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Old Spanish Days Fiesta Parade: A Brief History

The equestrian event showcases the best of Santa Barbara history and vaquero culture

Recognized as the largest all-equestrian parade in the nation, the Old Spanish Days Fiesta Parade incorporates about 100 entries with 1,500 participants from all over the state and the Southern California area.

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Thousands of volunteers perform functions, from announcing the entries to marshaling the parade’s flow, organizing the lineup and disbanding, hitching and unhitching teams, parking horse trailers, and decorating floats and carriages.

An estimated100,000 spectators line the parade route from Cabrillo Boulevard at the beach, up State Street to Micheltorena Street, returning shouts of “Viva la Fiesta!” with the customary “Viva!” Floats adorned with foliage and blossoms highlight vignettes of the town’s history with comic wit or reverent remembrance. Among past topics portrayed are the Flying A movie studio, the Great White Fleet, the 1925 earthquake and the first baseball league.

The parade exhibits Old Spanish Days’ Carriage and Western Art Museum collection of antique vehicles, including a 19th-century firefighter’s steam pumper, a circus wagon, a paddy wagon, the classic vis-à-vis, surreys, a grocery cart, stagecoaches, the opera bus, touring wagons, and pony carts decorated with brilliant blooms and huge flower arrangements. Costumed riders in colorful historic outfits celebrate the day.

The parade features at least 30 breeds of horses and mules, from the historic Spanish Andalusians, Peruvian Pasos, Welsh Dragons, Icelandic Ponies and Belgian Creams, to huge Budweiser Clydesdales and tiny dog-sized miniatures.

Roots of the Fiesta Parade reach back into the 19th-century pastoral days of the Early California ranchos. In the early 1800s, huge spreads of lands along the California coastal foothills and inland valleys raised thousands of head of cattle for export to Europe and East Coast America. Used for their hides and tallow, eventually to become leather, soap and oils for the world outside, cattle production was the center of life.

Equestrian sports such as races, herding and roping skills developed into rodeos, and social activities evolved from casual gatherings, when families collected at one another’s ranches for weddings, or to assist with large-scale chores such as springtime round-ups — or any other excuses for fiestas.

Specific breeds of horses were developed for ranching purposes. And eventually breeds developed for show, such as the Golden Palomino. President of the first Fiesta in 1924, Dwight Murphy, redeveloped the “Golden Palomino” breed from a lost pedigree in Europe.

With Santa Barbara’s proximity to Hollywood, and with its own movie studio right here, Western stars Will Rogers, Leo Carrillo and many more joined in, changing it to the “silver saddle” era of equestrian exhibition on parade.

Spanish and Mexican horsemanship is honored worldwide. Early California history is steeped in equestrian talents.

After 85 years of Old Spanish Days Fiestas, our “El Desfile Histórico” is known as the largest all-equestrian parade in the nation. Our Fiesta Parade exhibits historic, vivid cowboy and “vaquero” culture at its ultimate best.

— Diana Vandervoort is a third-generation producer of Fiesta courthouse shows, a second-generation Fiesta Board member and ninth-generation Santa Barbaran, and Ortega family descendant.

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