Horsin’ Around 9-21-09
Fort Collins, Colo.
Growing up watching Western movies, I thought that all horses were on this continent and ridden by Indians and cowboys. However that was not the case, when this continent lost the horse, it did not reappear until 1525 in the West Indies. Spanish importers brought them for the army sent to conquer this land. From the West Indies, conquistadors shipped them to the mainland of South America and Mexico, then from there they spread northwest into what is now the Southwest United States. Cortez used horses to conquer Mexico in 1519 and De Soto brought 237 horses to the United States in 1539 to explore the Southeastern part of the country.
Scientists determined that the foundation stock were added to Mexico and the southwest from West Indies because they were better acclimated than directly from Europe. Seventy-nine missions were established in the southeast about 1650 and horses stolen by English and Indian tribes spread horses northward. These Spanish horses were small, rather plain animals, but represented thousands of years of crude but selective breeding.
Plains Indians developed the most spectacular changes in the 1600s when tribes became mounted. They quickly developed into superb horse handlers and increased their range of hunting, fishing and food gathering. However their mobility encouraged raids and tribal wars. The hardy Mustang ponies flourished on native grass and extreme climatic conditions and could outdistance better fed U.S. Calvary horses in almost any situation.
Between 1750 and 1850 large horses were bred to pull Conestoga wagons to haul freight. These drivers were devoutly religious, heavy drinking, and hardy individuals who cared for their horses well. Drivers rode on the left side to free the whip hand and better visibility when meeting other vehicles or passing. Teamsters originated this practice of driving on the right side of the road.
If a teamster had to pull another out of the mud, they won the others coveted bells (harmonious, musical bells attached to the harness of each horse). This began the saying “I’ll be there with bells on.”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I watch many Western movies. Oh, I agree most of them are not worth watching because they do not follow how it really was but they have many horses in them. However, it was the U.S. