The Criollo horse is a South American breed from the Pampas, a vast grassland extending between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The name “Criollo” is derived from the Spanish term for “native” or “local,” and it reflects the horse’s origins in the region.

This breed descends from Iberian horses brought to the continent by Spanish explorers. Once used by the gaucho horsemen and cowboys of the Pampas, Criollo horses are famous for their hardiness and endurance.

Today, Criollos are still one of the most popular horse breeds throughout South America, with several countries operating registries for the breed. All Criollo horses share similar temperaments and physical traits that make them versatile mounts.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Criollo horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Criollo horses.

Criollo Horse History

The Criollo horse has a long history in South America. These horses played a significant role in shaping civilizations in the Pampas. Many are still used for the agriculture work that the breed was first developed for by colonial farmers.

Origin

Modern Criollo horses trace their ancestry back to a shipment of 100 Spanish horses that arrived in Rio de la Plata in the year 1535. Imported by Pedro de Mendoza, the founder of Buenos Aires, these horses served as foundation stock for early local breeding programs. [1]

Many of these horses were left behind to form feral herds a few years later when the Spaniards abandoned Buenos Aires. Horses that withstood the region’s temperature extremes went on to reproduce, leading to a population of thousands of wild horses when settlers returned in 1580.

Over time, through natural selection and adaptation to the often harsh environments of South America, these horses evolved into the resilient breed we know today.

Native horses were crossed with imported Thoroughbreds and draft horses throughout the 19th century. The cross-breeding nearly erased the breed’s classic Spanish characteristics until breeders in Argentina developed a new breed standard to restore the traits of the original Criollo. [1]

Historic Use

Settlers brought horses to the Americas as working animals to explore the land and establish homesteads. Natural selection shaped the breed’s feral ancestors, ensuring that they adapted to their new environment. [2]

Indigenous people in the region captured feral horses to establish selective breeding programs incorporated these horses into their cultures. When Spanish settlers returned to the area, they also captured the horses for riding, packing, and farm work. [2]

Criollo horses gained popularity with the gauchos (cowhands) of the 18th and 19th centuries. These nomadic skilled horsemen used the Criollo horses to herd cattle on the grasslands, a now famous part of the region’s cultural heritage. [1]

The original Criollos had remarkable endurance abilities, allowing them to work long days with the gauchos. To improve the breed, breeders once evaluated horses for breeding in La Marcha endurance events that tested horses over a 750 km course. [1]

Professor Aime Felix Tschiffely famously trekked his two Criollo horses Gato and Mancha over 21,500 kilometres from Buenos Aires to New York City between 1925 and 1928. Both horses went on to live past the age of 35.

Today, Criollos are used for various equestrian disciplines, including endurance riding, polo, and traditional South American rodeo events.

Breed Registry

Argentine breeders founded a purebred Criollo breed registry in 1918. Dr. Emilio Solanet took leadership of the country’s breeders association in 1934, establishing new breed standards for Criollo horses and incorporating bloodlines from Chilean horses. [3]

Other countries in South America and Europe operate their own Criollo breed registries. There is no official breed registry for Criollo horses in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

Modern breed standards for Criollo horses emphasize their Spanish ancestry and the physical traits that allowed these horses to survive in feral herds on the Pampas. Criollo horses are still used as working cow horses in South America, but the breed can also excel in equestrian sports.

Conformation

Criollos are sturdy, compact horses with an average height of 14.3 hands. Today, they display a distinct Spanish type, evident in their sloping croups and slightly convex necks. Their overall conformation should appear well-balanced and harmonious.

Their heads have straight or convex profiles, broad foreheads, tapered muzzles, prominent cheeks, expressive eyes, and small ears. These horses are strong for their size, with short backs, wide chests, sloping shoulders, and round haunches.

Criollo horses have relatively short, strong legs with good bones and strong feet. Their gaits are loose, agile, and active. While most Criollo horses only have standard gaits, some can perform a lateral gait.

Colours

Nearly all coat colours occur in the breed, and some Criollo horses have primitive markings. Dun is the most popular colour for Criollo horses.

The complete list of coat colours represented in the breed include:

  • Dun
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Bay
  • Chestnut
  • Buckskin
  • Grullo
  • Palomino
  • Roan
  • Gray
  • Pinto

Their manes and tails are typically thick and long.

Temperament

Criollos are intelligent horses with a willing work ethic. While these horses are often confident and independent, most owners find they are eager to please and learn new things quickly in training.

The breed is also known for its bravery and calm temperament. One study found Criollos had more parasympathetic nerve activity associated with calm behaviour than Thoroughbreds. However, individual personalities can vary in horses regardless of breed. [4]

Disciplines

Their easy-going temperaments make Criollo horses well-suited for riders of different levels. These horses also serve as calm and brave trail-riding horses. Most have excellent cow sense, and many still work on cattle ranches in South America.

