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How The Indian Got The Horse

June 2024
15min read

One innovation profoundly changed—and prolonged—the culture of the Plains Indians

On Thursday, May 24, 1855, Lieutenant Lawrence Kip of the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Walla Walla in what is now Washington, made this entry in his diary:

This has been an extremely interesting day, as about 2,500 of the Nez Percé tribe have arrived. It was our first specimen of this Prairie chivalry, and it certainly realized all our conceptions of these wild warriors of the plains. Their coming was announced about 10 o’clock, and going out on the plain to where a flag staff had been erected, we saw them approaching in one long line. They were almost entirely naked, gaudily painted and decorated with their wild trappings. Their plumes fluttered about them, while below, skins and trinkets of all kinds of fantastic embellishments flaunted in the sunshine. Trained from early childhood almost to live upon horseback, they sat upon their fine animals as if they were centaurs. Their horses, too, were arrayed in the most glaring finery. They were painted with such colors as formed the greatest contrast; the white being smeared with crimson in fantastic figures, and the dark colors streaked with white clay. Beads and fringes, of gaudy colors were hanging from the bridles, while the plumes of eagle feathers interwoven with the mane and tail, fluttered as the breeze swept over them, and completed their wild and fantastic appearance.

This image of the proud Indian on his splendid horse, both of them splashed with gaudy war paint and adorned with feathered devices, seems to personify the spirit of the old West in those far-off times before the buffalo herds were all slaughtered and barbed wire had enclosed the high plains. Very probably young Lieutenant Kip, like most white people of his clay, accepted without question the idea that the Indians had always had horses. They were obviously an inseparable and essential element of Indian culture on the Great Plains; and indeed, the first Anglo-Americans to reach those areas, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, had found the mounted Indians already in full force. Yet in 1855 less than 150 years had passed since the first Nez Percé ever to mount a horse had taken his first daring ride.

The fossil discoveries of the later nineteenth century made it clear that, although prehistoric horses had roamed the western plains in large numbers for a million years, some odd, selective catastrophe wiped them out, along with camels, perhaps 15,000 years ago. Hence, when the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century rode their horses into the Southwest, the Indians gazed with wonder at the strange beasts. The process by which the native tribes adopted the animal, and consequently were able to hold the land against all intruders until the destruction of the buffalo herds starved them into submission, has been the subject of much speculation and dispute.

Until recent years historians and anthropologists accepted rather casually the theory that horses lost from early Spanish expeditions had, by natural increase, stocked the western ranges with wild bands that supplied the various Indian tribes with their animals. The favored choice for the supposed source of the breeding stock was either the expedition of Hernando de Soto or that of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, both of which reached the plains of Texas in 1541–42.

De Soto, after conquering Peru, had returned to Spain, married, and secured the governorship of Cuba, with the privilege of exploring and conquering Florida and the land to the north and west. His quest ended when he died of fever on the shore of the Mississippi River in May, 1542. The remnants of his forces, led by Luis Moscoso, travelled west and south to Texas in a vain attempt to reach Mexico overland. Failing in this, they returned to the Mississippi and built a fleet of seven brigantines on which they embarked with 22 horses, all that were left of their original 243.

As the Spaniards sailed down the river they killed the horses one by one for food, until only five or six of the best were left. These they turned loose in a small, grassy meadow near the mouth of the river. Legend would have it that these horses remembered the plains of Texas and wished to return there. They swam the river, splashed through a hundred miles of swamps and marshes, and finally reached open country with abundant grass. Here, supposedly, they settled down and reproduced at a prodigious rate. Soon their offspring covered the Texas plains and attracted the attention of the local Indians, who knew how to catch and train them from having seen the Spanish ride by on such animals years ago.

