Did Native Americans have domesticated horses?

Did Native Americans have domesticated horses?

Forty million years ago, horses first emerged in North America, but after migrating to Asia over the Bering land bridge, horses disappeared from this continent at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient Indians traveled and hunted on foot for millennia, depending on dogs as small pack animals.

When Christopher Columbus brought two dozen Andalousian horses on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he couldn’t have imagined how reintroducing the horse to North America would transform Native American life, especially for the buffalo-hunting Plains Indians, for whom the swift and loyal horse was a marriage made in heaven. (Some experts think horses were employed by Native American tribes prior to Columbus’ arrival and that they never completely went extinct in North America.)

How the Horse First Entered Native American Culture

When Columbus and other Spanish explorers arrived in Hispaniola on horseback, the native Taíno of the Caribbean were terrified by what they saw as a half-man, half-beast, says Herman Viola, a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution. “They’d never seen a monster with humans riding on it.”

When more Native tribes experienced the horse, their terror was replaced by wonder at the animal’s speed and might. With the dog as their closest reference, Indians gave this mythical new creature names like “elk dog,” “sky dog” and “holy dog.”

“The Spanish quickly realized that the last thing they wanted was for Indians to have horses, because that would put them on equal footing,” says Viola, but that’s exactly what happened following the Pueblo Uprising of 1680. After suffering a century of oppressive Spanish rule, the normally peaceful Pueblo Indians forcibly ousted the Spaniards from Santa Fe, capturing their treasured horses and trading them with other tribes.

Horses swiftly spread across trade channels, first to the Navajo, Ute, and Apache, then to the Kiowa and Comanche of the southern Plains, and last to the Shoshone of the Mountain West. By 1700, horses had reached the Nez Perce and Blackfoot of the far Northwest, and traveled eastward to the Lakota, Crow and Cheyenne of the northern Plains. The first firearms were exchanged from the east as horses came from the west. The armed and mounted Indian warrior had a strong presence on the Great Plains by the time of the French and Indian War in the 1760s.

Horses Transformed the Buffalo Hunt

Print of a buffalo hunt, after a painting by George Catlin, depicting a Plains warrior on horseback hunting a bison in the American West, c. 1920. Print of George Catlin’s painting of a Plains warrior on horseback chasing a bison in the American West, around 1920.

Buffalo are large, powerful, and swift. Prior to the arrival of horses on the Plains, Native hunters tracked big herds on foot, but it was risky, demanding labor with a poor chance of success. One approach included startling and chasing an animal onto a cliff or dropoff known as a “buffalo leap.” Once wounded, the buffalo was easier to kill.

“When horses were introduced, the modes of hunting changed,” says Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Oglala Lakota nation. “A trusted hunting horse might be taught to ride directly into a stampeding buffalo herd.”

The unprecedented speed and efficiency of horseback hunting supplied an abundance of high-quality meat, skins for tipis and clothing, and rawhide for shields and boxes for the Plains Indians. With the help of a draggable wooden sledge called a travois, horses could now transport entire villages and their possessions to follow the seasonal hunt.

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“In a way, tribes earned greater prosperity with the arrival of the horse,” Her Many Horses explains. Not only did tipis get bigger, but it lifted some of the daily burden from women, giving them more time to create works of art and sacred objects, many of them inspired by the horse.

Raiding Became Honorable Rite for Plains Warriors

According to Her Many Horses, competition among Plains Indians for the greatest hunting and war horses transformed former partners into adversaries. More and better horses meant you could extend your hunting region, giving the tribe even more money. Raiding and capturing enemy horses was a key tactic of inter-tribal warfare and was considered an “honorable” rite of passage for a young man trying to earn his place as a warrior.

Young men would trek for kilometers to a rival camp, scout for the most valuable horses, and wait until midnight to strike. The first obstacle was sneaking into an Indian hamlet without alerting its canine security system.

“Some of the horse owners were so worried about their prize horses that they’d sleep with a rope tied to their wrist going beneath the tipi cover, so they could yank on it to make sure the horse was still secure,” Viola adds.

If the adventurous horse capturer was fortunate enough to escape the hamlet alive—many did not—the next step was to give away the hard-won horse to a widow or someone in need, capping off their bravery with a kind gesture.

The Short-Lived ‘Horse Nation’

Custer's Last Stand from the Battle of Little Bighorn. (Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images) At the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the Lakota and other Plains Indians engaged in horse warfare with the US Cavalry.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

The classic picture of the war-painted Plains Indian on horseback, rifle lifted at full speed, pursuing down buffalo—or US soldiers—belongs to a remarkably brief time in Native American history. The full flowering of Plains Indian horse culture lasted little more than a century, roughly from the 1750s to the 1870s, when it was ended by the Indian Wars and forced relocation to reservations.

At their peak, the Plains Indians’ “Horse Nation” comprised the militant Comanche, who were “perhaps the best horse Indians on the Plains,” according to Viola, as well as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota (Sioux), Crow, Gros Vent Nez Perce, and others.

“There were about a dozen very prominent horse tribes that went all the way from the Canadian border to Mexican border and they were the ones that confronted all these wagon trains and ‘Manifest Density,’” says Viola. “Because they were such excellent horse people, they were quite adept in disrupting westward progress, which is why the Army had such a difficult time with them.”

Finally, the federal government realized that hiring some of the greatest Plains Indian riders as U.S. Cavalry was the only way to beat the Indians. Her Many Horses says that after defeating the Plains Indians, the Army would sometimes slaughter the Indian’s horses so they would stay on the reservations and become farmers instead of going back to the “old ways” of hunting and raiding.

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