The Age of Horse Culture: American Indian Horsemanship

Today our topic is

The Age of Horse Culture: American Indian Horsemanship

Before I begin, I would like to thank Donovin Sprague Hump, Black Hills State University Instructor, author and historian. Descendent of Chief Hump and the Crazy Horse Family. Also, Dave Reynolds for helping me to research this area and also contributing some of the historical literature used for this research.

The Conquistadors passed an ordinance, soon after they arrived in the Americas, prohibiting any Indian from riding a horse. They encouraged the Indians to believe that the horses devoured human flesh. In 1582 Antonio Espejo was still telling the Indians “The horses were ferocious…”.  However, it did not take the Indians long to realize that being men, like the Spaniards, they could also ride.

As the ranches grew, the need for vaqueros, cow-workers, was filled by mounting the Indian serfs. Sante Fe became the most prominent place for distribution of the Spanish Mustang into the North American landscape and to the Native Tribes. In the beginning the Indians attained horses through raids on Spanish settlements in Sante Fe, El Paso and on the Rio Grande. They were also looting far in Chihuahua and Sonora in Northern Mexico. Although many tribes acquired horses, it was the tribes of the Plains that soon became the superb horseman and horse warriors that we hear so much about in history. The horse made them masters of the herds of buffalo that gave them food, shelter, bedding, tools, saddles, lariats and the core of their religion.

The beginning of the 17th century brought a new era for both the Native American and the white men, for this date marked the introduction of the horse into Indian culture. Within a hundred years the horse population had grown into the tens of thousands among the nations of the Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Kiowa, Nez Perces, Pawnee and Blackfoot. It had become a measure of wealth, trade and class, the main means to hunt buffalo and a tactical instrument of war.

Riding at a full gallop with nothing more than a pelt cinched to the horses back they put to shame the generations of European horseman to follow in the West. The Indian and his Spanish Mustang were inseparable companions, sharing a deep sense of friendship and understanding that has not been equaled since.

Blackfoot warfare was not aimed at the acquisition of territory or other tribes extermination but the capturing of horses from enemy tribes. Many of the Blackfoot raids were carried out by poor families who were trying to better their lot. These raiding parties offered the training ground for the young warrior. They would go without receiving any horses but being repaid by learning the art of horse stealing. The horse raiding parties, were lead by experienced men who had lead men into enemy camps and captured goodly amounts of horses; returning home with few casualties.

Among the Comanche the horse added a new source of economic and political power, by controlling the access to the horse, a horse owner could control access to the buffalo hunt. The communal hunt of the pre-horse Comanche cultural gave way to the individual horse-mounted buffalo hunter. American observers among the Comanche, in the early 19th century, reported concentrations of horses numbering from 3,000 to 5,000, most with Spanish Brands. Successful warriors had from 50 to 200 horses each. In 1867 Labadi, an Indian agent reported 15,000 horses in Comanche camps on the Texas plains.

Among the Sioux the horse was more than a mere animal it was viewed as “medicine” with supernatural potency. Owning a horse gave a man personal medicine, in hunting and in war.  Over time the horse became their symbol of wealth and a medium of exchange. The man with the fastest horse could kill more buffalo and so assumed a position different from the less fortunate. The horse became the path to economic stability and social position. Large herds of horses were not easily acquired. Horses were not successfully bred, though attempts were made among the Sioux. The chief method by which stock was replenished was capturing wild horses or stealing them from other tribes.

The Crows raised horses, roped mustangs, rode magnificently and owned more horses than any other tribe on the Missouri. The Crow and the Blackfoot were constantly raiding each others horses.

The Nez Perces became known for their outstanding strain of Spanish Horses known as Appaloosas; the name coming from the Palouse River of western Idaho and eastern Washington. Lewis and Clark wrote “they are pied with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with black, brown, bey or other dark color, but much the larger portion are of uniform color with stars, strips and white feet…”.  It is thought the Nez Perces were practicing selective breeding. Splotched horses occurred wherever Spanish Horses ran. Whether the Nex Perces  began  raising them from a considerable collection of individuals or from only a pair or two is not known. Most of these horses were noted by Lewis and Clark to have Spanish brands. The Nez Perces were protected from raids by the mountains and this is what enabled them to do such breeding.