Stubborn facts undermine this pretty tale. First, one of the Spaniards in Moscoso’s party said later that Indians came out of the bushes and shot the liberated horses full of arrows even before the Spanish boats had passed beyond the next bend. Second, even if they had survived, the route to the west was impassable for horses, which in any case had no way of knowing the direction to take to reach Texas. Third, and finally, these war horses were all stallions. The Spanish rode no other kind to battle. For these reasons it is obvious that de Soto’s animals could not have stocked the western plains with horses, wild or tame.

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.


Each vaquero needed a riding string of twelve to fifteen horses to handle his job properly. These animals were not shod, and seldom tasted grain. A vaquero ’s mount needed several days of rest after each day of work, to regain his strength and to allow his hoofs to grow. Each Spanish family also needed several horses for transportation, for there were no carriage roads on the frontier. Many additional horses were needed for military patrols, and for exploring expeditions or the pursuit of raiding Indians. A large herd of breeding stock was necessary to supply all these animals.

The care of these thousands of horses required a good deal of menial labor, furnished, of course, by the Indians. Indian boys brought fresh horses in for their masters to use, and returned the tired ones to the corrals. They did the saddling, unsaddling, and rubbing down. They fed and watered the animals, and cleaned the stables and corrals. Sometimes a rancher, careless of the regulations forbidding an Indian to ride, would send a boy to help drive in a herd from the hills; sometimes, leaving on an extended journey, he would choose two or three Indians to ride with him —to look after the spare mounts and to handle the camp chores. In the face of emergencies the decrees of King Philip of Spain carried little weight on the frontier, far from the eyes of the nearest government official. So, in one way or another, the stable boys learned how to ride and how to handle horses.

Most of the Pueblo Indians resigned themselves to servitude under the Spanish. They had no place to run, no place to hide. But for a stable boy there was one avenue of escape if conditions became too harsh or masters too domineering; and his work with the horses seemed to breed in him more spirit than showed in the field hand. By watching for a favorable opportunity, the stable boy could slip away some dark evening with two or three of the best horses, and be off to an independent tribe, safe from effective pursuit. He might risk death or further enslavement, but there was always a good chance that the tribe would accept him and his horses. Then he could teach them the art of horsemanship, and could help his hosts secure more horses from the ranches.

With such a teacher, and some tame, well-trained horses to work with, the wild tribe could rapidly learn how to use this wonderful new mode of transport. Soon they would want more horses and would take their goods off to trade with the Spanish, as they had been doing for years. But the Spanish were reluctant to trade horses to the Indians: such trading took place in towns, under the eyes of Spanish colonial officials.

When the Spanish refused to exchange horses for dried meat and tanned robes, the Indians sought other articles of trade, and found one so valuable to the Spanish that the laws would be suspended in special cases. The Indians traded men.

The Spanish, in an effort to discourage the escape of Pueblo Indians, offered cloth and weapons for any runaways the wild tribes could capture. But the Indians soon learned that the Spanish would pay higher prices for mission Indians, and still higher prices to ransom Spaniards captured by the tribes. They demanded horses for such captives, and the priests argued with the civil authorities that it was better to bend the law a little than to leave Christians in heathen hands.

Thus, year by year, the tribes adjacent to the Spanish settlements learned to use horses, and slowly increased their herds. The first documentary evidence of the use of horses by Indians in the American West comes sixty-one years after the arrival of Oñate’s colony: In 1659 the governor at Sante Fe sent to Mexico City an official report of a raid from the northwest by a band of mounted Navaho Apaches.

Finally, in 1680, the Pueblo Indians rose up against their masters. They resented the brutal treatment, the forced labor, and, above all, the strict laws against their ancient religious ceremonies. A deposed medicine man, Pope, organized a widespread revolt, and on the appointed day the Pueblos attacked at many points in northern New Mexico, killing over 400 Spanish in the first attack. The 2,500 survivors withdrew to El Paso to wait for reinforcements from Mexico; but they had lost their homes, their farms, and all their herds to the Indians (see “Revolt in the Pueblos,” by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., in the June, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE ).

