My interest in natural horsemanship began when I was a teenager. Although I didn’t have my own horse, I rode whenever I could, on what ever horse was on offer. I also read and dreamed a lot. I especially loved stories about Native Americans and horses, as their lifestyles seemed to be one of connection with the land and the animals, and I must admit I was a real ‘greenie’ as a teenager – an eco-warrior vegetarian on a mission!
I really wanted to live in a tipi and have my horses all around me – and part of me still does (yes, my kids think I am crazy). But how idyllic is this?
Australian aboriginals were initially distrustful of horses, as they thought that the men on horseback were one, a strange new creature that hurt them - they had never seen anything like them before. They did gradually come to love horses too (and are now some of the best drovers in Australia), but they did not have the great affinity with the horse that the native Americans seemed to have had. This may also be partly due to the different landscape, as Australia did not have the great plains of the Americas, and to the fact that the horse was introduced into Australia over 250 years later than America. Horses were also native to the Americas, although they became extinct after crossing the Bering Straits into Asia 15 to 25,000 years ago. Maybe the stories and drawings of the people kept the ideas of the horse alive, a bit like the unicorn and Pegasus myths today.
When American Indians encountered horse, they thought of them as large dogs, and the horses and riders seemed godlike. Indians were seen to rub themselves with horse sweat, so that they might acquire the magic of the "big dog." The horse was indispensable to the conquest of Mexico by Cortez. To keep the ‘god-like’ reputation going, the Spanish conquerors prohibited any Indian from riding a horse. In 1541, however, Viceroy Mendoza allowed allied Aztec chieftains on horses – all the better to lead their tribesmen into battle during the Mixton War of Central Mexico. This appears to have been the first time that horses were officially given to the Indians.
The horses of the conquistadors were considered the best horses in the world at that time, and were a mixture of Barb, Arabian and Andalusian blood. Horses changed everything for the Indians, from ways of travel and hunting to wealth and warfare. They were useful but they were also friends and companions – not mere tools. For many Indian tribes, their whole lifestyle changed, as horses became a central part of many tribal cultures. Indians and their horses were true partners, the first true natural horsemanship partnership in the new world, with natural gear the equivalent of modern rope halters, bitless bridles and bare back saddle pads. Saying that, the war bridles can be severe on a horses mouth,but they were used by riders in complete control of their horses by vocal and body aids. The bridle is made from a single piece of rope or raw hide that loops through the mouth where the bit would sit, ties around the jaw in a type of slip knot, then runs back as reins.
Even before battle they were close to their horses, spending time painting symbols on their horse. Hoof prints were drawn on the horse to show how many enemy horses were captured and a left hand print on a horse’s right hip meant that the horse had brought his owner home safely. Apache and Comanche warriors who were dying in battle would pat their horse’s neck with a bloodied hand and the horse would return home with this grim news for all to see.
By the 1800s, American Indian horsemanship was legendary, and the survival of many Native peoples, especially on the Great Plains, depended on horses. Buffalo was the main food and clothing source of the plains Indians, and horses made hinting these large, fast beasts much easier.
Horses were also a great aid in transporting their tipi homes, essential for the nomadic tribes that followed the buffalo herds over the plains. Before the horses the Indians used dogs to transport their homes from one area to another, but horses meant faster trips with greater quantities.
Horses were also used for sport by the Indians in a way – horse stealing between the tribes on the plains became a favourite pastime, and it was considered an honourable way for a young warrior to gain experience and fame. Horses also meant wealth, and were used extensively for barter and gifts. A young man who gave his prospective father in law a horse or two was sure to win favour.
To the native Indians, horses were part of their everyday lives, and they respected and treasured them. They incorporated them into their cultural and spiritual lives, and many religious ceremonies and dances, such as that by the Oglala Dakota tribe, were based on the horse and its contribution to the life of the Indian. The Oglala used their horse dance to influence the outcome of horse races, to cure and calm sick and wounded horses and to make broodmares have fine foals. Horse medicine men and women were mong the most respected members of their tribes. The sense of partnership that the Indians shared with their horses meant that the remedies they used on themselves they also used on their horses. So too it meant that horses, as well as people could possess useful knowledge in curing the sick.
When a warrior lost a horse, he would honour the horse by making a horse stick, an effigy made of wood and decorated with paint, leather, fur, feathers, beads and other items that represented the likeness of the horse. The horse stick would then be carried by the warrior in dances to pay tribute to the great horse before other tribal members, and it was hoped that the spirit of the horse would follow the warrior in life and give him added strength and power.
The days of Indian horse culture were brilliant but quite short in the scheme of things, lasting just around 200 years. Indian raids occurred on the white population on and off, encouraged early on by the British and continuing during the civil war.The United States Army found, in its attempt to conquer the Indians during the 1800s that the only way to effectively control the people was to take their horses away from them. The story of Crazy horse leading a war party at the Battle of the Little Bighorn is legendary, but less known are the repeated instances of complete massacre of Indian horse herds, and the dividing up of the herds after massacre of human Indians, such as that at Sandy Creek in 1864.
Model of the Crazy Horse memorial
Then the train (iron-horse) came along, followed by the car, truck and motorbike, and the horse was needed less by everyone, not just Indians. They still ride horses of course, and horses are decked out in traditional gear for festivals and shows across America. There are also organisations, like th Chief Joseph Foundation, that strive to keep the Indian horse heritage alive.
The Indian Horse has contributed to a number of American breeds including the Morgan, Quarter Horse, American Saddle bred, Tennessee Walking Horse, coloured breeds such as paint, appaloosa and buckskin, and of course the mustang. There is also a registry for American Indian horses, for horses which show traits of the original bloodlines as well as litheness, agility, endurance and load-carrying capabilities.
Personally, I dream of an appaloosa. Maybe one day this could be me……..
Links and Resources:
- A song for the horse nation
- Native American Legends
- The American Indian Horse Registry
- Learn NC
- US Military History
- City Data
- Red Oak Tree
- Cayuse Ranch
- Karma Farm