In John C. Cremony’s  book “Life Among the Apaches”, written in 1868, he writes “…after a successful raid, in which they have captured many animals, and having selected the best for riding, retire to some remote fastness to feed upon the remainder so long as they last…”. This points up an important fact. That is, by this method they were doing selective breeding. Only keeping the horses that best suited their purposes and using the rest for survival. Since the Apaches were most likely the first Natives of North America, to obtain the horse, they used this process of selective breeding to foster the Spanish Mustangs qualities for endurance, speed, agility, and hardiness, the traits that their survival depended on. Although it may not have been a conscious decision its results obtained the same goals.

Good horses were more plentiful among the northern tribes, this was because the northern ranges are more conducive to growth in livestock. It was the reason, later, the Texas cattlemen moved their Longhorns to Wyoming and Montana to fill them out and add weight.

With the Acquisition of The Northwest Territory, the Northern Europeans of Eastern America began to move west and came in contact with the Plains Indians and their herds of Spanish Mustangs. As the 19th century closed, the horses of the plains Indians ceased to be straight out Spanish Blood as did many bands of wild horses. Taking horses where they could find them, the Indians of the Eastern Plains interbreed their stock with horses from the English-speaking Americans. J. Frank Dobie said “These horses were patriotically called “American”. They were not a breed, they were no more fixed in type than American dogs; they were bigger than the Spanish-Indian-Western Horse. To the majority of American patriots, bigness had become a synonym for superiority.”

The Age of Horse Culture lasted from the 17th century to the end of the 1800s. The Spanish Mustang reshaped the lives and culture of the Native Americans of the plains and they infused the history of the West with some of the most daring and courageous horsemanship ever known. Sadly, there is not enough recorded information of this period. Many of the Artist of the period were not very good at anatomy and did not depict the Indian horse accurately. The Native American had an oral history and when the wonder of photography came to the Plains the photographers seemed to disregard the horse as part of the Indian culture and society and instead concentrated on portraits of Indians in their regalia. We rely mostly on European accounts of what was seen or told to them by different tribes they encountered. The Native American and the Spanish Mustang were made for each other, they both had extreme desires for independence and survival and a love of the vast country that nurtured them.

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Spanish Mustangs The Expansion

In 1519 Cortes arrives at Vera Cruz, in North America, and with him comes the first 16 horses, eleven stallions and 5 mares. These Spanish horses found the vast American ranges similar in climate and soil to their native arid homeland. These ranges were as virgin in fertility to them as to the European farmers and settlers that were to follow.

Both the horses and the cattle of the Spanish found new predators; but none that stopped their extraordinary growth. Twenty years after Cortes arrived, Coronado had no problem assembling 1,500 head of horses and mules for his expedition into New Mexico. The Spanish generals established haciendas for raising livestock throughout their domain and Queen Isabella maintained a desire to populate the New World with some of the best stock of Spain. The Spanish had a rich history of horsemanship and breeding and the Spanish Mustangs brought by Columbus were now making their way into the North American West. Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, had eleven or more haciendas during his years in office, 1535-1550, horses were raised on all of them. Oaxaca, Chiapas, Honduras and Nicaragua became extensive horse-breeding centers.

The first and most important center of distribution of the Spanish horses, into what is now the United States, was the settlement begun by Onate on the upper Rio Grande in 1598. This was Santa Fe, which later became the capital of New Mexico. At the time there were abut 100 mares and colts in addition to 700 horses and mules. By 1630 these numbers had sizeable increased. Although the horse population among the Spanish settlements went up and down the population of horses among the Indians, during this time, went steadily upwards. In 1660 the pueblo uprising forced the Spanish to abandon New Mexico and leave their livestock behind. There were replacement horses coming up to New Mexico from the south both before and after the pueblo uprising. Thus, it is New Mexico that becomes the initial base for the supply of horses for the Indian tribes of the region and to the north.

The horses of California multiplied astoundingly but had little effect upon the horse life of the Western plains. By the time of the first Californian settlements, in 1769, Indians, both above and below the Missouri were horsed. It was the mountains and the deserts to the east, in and out of California, that barred the spread of their horse population eastward.