The Pueblo Indians found the horse herds an embarrassment of riches. They were hard to manage on the range, and they ate the grass needed for sheep. Moreover, the Pueblos had no use for as many horses as the Spanish had abandoned. They were willing to trade large numbers of them to the Plains tribes to the northeast, and to the Navahos and Utes to the northwest. The Pueblos also lacked the organization to patrol the ranges as the Spanish had done, and lost more horses to enemy raiders.


All through the Plains regions each band had friendly trade relations with two or three of its neighbors. A farming village would customarily trade with a hunting band to the south and another to the north. Each of these hunting bands in turn would trade with another farming village, the hunters in each case offering dried meat and buffalo robes for corn and squash. This helps to explain the rapid spread of horses to all the Plains tribes. The result was a basic pattern of horse culture, borrowed from the Spanish and common to all the western tribes using horses.

Typically, this trading pattern would provide each tribe at first with a few older, gentler horses. Nez Percé tradition, handed down by word of mouth to early white frontiersmen, gives an account of such an event. According to this story they got their first animal, a gentle white mare, from the Shoshone in the Boise Valley. Day after day the curious Nez Percés gathered from all around to watch the mare crop grass near the village. They learned how a horse acted: how it fed, how it exercised, how it rested. In a few weeks the mare dropped a foal, and the crowds increased. Soon other villages sent south for horses of their own, to be treasured as curiosities and pets. At The Dalles, Oregon, some two hundred miles down river from the Nez Percé, the first few horses were led around at festivals and were shown at the big dances. Later they were used as pack animals, and finally as riding horses.

Although details of the first contacts with horses among the Plains tribes have been lost, they must have followed the Nez Percé pattern. In each case it would take a tribe only about ten to fifteen years to learn how to use the great innovation, and to build up a substantial herd.

Horses made life far easier, richer, and more exciting for the Plains tribes. One good horseman in a morning hunt could kill enough buffalo to supply his family with meat for weeks, and robes for a year. Now tepees could be much larger, for a horse could carry a lodge-covering weighing 200 to 300 pounds, and drag the many long tepee poles needed to support it. The whole band now had more leisure time, and more chance to develop the special Plains culture which was in full flower by 1800.

As for the impact of the horse on Indian warfare, it would be difficult to exaggerate. With the tremendous increase in mobility and speed, the Plains warrior became a truly formidable foe. General Randolph B. Marcy, a Regular Army officer with many years of experience in the West, wrote this impression of the mounted Indian in his memoirs:

His only ambition consists in being able to cope successfully with his enemy in war and in managing his steed with unfailing adroitness. He is in the saddle from boyhood to old age, and his favorite horse is his constant companion. It is when mounted that the prairie warrior exhibits himself to the best advantage; here he is at home, and his skill in various manoeuvers which he makes available in battle —such as throwing himself entirely upon one side of his horse and discharging his arrows with great rapidity toward the opposite side from beneath the animal’s neck while he is at full speed—is truly astonishing.… Every warrior has his war-horse, which is the fleetest that can be obtained, and he prizes him more highly than anything else in his possession, and it is seldom that he can be induced to part with him at any price.

Farming tribes along the borders of the Plains found the horses almost as valuable as did their brothers to the west. They began to range farther from home in a seminomadic state for several months of each year, subsisting more on meat and less on corn. Added mobility increased their trading area and gave them a greater variety of goods. Some of them even gave up their old ways entirely and became true nomads of the Plains.

Chief among these wanderers were the Sioux. They are usually considered the typical Indian tribe of the northern Plains, yet as late as 1766 at least one large band of Sioux still lived in the lake and swamp district of Minnesota. They used bark huts for shelter and canoes for transportation; wild rice furnished most of their food. Within the next decade they gave up their canoes for horses, and their wild rice for buffalo. They moved out to the grasslands of North Dakota and developed spectacular riding costumes topped with the famous Sioux war bonnet.

