Indian Horse

Pawnee Indians and their Horses

The Indian Horse Culture
The introduction of the horse by the Europeans led to a period in history of the Great Plains Indian history called the Indian Horse Culture. The horse was introduced to the North American continent in the 1500's. To the Native American Indians, who lived the life of a Stone Age man, the horse and its use by men, was a wonder to behold.

It was at first referred to by the Native American Indians as the “Big Dog” or “God Dog”. The horse and rider team were seen as a godlike being. To retain this illusion for some years it was made illegal for a Native Indian to ride or own a horse. However, the Native American Indians soon acquired horses and this gave rise to the Indian Horse Culture. The Indian horse was often decorated in Horse War Paint in preparation for battle, as can be seen in these pictures.

Native American Culture - History of the Indian Horse Breeds
It is generally agreed that the horse was introduced to the North American continent by the Spanish in the 1500's. The horse was indispensable to the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez (1485 – 1547). The horses brought from Spain were a mixture of Barb, Arabian and Andalusian breeds.

  • The Barb Horse breed was Developed on the Barbary Coast of North Africa. The Barb is a desert horse with great hardiness and stamina
  • The versatile Arabian horse breed was developed in a desert climate by nomadic Bedouin people. Its speed, endurance and alertness made it highly suitable as a war horse
  • The Andalusian breed, also known as the Pure Spanish Horse, is strongly built and known for its prowess as a war horse. Andalusia was a region in southern Spain

The qualities of these horses, which became the American Indian Horse breed - the Mustang, were perfect for riding the great Plains and hunting buffalo.

  • The Mustang was a small hardy range horse of the Great Plains descended from a mix of horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish

History of the Indian Horse Culture
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and the horse, the Native American Indians were extremely limited in their ability to travel. They travelled on foot. Their only domesticated animals were their dogs which were sometimes used to haul an Indian's belongings on a travois, which was similar to a sled. The introduction of the horse transformed the Native American Indians into nomadic hunters and warriors - the Indian Horse Culture was born.

History of the Indian Horse - Migration to the North
At first it was difficult for an Indian to acquire a horse - horse stealing and horse raids were the first option. Horse stealing was seen as honorable by the Indians. A horse was of great value and the number of horses owned by an Indian gave him great prestige. The successful Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 forced the Spanish out of New Mexico and many of their horses were left behind. Famous tribes such as the Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, and other tribes in the area took full advantage of these horses. Horse trading became popular and the horses from the Southern regions soon started to spread to the North. By the 1700's the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Sioux. Crow, Shoshone, Mandan, Flathead, Nez Perce and Cree tribes had all acquired the horse and had become highly skilled horsemen. Native American Indians began to move or migrate onto the Great Plains, fully embracing the hunter-gatherer life style.

History of the Indian Horse - The Hunter Gatherer
The adoption of the Indian Horse Culture was an obvious progression for the Native American Indians. Their ability to hunt prior to the introduction of the horse was dependent on their ability to kill buffalo on foot. A dangerous and difficult task which they made easier by stampeding herds of buffalo and driving them off the edges of cliffs and drive the herd into a corral. Steep cliffs, with a corral or enclosure at the bottom, was called a piskun and was used by American Indians for driving large numbers of buffalo to their slaughter. The horse gave them the ability to hunt buffalo on horseback and adopt an efficient and lucrative hunter gatherer lifestyle.

The Buffalo Horse
The Buffalo Horse was trained to hunt bison. The Indians who rode these horses were called the Buffalo riders and were great horsemen. The Buffalo riders hunted with bows and arrows, they were able to aim twenty arrows in less time it would take to load a muzzle gun. Guns were not used for hunting buffalo until the 1870's when  breechloaders became available. The buffalo horses were so highly valued that they were always kept near to the owner and tethered just outside their tepees or even inside their lodges.

History of the Indian Horse - The Horse Culture
By the 1800's the Indian Horse Culture rose to its highest levels.  It brought about a change in class system. An individual Indian, not the tribe, owned the horses. This produced a new class system for Native American Indians which was based on the ownership of horses. Young Indian braves proved their prowess by acquiring a horse. A horse brought wealth to an individual Indian as well as bringing power and prestige. Excess horses were traded for goods or loaned to other members of the tribe. The ownership of horses also gave the Native American the ability to barter for additional wives. The herds of horses within a tribe could be increased by acquisitions from war parties, breeding and by trade. The Indian Horse culture brought about these changes in their culture, but it lasted less than 100 years.

Decline of the Indian Horse Culture
The decline of the Indian Horse culture was due to several reasons:

  • The Native Indians continued to make horse raids, angering the settlers
  • European Buffalo Hunters decimated the bison by the indiscriminate slaughter of these animals
  • Hunters were encouraged to slaughter buffalo. General Philip Sheridan (1831 -1888) was instrumental in fighting in the Indian Wars. Sheridan was quoted as saying 'The only good Indian I ever saw was dead'. He had no sympathy with either the Indian or the buffalo and also said ""Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance." The policy to kill or take Indian horses was also enforced
  • In the early 1800's there were approximately 50 million buffalo in North America. By the end of the 1800's the number of buffalo had dropped to less than one thousand
  • The slaughter of the buffalo resulted in the American Native Indian being deprived of their means of sustenance. Starving, they were forced to move to Indian reservations

The Indian Horse Culture had lasted for just under three hundred years - by 1900 it had disappeared.

Native American Culture
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