For 10,000+ years, horses did not exist in the Americas.
That changed in 1519, when the Cortes expedition brought horses with them to Mexico. Cortes’ footsoldier, Bernal Diaz, provides descriptions and names of six of their 16 horses.
Captain Gonzalo Sandoval’s horse was Motilla, a Spanish term for fortified village. It was chestnut colored, with a white left leg and a star on the forehead. Diaz wrote, “its excellence has become a proverb; for when any one wants to praise a horse, he says, It is as good as the Motilla.”
Juan Velasquez de Leon’s grey mare was Cola Corta, described as “a noble and powerful animal, full of fire and eager for battle: we commonly termed it the ‘short-tail.’”
Ortiz the Musician’s horse was described as “a very good dark-colored horse, which was named the Arriero (mule-driver), and was one of the best animals of the whole corps.” Which just proves that pop stars from any era have sweet rides.
Diaz mentions three other horses:
- Cabeza de Moro (Moor’s Head)
- El Rey (The King)
- Roldanillo (Little Roland—named after Charlemagne’s legendary knight)
Diaz wrote long passages describing the horses, often mentioning the owners, but rarely the horse’s names. Here's an excerpt:
“Cortes had a dark chestnut stallion, which died afterwards at St. Juan de Ulua. Alvarado had an excellent brown mare, which had been broken-in for the field of battle as well as for tournaments. Puertocarrero had a grey-colored mare, it was capitally trained for the field of battle. Olid had a dark brown fine-spirited horse. Montejo and Avila had between them a sorrel-colored horse, but of little use in battle. Morla had likewise a dark chestnut stallion, one full of fire and wonderfully swift. The light-colored horse of Escalante was not worth much. The grey-colored mare of Ordas, which would never foal, was neither very swift. Dominiguez had a small dark-brown nag, a very swift and noble animal. Also the brown-colored horse of Truxillo was a swift animal. Moron had a small horse which was pretty well trained. Vaena had a darkish-colored horse, though a bad leaper. The light-colored chestnut galloway of Lares was, on the other hand, a splendid animal and a capital runner. Sedeno had a fine chestnut mare, which foaled on board. This Sedeno was considered to be the most wealthy man among us; for he had a ship of his own, a horse, a few negroes to attend upon him, and his own lading of cassave and cured bacon. Just about this time horses and negroes were only to be purchased for very high prices, which accounts for the small number of the former we had with us on this expedition.”
The Battle of Cintla was the first time horses were used in combat on the American continents. In that battle, the main Spanish force fought with Maya warriors for an hour before the first Spanish horseman arrived: Captain Morla and his chestnut stallion. After Morla’s one-man attack, Cortes and his captains arrived as a second front on horseback—a cavalry showing up in the nick of time.
The sight of Morla’s one-horse charge was enough for Captain Tapia to declare that Saint James had come to deliver their victory. Saint James was a mythical figure, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, and is the patron saint of Spain. He died in 44 A.D., but in the fictional 9th-century Battle of Clavijo, James is said to have suddenly appeared and led outnumbered Christian soldiers to victory against a Muslim army. It was a key moment in Spanish traditions regarding the Christian expulsion of Muslims. James became known as the Moor-killer, and “Saint James and strike for Spain!” became the battle cry of Christian Spanish armies: “Santiago!” Historian Jean Mitchell-Lanham says, “While this event is based on legend, the supposed battle has provided one of the strongest ideological icons in the Spanish national identity.”
Cortes’ biographer Francisco Gomara published the first authoritative history of the Spanish conquest. He wrote that the first cavalryman who arrived at Cintla to battle the Maya was, miraculously, the 5th-century Christian warrior St. James. But Bernal Diaz, who was there, mocks Gomara’s supernatural claim with this sarcastic admission: “Perhaps on account of my sins, I was unworthy to behold it.”
Diaz identifies Francisco Morla as the initial horseman and adds that if it had been a saint, then evidence would have been taken and a church built at the site. Diaz disparages Gomara’s divine embellishment:
“If what Gomara relates is true, then we must have been bad Christians not to have paid greater respect to the assistance which God sent us in the person of his holy apostle, and not thank him daily for it in his own church. I must confess that I never heard of this wonder mentioned before reading his book, nor have I ever heard any of the conquistadors speak of it who were at the battle.”
The Spaniards’ cavalry attacks defeated the Maya at Cintla (as depicted in Episode Three of Aztec Empire). The Spaniards would go on to win further battles with the advantage of horses. As Hernando Cortes proclaimed, “After God, we owed our victory to the horses.”