The Azteca horse of North America is a new breed that combines the beauty and carriage of Andalusians, the heart and speed of American Quarter Horses, and its own colorful history in the charrerias south of the border. 

Photography by Diana Allison & April Visel

(Above: Valentino Lusiadas is a stunning American Azteca B stallion owned by Rita Greslin, Dakota Winds Andalusians & Aztecas.)

The Azteca Horse is a dramatic, warm-blooded beauty that originated in Mexico in 1972. The young breed owes much of its development to Spanish businessman and philanthropist Don Antonio Ariza Cañadilla, who immigrated to Mexico in 1949. Cañadilla arrived eager to expand wine production for the House of Pedro Domecq, a Spanish sherry-producing dynasty whose libations had been coveted by the royalty of Spain and England since 1730.

An avid equestrian, Cañadilla soon became enchanted with a newfound dream: establishing a national horse breed for Mexico. His efforts centered around breeding the perfect horse for the charros, or Mexican cowboys, the country’s traditional horsemen. An agile and quick mount was necessary; a horse with good cow sense for work on the cattle ranches, but also able to participate in the charreria.

 Above: This handsome American Azteca D stallion, Brio, is owned by Carey Hannigan, Maravillosa Aztecas and Andalusians.

The charreria is a historical sport that had first grown popular on the colonial haciendas of Mexico. In the charreria, charros would compete, showing off their riding and roping skills in lively competitions that grew to be revered as a cultural art form. Following the Mexican Revolution and the dissolution of many haciendas, the charreria became a sport of more formal competitions, also known as charreadas.

Cañadilla began his ambitious breeding operation at Rancho San Antonio, near Texcoco, in the state of Mexico. He imported rare Spanish Andalusians (descendants of ancient illustrious European war horses) considered the “pure Spanish horse” of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as some closely related Lusitanos from Portugal. These he crossed with his Quarter Horse mares, or with mares with mixed Criollo blood.

Almost from the start, a systematic, scientific breeding program was put into place with a rigorous and demanding inspection process, still extant today. The first stallion, Casarejo, was born at the Centro de Reproduccion Caballar Domecq at Texcoco in 1972, a cross between a Spanish stallion, Ocultado and a Quarter Horse mare, Americana.

As time went by, evaluations were made, comparing the performance, temperament, conformation and appearance of offspring created by various combinations of the three primary foundation breeds. The goal was to create a horse that was a modern blend of the most prized characteristics of the three separate bloodlines; the Andalusian’s beauty, temperament, nobility, and spirit, the Quarter Horse’s power, heart, speed and cow-sense, and the toughness and resilience of the Mexican Criollo. To Cañadilla’s credit, the Azteca was officially designated the “National Horse of Mexico” in 1982. 

Above: American Azteca D stallion Brio splashes in the surf. Brio is owned by Carey Hannigan, Maravillosa Aztecas and Andalusians.

Today, the worldwide registry for Azteca horses is maintained by the Asociation Mexicana de Criadores de Caballos de Raza Azteca, (The Azteca Horse Association of Mexico) Letters A, B, C, D, E and F are assigned to progeny identifying genetic proportions of the three foundation breeds.  The American Azteca Horse International Association models its classifications in a similar fashion, although at present, horses are registered in only four of six American classifications, due to the lack of Criollo horses outside of Mexico.

The breed’s presence and popularity in the United States has been greatly advanced by the determination of Rita Greslin, President of the American Azteca Horse International Association, and Registrar Joyce Firkus, who jointly established the organization in 1989.  Greslin, owner of Dakota Winds Andalusians, a ranch “situated on the south side of a sacred and enchanted mountain that is cherished and protected by the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indians,” is both an educator and devoted proponent of the American Azteca breed.

According to Greslin, breed standards and registration requirements for the Azteca Registry of Mexico and the American Azteca Horse International Association have two significant distinctions.  Firstly, the U.S. registry allows APHA Paints while the Mexican registry does not accept any breed of color. Secondly, the U.S. registry does not require the hands-on physical inspections, mandated by the Mexican registry for every Azteca foal at seven months of age, and later, for breeding certification.

Animals registered with the U.S. association are called “American Aztecas.” American Aztecas are a combination of two registered breeds,  Andalusian (including all lines of Spanish, Lusitano, and Spanish/Lusitano) and the registered American Quarter Horse or Paint horse. Greslin maintains that the American Azteca and the Azteca have little variation in size and temperament, despite the lack of Criollo blood in the American Aztecas.  Apparently, even in the Mexican Aztecas, Criollo blood is limited to a small percentage of individuals, and the use of the Criollo bloodline has been diminishing.


Breed Characteristics and Uses

Aztecas and American Aztecas are highly intelligent, athletic, elegant and easy to train. It has been said that these kind-hearted equines prefer human company to others of their kind.

The American Azteca Horse International Association lists the average height as a wide range: between 14.2-16 hands. Quarter horses and Paint Horses with no more than ¼ Thoroughbred blood may be used for breeding American Aztecas.  All AQHA and APHA colors and markings are allowed in the AAHIA.

The horses are prized for an aristocratic head of medium size. The profile may be straight, convex or slightly concave. The forehead is broad. 

Nostrils are full and ample, eyes expressive and lively. The neck is well arched, wider at the base and finer closer to the head.  The chest is deep, the back short to medium. Shoulders are long and sloping, withers are broad, lightly muscled but defined. Legs are muscular with strong joints and substantial bone.  Tails and mane are often lush. Free shoulders and hips retained from the breed’s Andalusian heritage allow for a smooth ride and graceful carriage. Aztecas and American Aztecas possess beautiful paces and excel at equine school disciplines that require suspension and elevated gates. 

Above: Dakota Spanish Wind is a white American Azteca A mare owned by Rita Wilson, Dakota Winds Andalusians & Aztecas.

In Mexico, the Aztecas have demonstrated their bravery and gallantry as mounts for the Rejonero, the bullfighter who uses the rejon, or short, barbed spear. In both the U.S. and Mexico, the breed’s athleticism makes them the perfect choice for a variety of western riding events such as reining, cutting, team penning and roping. They have also earned a reputation as marvelous trail riding companions. Aztecas are especially suited to western and Cowboy Dressage. 

South of the border, every year, thousands of people gather in Guadalajara to attend the Mexican National Charro Championship, held as part of the International Mariachi Festival. This year’s festivities will be held from August 27th –September 8th, 2015.