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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