, things got even clearer.
Researchers say that the horse family originated about 55 million years ago, but the genus Equus — the modern-day horse — first originated 1.8-2 million years ago in the Great Plains of North America. These horses, which looked and behaved like the horses we know today, were single-hoofed, herd animals that grazed on vast, open grasslands and were built for speed.
During that two million year span, some horses—including a long-headed Equus species endemic to the area we now know as California—decided to pack it up, perhaps looking for greener pastures, and migrated north, over the Bering land bridge into Eurasia.
Good thing they did, because that wanderlust saved the horse species.
Paleontologists determined that about 8,000-10,000 years ago, a massive extinction took place in North America, wiping out many mammals. They believed that horses lingered here until about 8,000 years ago. Those horses that had hiked across the Bering land bridge were the only Equus caballus survivors. They went on to build Alexander’s empire, to fight battles with the Romans, and, through up-breeding, to evolve into the fine breeds we know today. Some of them would become protein for the European and Asian diet. Some pulled the farmer’s cart to market for thousands of years.
By Paul Wellman
The modern-day horse, Equus caballus, originated in North American around two million years ago. Horse fossil records, including their teeth, are beneficial in understanding evolution.
And some would come back home.
The Spanish brought many things with them on their voyages to the New World. In their arsenal: their religion, language, culture, and weapons and the mighty horse. In Spain, both the Christian and the Moor doted on their horses. Later explorers like Columbus and Cortés relied fiercely on their steeds, using them for work and transportation and to dominate the indigenous people they encountered living here, who had never seen a horse. According to multiple accounts describing the conquest, the Spanish spread rumors that horses were magical beasts to be feared.
“Horses were certainly not the only reason for the conquest of the Americas—disease, civil war and steel weapons were probably more important in the long run,” according to the American Museum of Natural History. “But in early encounters, horses were an intimidating and unstoppable force. Hernán Cortés, who led the conquest of what is now Mexico, is said to have claimed, ‘Next to God, we owed our victory to the horses.’ … The Spaniards wanted to keep the power of horses for themselves—and with good reason. When Native peoples acquired horses … they quickly became superior riders and used their horses to fight off the European invaders for years.”
Over the centuries, the horse population in the Western Hemisphere skyrocketed.
Santa Anita Ranch (now known as Hollister Ranch) is pictured here in 1890, when it was owned by the Hollister Family, who settled in Santa Barbara during the gold rush.