Galiceño horses are small, but what they lack in size they make up for with their huge hearts.
Descended from the horses brought over to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors, the Galiceño horse is pony-sized, making it ideal for young riders. But they’re strong, hardy and versatile — making them a good choice for adults as well. If you’ve never heard of this breed, you’re not alone. With less than 100 horses in existence, they’re on the Livestock Conservancy “critically endangered species” list. That makes this rare breed all the more intriguing. You’ll find that once you’ve got a Galiceño, you don’t want to give it up for anything.
It’s been said Spanish conquistador Hernándo Cortés brought the ancestors of Galiceños to the Americas via Mexico and Cuba in 1519—they’re believed to be some of the first 16 horses to arrive on the mainland. These horses originated in Galicia, a province in Northwestern Spain. The petite horses known as Galiceños lived isolated in the coastal regions of Mexico for centuries. Two men from Texas went into Mexico looking for a useful, smaller, hardy horse, and they found the Galiceño. These same men began import- ing the horses into the United States in 1958, and they founded the Galiceño Horse Breeders Association in 1959 to record, perpetuate and preserve the breed. There are Galiceño breeders in sever- al states around the country, including Florida, but the breed is still very rare.
Galiceños are solid-colored horses ranging in size from 12 to 13.2 hands. According to the GHBA, they possess hardiness, courage, stamina and native intelligence.
In 2000, Kit Kirkwood was living in Florida, looking for kids’ ponies and discovered another rare breed—the Florida Cracker. She purchased one—a talented horse that went on to compete in 3-day eventing.
“That horse always left an impression on me,” Kit said.
After marrying her husband, cutting trainer and real estate agent Bill Kirkwood, Kit wanted more Spanish ranching-type horses, and Bill knew where to find them. A neighbor, Bill Tinney, brought his Galiceño horses over to turn back cattle for Bill. One day, Tinney asked Bill to help him with a 2-year-old gray Galiceño.
“Bill saddled the horse, bridled him and rode off with him,” Kit said. “He came back and Tinney said, ‘That’s really good for his first ride. I didn’t think you were going to throw a saddle on him but he was handling it well.’”
Bill continued to ride this horse, named Rooster, when Tinney brought him over.
“Bill has broken in and trained more than 2,000 head of horses in his lifetime, and he says Rooster was one of the most memorable,” Kit says. “He was so easy to train, he had cow sense and he could keep up with the cutting-bred horses.”
So when Kit was looking for kid horses in 2013, the Kirkwoods went back to Tinney and bought a couple Galiceños.
By January 2017, Kit was so invested in the breed that longtime breeders Bob and Glinda Tackett passed on the GHBA role of president to her. Kit brought on Jennifer Williams as vice president.
“I really love these horses, and I’m hoping we can get them out there,” Kit said.
Kit sees these horses fitting a variety of roles—some that may seem surprising, considering their size. She’s placed a Galiceño with an owner who does endurance riding, and another with a rider who works the cattle pens at cuttings.
“They may be small, but they are very, very hardy,” Kit said. “They’re good for kids, and also adults alike. Tinney is 6-foot-5, and he day-works on these horses. He says in the beginning the cowboys got a laugh at them, but when they’re changing horses, he’s still on his.”
Bill Kirkwood is Australian, and he’s competed in a campdraft with a Galiceño. Campdrafting is an Australian cattle event where horse and rider drive a cow from a herd in a pen into a large adjoining arena, through a figure-eight pattern, back up the arena and through a gate. It’s a timed event—a cross between team penning and working cow horse—and it’s not for the faint of heart. Bill won fourth place in that competition on his Galiceño, up against full-size horses.
“I’ve got a mare in my pasture that has won more saddles and buckles than I can count,” Kit said. “She’s now 17, but they roped on her, breakaway roped on her, [ran] barrels and poles, all the playday events—she’s probably one of the most automatic barrel horses I’ve ever ridden. She knows her job.”
Kit works her Galiceños on the flag and cutting cattle. They can be ridden bridleless. They can do jumping, dressage and just about anything a kid would want to do. Kit’s oldest son plays polo at school, and when he comes home, he practices on the Galiceños—his preferred mount for the sport.
