Phil Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, has spent more than 30 years working to make sure certain living pieces of history — some dating to the 15th century — don’t become extinct.
Sponenberg's brand of living history comes in the form of various rare strains of livestock, which were involved in events like Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Caribbean Islands and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Sponenberg’s involvement began with Choctaw horses when he was a college student, and has spread to other kinds of animals through the years. Ancestors of Choctaw horses, Colonial Spanish horses were brought to the Caribbean Islands by Columbus and to Mexico by Hernándo Cortés. The horses were stolen from Mexico and rapidly traded north by Pueblo Indians.
These horses were noted by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the Spanish influence extended up to the Carolinas, across the Gulf Coast, and throughout the West.
“The Choctaws were one of the tribes displaced from Mississippi, and they took their livestock with them,” Sponenberg says.
The breeding stock has dispersed and not everyone can recognize a rare breed when they have one. Sponenberg received a call about a short horse that was about to be gelded. It turned out that the small horse, Icki, was a Choctaw. “Icki was the end of his bloodline,” says Sponenberg, who was able to buy the stallion and return him to a small herd to sire more Choctaw horses.
Sponenberg has also identified another group of the Spanish horses still in the South — “Marsh Tacky” horses, which were used to manage cattle and to chase wild hogs across swampy terrain.
Another Spanish livestock breed Sponenberg has run across in his travels is South Pineywoods cattle — also known as Florida Cracker Cattle. Small, rugged, horned, heat-tolerant, and disease-resistant, “these cattle are exquisitely adapted to this environment,” Sponenberg says. They are also long-lived and productive.
Through the years, Sponenberg has also found more Spanish horses, cotton patch geese, old Spanish goats, and some locally adapted Spanish sheep.
In fact, Sponenberg himself is the owner of a Choctaw horse, and he raises Tennessee myotonic (fainting) goats. The goats are from two old lines from New Braunfels, Texas.
Saving rare breeds
Sponenberg says he loves field work — discovering a new pocket of preserved livestock, making friends, and working with the people who manage the animals. His success, he says, is a result of the friendships and interest he has created — but also because of the strategies he has developed through scientific research.
Along the way, Sponenberg has done work and published strategies specific to rare breeds conservation, documentation, and genetic management.
Now, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is providing technical support for recapturing certain animals for pure breeding. The Bureau of Land Management contacts him to identify Spanish-type horses in wild herds to help the bureau conserve the horses.
Sponenberg stays connected with conservation efforts and affiliations and works to establish new relationships. He has collaborated with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy since 1978, and with Iberian researchers since the early 1990s.
As a result of his work, several new strains of horses have been added and excluded through detailed blood typing or DNA typing.
About other rare breeds
Cotton patch geese
Pine Tacky saddle horses
Gulf Coast or Native sheep
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