This late acquisition of horses by the Yankton Sioux emphasizes the relatively slow northward movement of the horse frontier on the Great Plains. Many thousands of animals were needed to fill those vast grazing lands and to supply the numerous large tribes. Winter storms and fierce wolves took heavy toll of the colts, so most of the increase of the herds depended on fresh stock from the New Mexico ranches.

West of the Continental Divide the horse moved northward more rapidly. Here the Indians were few in number, and in the central areas their small valleys furnished scant pasture; hence within thirty years or so, the horses had moved north of Great Salt Lake to the fine stock ranges of the upper Snake Valley, where they multiplied rapidly. Here they had ample protection from the winter storms and predators were less of a problem than on the Plains. Even the desert plateau furnished ample forage in the winter when storms filled the water holes. This was the country of the western Shoshone, who in time furnished stock to all their neighbors, especially to the Crows, Blackfeet, and Nez Percé.

Once the Nez Percé secured some breeding stock they found that their country was even better for raising range horses than the upper Snake Valley. With excellent grass, ample water, and both summer and winter ranges, it cost them little effort to raise more horses than they could use. They learned to geld some of their poorer stallions, and this practice, combined with their fine range land, produced horses of superior quality.

Up to this time the Nez Percé had been a fishing tribe, living in about fifty small, permanent villages along the Snake River and its tributaries, the Clearwater and the Salmon. Once they learned to use horses, they became more adventurous. They opened a trail along the timbered ridges of the Bitterroot Range to reach the buffalo herds of Montana more than a hundred miles away. In Montana they soon met the Crows and Blackfeet, and later the Sioux. From each they borrowed items of Plains culture, until they had more in common with the Plains Indians than they did with their old neighbors in the fishing villages to the west.

From their ample herds the Nez Percé eventually supplied horses to all their neighbors—at a price, of course. Each year they would ride out to the various intertribal trading grounds with some of their excess stock. One such center was a hundred miles north of the Snake River, on the small plain where the Little Spokane River joins the main stream a few miles below the falls. Since the Spokanes and the Nez Percé were of different language groups, the bartering had to be carried on principally by signs. Each usual article of trade, including the average horse, had an established value, yet the trading was a leisurely process.

The Nez Percé lined up on one side, each man holding the lead rope of his “trading” horse. Each Spokane came forward and placed his pile of trade goods in front of the horse he liked. If the Nez Percé was satisfied, he handed over the lead rope and took the goods. If not, he might try for an extra article, or he might lead his horse to some other pile which interested him. It might take all of a pleasant summer day to trade forty horses, but this seemed to worry nobody.

The Nez Percé also traded horses as far west as The Dalles, and as far east as the Crow country in southern Montana. Later they traded mounts to the fur companies, and to travellers on the Oregon Trail.

George Catlin, the great painter of Indians in the early West, made an entry in his journal in 1834 that epitomizes what the horse did for the Indian. The artist had just encountered his first Comanches, and he soon concluded that they were the most extraordinary horsemen in the world. Dismounted, he wrote, they were “heavy and ungraceful … one of the most unattractive and slovenly-looking races of Indians that I have ever seen; but the moment they mount their horses, they seem at once metamorphosed, and surprise the spectator with the ease and elegance of their movements. A Camanchee on his feet is out of his element, and comparatively almost as awkward as a monkey on the ground, without a limb or a branch to cling to; but the moment he lays his hand upon his horse, his face , even, becomes handsome, and he gracefully flies away like a different being.”

One of the Spanish conquistadors, in the sixteenth century, had observed confidently: “Horses are what the Indians dread most, and by means of which they will be overcome.” He failed to foresee that the Indians would make the horse their own, and that thereby their native culture would not only be tremendously enhanced, but would nourish for over a hundred years before their warriors would be crushed by the advancing Anglo-Americans.


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