One of the reasons for the huge rise in the horse populations, even with the raiding by the Indians is that the original horse stock could breed. The caballeros preferred riding stallions to mares and the stallions were rarely gelded plus most expeditions had both mares and stallions.

The expeditions of Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto into Florida and the Southern Coast did not add to the establishment of Spanish horses. Both expeditions ended in tragedy and no horses survived to populate those areas and all the horses were stallions. In “The Barbs of Spain” by H.H. Knibbs, he writes that one of the stallions of the De Soto expedition breaks free and roams and finds a mare that has broken from another expedition and they form the Mustang herds. This was mere legend and has no trace of proof.

When the Spanish learn that the French were in Texas, in 1690, they form expeditions into the region. They saw no horses when they arrived. By 1719 Du Tisne counted 300 horses among the Pawnees. All the horses wore Spanish brands. A hundred years later Stephen H. Long, a military scout, reported seeing the Pawnee warriors with 6,000 to 8,000 horses.

It should be noted that the American Indians captured the horses for food and not to ride in the 1500Õs. At Santa Fe in 1598 the Indians were still hunting buffalo on foot. They raided horses for meat. As late as 1775 the Indians were destroying the mares to such an extent that 1,500 horses were sent to New Mexico for riding and breeding from the south.

It is the Apaches that become the first Indians to acquire horses in the United States. Soon horses were the most wanted things that the Spaniards had for trade or to steal. The Spanish traded horses for buffalo robes. By 1680 Indians on the Pecos were using horses to pay for their women.

Once the American Indians realized the importance of horsemanship and viewed the horse as an asset, rather than a meal, the expansion of the Spanish horse throughout the West quickly began. So, it is the American Indian’s adaptation to the horse culture of the Spanish that spreads the Spanish horse and brings about the Spanish Mustang herds on the plains of the United States.

Quoting Charles Hamilton Smith, “The genuine wild species is migratory, preceding northward in summer to a considerable distance and returning early in autumn. The mixed races (feral horses) wander rather in the direction of the pasture than to a point of the compass.” This quote from “Horses (Vol XX in Jardine’s The Naturalist’s Library”, published in 1854, gives us an idea of how the Spanish Mustangs so quickly expanded their range in North America

It is interesting to pounder that the most devastating environmental upheaval in history lead to the most exciting and memorable parts of American history: The conquistadors, of the Spanish, The Age of the Horse, for the American Indians, and the cowboy era of the west for the European Settlers.

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Spanish Mustang Breed?

Spanish Mustang Breed?

Before going further lets just get our terms straight. The following are from the dictionary:

Conformation: The proportional shape or contour of an animal.

Breed: A group of animals related by descent from common ancestors and visibly similar in most characteristics.

To often both PHD’s and horse lovers do not use the above words correctly when describing a group of horses. This is especially true of the Spanish Mustang of North America. Most breeders talk of the conformation of the horse as showing breed but it is the breed traits of the horse that defines it breed;. the unusual characteristics which clearly show the similarity of a group of horses falling into the breed called Spanish Mustang. Conformation outlines the contour or shape of the horses that shows wether a horse is sound or not and can be used to judge many different breeds of horses.

As a Spanish Mustang owner I know every time I tell someone about my horses they say “..I love those mustangs I saw on the Discovery Channel”, they think those are my horses because I used the word mustang. But, Mustang is not a breed type it is a corruption of the Spanish word mesteno which means lost or unowned. So what is a Spanish Mustang?

The Spanish horse was brought to America by Columbus, to the Carribean Islands, and by the Conquistadors to Mexico, Southern North America and South America. These were the first horses brought to America. As they populated the Southwest and Mexico some were lost or stolen by the Indians and became unowned. The Americas, especially the open plains of the west were the perfect breeding ground for the horse and they prospered. Their characteristics were small stature (not more than 13.2-14.2 hands high), smooth muscling, low set tail, convex face (from poll of the head to the tip of their nose), deep base of the neck, sparse hair on the fetlocks, Chestnuts are small and flat and smooth and sometimes on the hindlegs they are not present. When standing the front legs are slightly under the horse as if they are leaning forward, and the hindlegs will be up under the horse a little; that way the horse is ready to move and go at an instant. Higher at the withers than at the hindquarters. Spanish Mustangs are agile and surefooted and smooth gaited. Their action is fairly high. These characteristics defined their breed as Spanish and were recognizable by any knowledgeable horse man of the period. For the entire time they ruled the west the were not tainted by any other breed of horses. They were the horse of the Indian, cowboy, conquistador and traveler of the west.

