How the Horse Came to the American West
Think back three thousand years to the deserts and plains of Arabia and of Barbary, famous throughout the ancient world for their beautiful, spirited horses. Trading ships from Phoenicia, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea, carry iron, spices, fruits and horses to Spain. Long centuries pass. The strong, lively Arabian horse has become the horse of the Spaniard.
Now come to the American West. It is the West of the Indians and the buffalo. But throughout the whole area there is not a single horse. The Indians of the plains – Pawnee, Comanche, Sioux and all the others – move slowly on foot. That is what the American West was like until a few hundred years ago – a horseless land.
Now look at the west in the 19th century. what a great change has occurred! The plains are alive with wild horses which, in some places, outnumber the buffalo. A million manes wave in the air on the deserts and the prairies. The Indian peoples of the plains, who were formerly earth-bound men on foot, are now nations of fighters on horseback – perhaps the finest cavalry in the world.
It was a change of huge proportions and far-reaching effects – a wonder of modern times. With the horse came the whole splendid drama of the West, which is a mighty part of America’s history and of her people’s character.
In 1519 the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez landed in Mexico, bringing with him the first horses that ever set foot on the soil of North America. In 1540 Francisco Vasquez Coronado rode northward across the Rio Grande, the present boundary between Mexico and Texas, with about 260 mounted men. They explored the unknown West as far as the present state of Kansas. During their explorations, the Spaniards lost horses, and it may be that these became the first wild horses in North America.
If the horses had not established itself in great numbers before the frontiersmen and settlers came, the West would have been far different. Most of its way of life and its place in literature and art were due to the horse – the horse that came with Spaniard.
This was the desert horse of the Phoenician and the Arab. Of fine Arabian blood, the hard and firmly built animal was thrown into the hot, dry American Southwest.
There it became the most enduring and the most beautiful of all the horses in the world. It lived surprisingly well where the big northern varieties of horse would have died. The rapid increase of the wild droves was far beyond all expectations.
And this increase brought a new way of life to the west as horse travel took the place of foot travel for nation after nation of Indians. See what happened to the Sioux who, two centuries ago, were a forest tribe living near the headwaters of the great Mississippi River.
Unable to defend themselves against the Ojibwas or Chippewa, the Sioux were driven out of the forestland to the plains. To them came the first wild horses, which were spreading steadily to the north.
Suddenly the Sioux were a nation on horseback. Suddenly they, who had been pushed out of their homeland, became the most feared cavalry of the northern plains.
With millions of buffalo to sustain them, and thousands of horses, the Sioux became a proud and powerful nation. They were lords of the vast area from the present state of Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains and as far such as Nebraska.
It is generally believed that if white settlers had not come into the plains, horses would probably have outnumbered the buffalo. And guesses at the number of buffalo start at 50,000,000. Early travelers saw vast droves of horses as far south as Texas and northern Mexico. An explorer in the North reported that “a single herd traveled from dawn to dusk in passing a given point.”
On the western plains, with the passing of generation after generation, the horse lost its beauty and size. The kind of horse later used by cowboys was smaller and less enduring. Again and again, however, there were throwbacks. The throwbacks (called mustangs), larger, faster and handsomer than ordinary horses, became famous.
In the West perhaps 6000 wild horses still remains - a mere handful when we remember the millions in the past. There is some mustang blood in these animals, which are now called horses. They live in small bands, chiefly in the states of Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada.
But the real mustang – the wild horse that brought change in the life of the West – has gone forever from the plains.
We should not forget him, for he gave us the splendid, colorful West, with all that it has meant to the lives of men. It was the West of the red horseman, the wagon train, the vast cattle range, the cowboy – the West we love to read about in history.
Spices, substances used to flavor food
Buffalo, large, hairy wild animal that lived on the plains of North America.
Manes, the long hair on the nicks of certain animal, such as the horse
Prairies, large areas of treeless, grassy plains
Cavalry, soldiers who fight on horseback.
Drama, a series of events that stir the imagination
Conqueror, one who conquers. To conquer is to take possession of something by force or to defeat an enemy.
Explored, traveled in places not well known to learn more about them
Frontiersmen, people who lived on the frontier. The frontier is the farthest part of a country that has been settled. Beyond the frontier is unsettled land.
Literature, the writings of a country, particularly those that have a lasting value because of their beauty
Headwaters, the small streams that are the sources of a river
Sustain, provide the necessities of life. The buffalo sustained the Indian by providing meat for food and skins for clothing and shelter.
Dusk, the beginning of darkness in the evening
Generation, a period of about 30 years
Cowboys, men who ride horseback while taking care of cattle
Throwback, horses (or other animals) with features like those of earlier types