“Anything you want to train them for, they can do it,” Kit said.
Barrel racing trainers Ryann Pedone and Bo Hill borrowed Kit’s Galiceños for the 2018 Diamonds and Dirt Barrel Horse Classic Pony Race, where they excelled. But Kit says they’re also competitive against full-size horses. Kit competed in the Zaal Ranch National Finals Rodeo-pattern size series on her Galiceño. Women’s Professional Rodeo Association cowgirl and NFR qualifier Tiany Schuster set the pace in the 1D, and Kit’s Galiceño tied for the buckle in the open 4D against 60–70 competitors, and she says he wasn’t even in top condition. Other Galiceños have run in 3D and 2D levels of competition. Kit says compared to the ponies she’s worked with, Galiceños are much quicker.
“They are a horse—they’re built like a horse and they definitely have the speed and agility of a horse,” Kit said.
Kit says Galiceños are great-minded and easy to train.
“I’ve had about 11 of them,” Kit said. “I just love their trainability and versatility. Their kindness and willingness—they are so smart. They have a unique native intelligence. It’s just unsurpassed in anything you could ride.”
The Galiceños Kit has worked with over the years require less maintenance than an average full-size horse. They also seem to be more sure-footed—a characteristic Kit values for her children.
“I never have to worry about the Galiceños tripping,” Kit said. “They are so sure-footed and cautious about where they put their feet.”
Jason Vohs of Dickinson, North Dakota, was recently looking for smaller mounts for his daughters, Willow, 8, and Quincy, 6.
“I wanted something they could enjoy from the ground and gain a lot of confidence on,” Vohs said. “I didn’t want a pony, because ponies can be tough for kids.”
Vohs’ mother connected him with Kit, and in April, he and Willow visited the Kirkwoods’ ranch in Thackerville, Oklahoma, to try a Galiceño for Quincy. After a week with the Kirkwoods, Vohs is completely sold on the breed. They took home a little bay gelding named Amigo.
“I am thoroughly impressed—they are amazing,” Vohs said. “It’s been nothing but a blessing. These horses are the kindest, coolest little horses. They are like a pony body with a horse mentality.”
Though the horse was supposed to be for Quincy, it quickly became apparent that Willow fell in love with Amigo, too. So Vohs made plans to purchase another Galiceño from Kit—the previously mentioned 17-year-old mare that’s quick enough to be competitive in barrels with Willow. The family plans to use the horses for playdays, rodeos and around their ranch—branding, moving cattle and more. Vohs appreciates the Galiceños for allowing his children to become more independent with horses even at a young age, thanks to their diminutive stature.
“My kids can clean their feet out, they can bridle and saddle by themselves, they can get on and off by themselves, and they confidence working with them, without having to wait until they are 12 or 13 and big enough to do those things with a full-size horse,” Vohs said.
Elizabeth “Rosie” Stephens, 18, has had Galiceño horses since she was 8 years old. Her grandfather is former GHBA president Bob Tackett. She qualified for the 2018 National Barrel Horse Association Youth World Championship Show in the 1D and 2D with Tonto Chapo and Vegas Star. Her mother, Cindy Stephens, is a big fan of her daughter’s Galiceño horses.
“We love them,” Cindy said. “They are great. They’re great-minded, they’re great for Rosie to work with. They are not huge, but they have the hugest heart.”
Cindy says the Galiceños are loyal, possess all-day staying power and are good working horses.
“We mainly use our two for barrels, but we breakaway rope off them, gather cattle on them, trail ride on them—anything we need done, they do,” Cindy said. “They are just good, solid horses.”
Rosie says she fell in love with the Galiceños first because she felt comfortable with their size, and then because of their personality.
“They are really sweet horses,” Rosie said. “And whereas a bigger horse might have trouble moving around a barrel, they can move around it super fluid because of their size.”
Rosie says Galiceños have a unique personality, something she loves about them.
“If you want a really loyal horse, get a Galiceño,” Rosie said. “I feel more connected to my Galiceño horse than some of my Quarter Horses, because I think the Galiceños look to be your friend, and they want to do well for you.”
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.