In the 1870’s there was estimated to be around two million Spanish Mustangs in the West. As America moved into the late 1800’s and the cattleman and the farmer began fencing the West the Spanish Mustangs began being slaughtered, like the buffalo, to stop their competition for grass. J. Frank Dobie in his book “The Mustangs”, written in 1934 says “Well, the wild ones – the coyote duns, the blues, the blue roans, the snip-nosed pintos, the flea-bitten greys and the black-skinned whites, the shining blacks and the rusty browns, the red roans, the tossed sorrels and the stockinged bays, the splotched appaloosas and the cream colored palaminos, and all the others in shadings and colors as various as the hues that show and fade on the clouds at sunset – they are all gone now, gone as completely as the grass they vivified.”

Dobie did not know about Gilbert Jones, Bob Brislawn, Monty Holbrook who also lived in the late 1800’s. These men saw the Spanish Mustangs and realized that they were a dying breed. They started to save them and breed them. It is from this group of horses that the Spanish Mustangs of today have survived.

The wild Mustangs of today are not the survivors from the Spanish Mustang herds but mostly mixed breeds of horses that have been lost by ranchers through the 1900’s and horses abandon by horse owners who no longer could care for their horses. Since the West is the land of the horse they have prospered and make up the herds of feral horses that populate the BLM lands and exist at other sanctuaries. You will not see all the colors that were described above in the quote from J. Frank Dobie and you will not find all the breed characteristics mentioned above that define a Spanish Mustang breed type. There are only a little more than 1,800 Spanish Mustangs in the United States presently, it is this breed of horses that needs to be saved and preserved as part of our American Western History.

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American Sorraia Horses or Spanish Mustang

This was from my friend Jolie Alongi and I feel it is worth the read; “American Sorraia Horses”

While doing research for I stumbled upon someone disputing that the “American Sorraia Horse”, was a strain of foundation “Spanish Mustang”.

When the Spanish Mustang Registry was formed, the name, “Spanish Mustang”, was given to a select group of horses. That is the name that most people know these horses by, a title given to them when a registry & studbook was started in 1957. Like the Portuguese Sorraia, Spanish Mustangs didn’t always have that name…either did the river, Sorraia, that the Sorraias were named for.

One of the foundation Spanish Mustang strains of foundation Spanish Mustangs is the “Bookcliff”. It is actually an area in Utah where a large group of what we have named “American Sorraia Horses” were originally found & collected. Two of those mares that are also foundation Spanish Mustangs, carry Sorraia mtDNA.

The American Sorraia Horse is not just a grulla or dun colored horse. It also has phenotype & can be traced back many generations of Sorraia type. In many horses the stallion lines have dams & granddames who carry mtDNA. No wonder they look the part! The American Sorraia Horse falls under strict criteria & will continue to be evaluated in such a way.

We have never stated that the American Sorraia Horse is the same horse as the Portuguese Sorraia. The American Sorraia Horse has a history all his own but his phenotype is unmistakably Iberian…& he does have a connection to the Sorraias in his past or he would not look the part….In my humble opinion.

It is documented that the horses that Queen Isabella purchased for the 1493 voyage to the new world, were of the finest breeding. They were switched at debarkation with common bred cow horses. Those horses were mouse dun or dun, bay & red. They also had convex profiles & the duns were noted to carry primitive markings. Sounds like Sorraia- in my opinion.
More than one different type of Iberian horse was brought to the Americas from 1493–1510. Queen Isabella put an embargo on anymore horses leaving Spain in 1510.
She realized that the best equines were being exported to the new world… Smart woman!

The original horses that ultimately became registered “Spanish Mustangs” were thought to be the purest Spanish Mustangs in existence at that time. Were they all of one type? No, but they were chosen because they were Iberian….not modern bred European horses.

We chose the name “American Sorraia Horse” because he is an all American breed.
Being an American, I’ll stand by that name.