Criollo horses can also excel as competitive mounts in Western disciplines. A purebred Criollo horse named F5 Licurgo Tapajos represented Brazil in reining at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.

The endurance ability of the Criollo rivals the Arabian and other popular horse breeds used for the discipline. These horses have a reputation as capable mounts for long-distance endurance races.

Criollo Horse Health

Criollo horses can live exceptionally long lives with good care and management. However, this breed is susceptible to similar health problems as their Iberian ancestors.

Genetic Diseases

Criollo horses are a phenotypically uniform breed, but genetic studies show this breed has high genetic variability. This means that while they appear similar in physical appearance, their genetic makeup reveals significant diversity.

Genetic diversity in a breeding population is beneficial for improved adaptiveness to adverse environments, disease resistance, and fertility. [5] These horses have a lower risk of inheriting genetic diseases than breeds with more of inbreeding.

While Criollos are generally less susceptible to genetic diseases, there are documented cases of Criollo horses with syndromes that resemble inherited disorders found in other breeds.

HYPP

One case study identified hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP)-like syndrome in an Argentine Criollo horse. HYPP is a genetic disease found in Quarter Horses that affects muscle tissue. [6]

While the affected Criollo horse displayed the clinical signs of the disease, they tested negative for the gene associated with HYPP. [6] It is not clear whether this condition was caused by a different gene mutation or another cause altogether.

Wobblers Syndrome

Another case study reported on a Colombian Criollo horse with Wobblers syndrome, also known as cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy (CVSM). [7] Wobbler’s syndrome is a neurologic disorder characterized by a wobbly or uncoordinated gait, resulting from spinal cord compression in the neck.

This condition arises due to malformation or degeneration of the cervical vertebrae. While infection and injury can contribute to CVSM, researchers are also investigating if certain horse breeds have a genetic predisposition to the disease.

Health Problems

Research shows Criollo horses have a strong genetic link to Iberian breeds. For this reason, it is presumed that Criollos are susceptible to similar health problems as their Spanish relatives, including osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD) and metabolic disorders. [8]

While the breed is renowned for its hardiness and efficient metabolism, this can make them susceptible to weight gain if overfed. Additionally, they may have diseases such as equine metabolic syndrome causing easy weight gain.

Care and Management

While the Criollo is a robust and resilient breed, regular veterinary care, attentive management and an appropriate environment are essential to ensure their health and longevity.

All Criollo horses need quality basic care that meets their physical, mental, and emotional health needs. Owners should follow a preventative wellness program with annual vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams advised by their veterinarian.

Most Criollo horses have solid hooves and can comfortably work barefoot over ranchland terrain. However, all Criollos need regular farrier care and trimming to maintain hoof balance. Horses participating in endurance races may need extra hoof protection against excess wear.

Criollo owners must consistently groom their horses to maintain their thick manes and tails. Their long hair can tangle easily without daily grooming, and sweat left under manes and tails can contribute to skin irritations.

Outdoor lifestyles with safe shelter and group turnout are ideal for these social, hardy horses. Research also shows turnout can lower the risk of developmental orthopedic disease. If your Criollo horse lives inside, follow a turnout schedule that offers an opportunity for daily free exercise. [9]

In some cases, you may need to turn Criollo horses out on a dry lot instead of grass pasture. Full-time turnout on lush pasture can increase the risk of pasture-associated laminitis in Criollos with metabolic disorders. [10]

Although Criollos have a natural talent for endurance racing, owners must work with their trainers and veterinarians to develop a fitness training program for their horses before entering an event.

Nutrition

A balanced nutrition program is essential for Criollo horses to stay healthy throughout their long lifespans. This means ensuring your horse gets enough calories to meet their energy requirements without exceeding them and contributing to weight gain.

Formulating a balanced diet also ensures there are no nutrient deficiencies that could contribute to health problems in the Criollo breed.

Weight Maintenance

Criollo horses are easy keepers, with an efficient metabolism. These horses easily maintain adequate body condition on a forage-based diet.

While this characteristic was an asset when surviving in the South American wilderness, in domestic management settings it makes the breed prone to obesity when overfed.

Learn more about how to feed easy keepers in this article for additional tips on weight management.

Criollo horses with metabolic syndrome also need their sugar and starch intake restricted to no more than 10% ESC plus starch combined to reduce the risk of laminitis.

You should regularly track your horse’s body condition score and adjust their diet as needed to prevent unwanted weight gain. While a cresty neck is considered a breed characteristic in Criollo horses, this trait is also associated with metabolic dysfunction.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for an adult Criollo horse weighing 450 kg (1000 lb) with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 106%
Protein (% of Req) 128%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

Mad Barn’s Omneity vitamin and mineral supplement is included in this feeding program to address common nutrient deficiencies in forage-only diets. Omneity is formulated with high quality ingredients and helps support hoof quality, skin and coat quality, metabolic function and overall health.

Omneity is highly concentrated and does not contain any added grains, sugars or starches. This makes it an ideal choice for easy keepers, such as Criollos.

