- Historic Sites
How The Indian Got The Horse
One innovation profoundly changed—and prolonged—the culture of the Plains Indians
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
The other candidate, Francisco Coronado, approached Texas from the west. He started from Mexico City, mustered his expedition at Compostela, and marched north to Arizona, then east to New Mexico and on to Texas. In 1541 he approached the Plains with a force estimated at 1,500 people, 1,000 horses, 500 cattle, and 5,000 sheep. He spent more than five months on the Plains, where he lost many horses. Some were gored by buffalo, some fell into a ravine during a buffalo chase. A few might have strayed away without their loss being noted by the chronicler, and it is conceivable that a stallion and a mare might have strayed oft together. The muster rolls of the expedition list two mares starting out from Compostela, and there might have been a few more not listed.
Assume, then, that such a pair escaped in northern Texas, adjusted to the range conditions, and produced offspring, all of whom survived. It is mathematically possible that in sixty years or so the resulting herd would number several thousand. They would have ranged the plains for hundreds of miles, leaving their spoor at every water hole. Yet-Spanish explorers and buffalo hunters from the later Sante Fe settlements found no wild horses of any kind in this area before 1700. It seems reasonable, then, that any such strays were wiped out by bad water, storms, accidents, and predators such as the wolf and cougar. These hazards to the foals should not be discounted; in 1719 the Paducahs reported that they had not been able to raise any colts, but had to obtain all their horses by barter—and they had owned horses for several years by that time.
Nor could even the most intelligent Indian hope to learn the art of catching, breaking, and training wild horses just from watching the Spanish ride by on tame ones. For a primitive people to learn such a complex pattern in a short space of time, they must have skilled horsemen for teachers and gentle, well-trained horses to handle. Even under these conditions such learning is sometimes difficult.
For example, according to Flathead tradition, their tribe secured a gentle horse in western Montana around 1700, and some of them attempted to ride it. One man would lead the horse slowly along while the rider attempted to balance himself with the aid of two long sticks, one in each hand, reaching to the ground like crutches. When one of the young men finally managed to ride unaided at a trot, he was the hero of the whole band.
The simplest and most effective way for the Indians of the Southwest to learn how to break, train, and care for horses was for them to work for the Spaniards. Such an opportunity was toned on the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico in the seventeenth century.
In 1595 Philip II of Spain commissioned Juan de Oñate, a wealthy citizen of Zacatecas, to conquer and settle the upper valley of the Rio Grande del Norte, where the Pueblo Indians lived in their farming villages. Early in the spring of 1598 Oñate led forth his caravan of soldiers and settlers, with their families and slaves, both Indian and Negro. Franciscan friars accompanied the caravan to care for the spiritual needs of the settlers and to convert the heathen.
They travelled north across Chihuahua and through the great gap in the mountains, El Paso del Norte. There they crossed the Rio Grande and swung east and north to avoid the river canyon. Finally they reached the upper valley with its Indian settlements and took possession of all the land, forcing the Pueblos to work as serfs in the fields they had once owned.
The Spanish brought herds of sheep, cattle, and horses to pasture on the desert ranges. Herding these animals was an endless task, for there were no fences of any kind on the pasture lands and no adequate material for building them until the invention of barbed wire some two and a half centuries later. Even the cultivated fields in the alluvial soil along the valley floor went unfenced from lack of material. Hence herdsmen were needed day and night to keep the flocks and herds from straying, to protect the animals from predators, and to keep them out of the growing crops.
Indian herdsmen proved adept at managing the sheep and goats, moving them to fresh pastures and holding them away from the fields. This they could do on foot; but the half-wild range cattle could be handled only by skilled vaqueros mounted on fleet, well-trained horses. Spain, in her colonial regulations, had decreed that no Indian should be permitted to own or ride a horse. Thus all the arduous work of handling the range cattle and range horses devolved on the Spanish men.