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A Social and Environmental History of the Horse in Spain and Spanish America, 1492-1600


The dramatic arrival of horses to the American continents on Columbus's second voyage in 1493 also introduced a historical set of practices, ideals, and institutional hierarchies from the Iberian Peninsula surrounding the horse and rider. Using new archival material from more than a dozen national and municipal archives in Spain, Mexico and Peru, I demonstrate how the management of horse populations affected the social order maintained by municipal, regional, and vice-regal governments, and the negotiated limits of centralized power in the developing early modern Spanish empire. Initially, structural elements of horse husbandry in Spain directly influenced conquest and settlement strategies in the Americas, as concern about the scarcity and supply of horses influenced acquisition of social status, access to governing positions, and legal regulations. Some environments naturally suited horse populations and others, far more challenging, required strategic intervention to support Spanish military and economic interests. Subsequently, the rapid growth of equine livestock under colonial rule shaped local indigenous adoption of horses, as well as newly developing typologies to categorize horses. Under constraints of local environment and practices of animal husbandry, governing strategies illustrated an increasing focus on regulating the physical type of the horse well into the sixteenth century. In turn, experience in Spanish America influenced horse breeding in Spain during the reign of Philip II. By focusing on the practices that defined social interactions between horses and humans, this dissertation contributes a new derivation for the complex terminology of race and caste that informed the development of controlled breeding programs in early modern Spain and colonial Spanish America. The story of the horse in Spain and Spanish America reveals the special imprint of the horse on forms of governance, social hierarchies, and the reach of empire.

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