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Forage

A forage-based diet that mimics the natural grazing behaviours of wild Criollo horses on the South American grasslands is the best way to support your horse’s overall health and digestive function.

Horses should consume 2% of their body weight in forage on a daily basis. The average 450 kg (1000 lb) Criollo horse needs about 9 kg (20 pounds) of hay daily to meet their forage requirements.

Provide average-quality, low-starch, low sugar grass hay to ensure your horse gets enough roughage without adding excess calories to the diet. The combination of starch and sugar are the hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HC) which can stimulate insulin secretion. Choose a hay with less than 10% starch and sugar (ESC) to best support their metabolic health. Learn more about how to choose the best hay for your horse in this guide.

If your Criollo is over-conditioned or has a history of metabolic problems, use a slow feeder or grazing muzzle to limit total daily forage consumption to 2% of ideal body weight or 1.5% of current body weight, whichever is larger. Re-evaluate at 3 to 4 week intervals and adjust as needed.

These strategies enable free-choice access to forage while preventing your horse from consuming too many calories.

If the horse has metabolic syndrome and is not in regular work, pasture access must be restricted or avoided, especially during periods of rapid growth in the spring and fall.

Feeding Recommendations

A forage-based diet should be sufficient to meet the energy requirements of most Criollo horses in light work. However, horses participating in endurance races may need higher-calorie feeds added to their diet, such as hay cubes, beet pulp, or fat supplements.

Avoid high-starch grains or sweet feeds, which have high levels of hydrolyzable carbohydrates. Diets with excess sugar and starch increase the risk of digestive problems and laminitis in horses with metabolic syndrome. [11]

Also ensure your Criollo has constant access to fresh, clean water and provide free-choice plain loose salt to encourage hydration. You should also add 1 – 2 ounces of plain salt to your horse’s daily ration to ensure they meet their sodium requirements.

Nutritional Supplements

Providing a well-balanced diet with adequate vitamins and minerals is the first priority when feeding your Criollo horse. Once your horse’s diet is balanced, you may want to explore other supplements that can support your horse’s health and individual needs.

Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is an omega-3 fatty acid supplement enriched with DHA and natural vitamin E. Feeding W-3 Oil provides your horse with cool energy and supports weight maintenance, coat quality, joint health and immune function.

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  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

If your horse is primarily fed hay, they may need a vitamin E supplement to support muscle health and neurological function. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that is required in higher amounts by exercising horses. [7]

Mad Barn’s Natural Vitamin E is a pure vitamin E powder made with no fillers that can be top-dressed on your horse’s ration. With a low feeding rate per day, it is easy to feed even to picky horses.

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  • Supports exercise recovery
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Endurance horses need attentive management to keep them performing their best during competitions and to support post-exercise recovery. Horses lose significant amounts of electrolyte minerals in their sweat when exercising, especially in hot weather.

Mad Barn’s Performance XL: Electrolytes is an electrolyte supplement formulated to meet the needs of endurance athletes. Feeding Performance XL will help replenish electrolytes lost in sweat, as well as provide other important nutrients that support post-exercise care. Electrolytes should be fed in addition to the daily salt ration, not instead of it.

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References

  1. Vila, F. et al. The Criollo Horse in Uruguay. Anim Genet. 2011.
  2. Cortes, O. et al. The legacy of Columbus in American horse populations assessed by microsatellite markers. J Anim Breed Genet. 2017. View Summary
  3. Karlau, A. et al. The influence of foreign lineages in the genetic component of reproductive traits in Criollo Argentino mares: A 30-year study. Livest Sci. 2023.
  4. Seki, N. et al. Preliminary study of heart rate variability in Criollo horses for the elucidation of their neurophysiological characteristics of autonomic nerve function. J Equine Sci. 2023. View Summary
  5. Corbi-Botto, C. et al. Genomic structural diversity in Criollo Argentino horses: Analysis of copy number variations. Gene. 2019.View Summary
  6. Diakakis, N. et al. Hyperkalaemic periodic paralysis-like syndrome in a Criollo Argentino horse. Equine Vet Ed. 2010.
  7. Cardona, J. et al. Cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy (CVSM) in a Colombian Criollo Horse. Revista Colombiana de Ciencia Animal. 2014.
  8. Vega-Pla, J. et al. P4051 Genetic relationships between Iberian and Criollo horse breeds. J Anim Sci. 2016.
  9. Bell, R. et al. Daily access to pasture turnout prevents loss of mineral in the third metacarpus of Arabian weanlings. J Anim Sci. 2001. View Summary
  10. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2004.
  11. Zeyner, A. et al. Effect of feeding exercised horses on high-starch or high-fat diets for 390 days. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary
  12. Alkaabi, J. et al. Genetic-diet interactions in the hyperkalemic periodic paralysis syndrome in quarter horses fed varying amounts of potassium: III. The relationship between plasma potassium concentration and HYPP Symptoms. J Equine Vet Sci. 1998.