Hollywood has built a convincing myth with regard to the horses of the American Plains Indian, now known in politically correct terminology as Native Americans. Films depict the native Americans mounted on good- sized, well-fleshed horses, able to travel long distances without oats or hay, and supporting their way of life against the incursion of foreign colonialists. The mythology has been exploded by the work of such historians as James E. Sherow, PhD. Romanticising the past and allowing the process to influence beliefs about the present is neither worthy of this enlightened age nor does it contribute to the body of knowledge. Many might view this mythical relationship between man and horse as an ideal, and seek to emulate what, in fact, did not exist as some kind of benchmark for ‘natural horsemanship’; the truth is, though perhaps less appealing, important as from it there are lessons which can be drawn.
Training the Horse - note the tie around front legs.
The horse was not taken to the New World until the Spanish voyages of conquest in the 1500s. In 1521 Juan Ponce de Leon introduced horses to the U.S.A., landed in Florida from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Not until the seventeenth century did the native tribes of Texas and New Mexico, mainly the Comanche and Apache, begin to obtain horses. (6.) By the mid- eighteenth century, the horse had spread as far as the Blackfeet nation in Montana and Canada.
Lacking fences within which to confine their herds, many horses escaped to become feral and the so-called wild horse of the American West was established. A U.S. army colonel, Richard Irving Dodge, spent a great deal of time in the early west, and in 1884 published a book on his experiences. (7.) According to Dodge the Indian pony was rarely above 14 hands in height, and while he was admiring of their ability to ride he was also scornful of the lack of care with which their ponies were attended.
"In summer he may take the trouble to tie a cloth over the sores to keep the flies out, or when a foot becomes very tender from bad ground or long travel, he may tie it up in a piece of buffalo robe; but this is the extent of consideration the pony ever receives from his master. In the winter he is a most miserable object, an animated skeleton....."
This was, in all fairness, hardly surprising, such were the conditions of life on the High Plains, and the numbers of horses in the herds. Depending on the tribe, these could be in the hundreds or thousands, a management nightmare. The following excerpt from an article published in 1992 provides graphic details on the conditions of the time.
"During the fall, the rising of the sun could melt away morning frost on dormant grasses, revealing bluish-gray colored blades stressed by drought, which provided poor forage, or nutritious golden-brown blades in years (like 1864) of plentiful rains. Balmy autumn days could suddenly turn windy and snowy and ensnare unsheltered people and horses in a deadly grip. In winter, howling blizzards or crystal clear blue skies and frigid temperatures, or perhaps mild sunny days could all follow in rapid succession and made trips across the exposed plains extremely hazardous for horses and people alike. In the spring, wet snows or rains, when and if they fell, nourished the grasses, mantling the plains with a thick, velvet green carpet. During this time the Indians celebrated the return of the short grasses, which restored the strength of Indian ponies, returned the bison for the hunt, and renewed the tribes." (8.)
Horses could, and did, assist the tribes both in hunting and migration but there was a negative aspect also. The reliance that the Indians came to place on their horses for escape in the event of attack by U.S. cavalry was, on occasion, to prove their downfall. The infamous massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek was one such time, and the inability of the Indians to make a quick escape due to the poor condition of their horses was, in part, to blame for the disaster. Further excerpts from the same article, which appeared in the magazine Environmental History Review, note that:
"the tribes particularly valued a mount that could run hard for five miles. A good cavalry horse, however, could last twice that distance."
The article tells of how the Indians had a continual struggle to adapt their steeds to the harsh and often changing conditions of t the short-grass prairies, and offers evidence of how they failed. (9.)
"Horses proved both an innovative addition and a vexation to High Plains Indians. The historical story is much different from what we were told."
With the problems of insufficient feed and internal parasites it is very doubtful that bigger horses would have made any difference, in fact it might well have made matters even worse, but the fact that U.S. cavalry horses were both taller and stronger must have made escape that much more difficult.
Coaches of the American West.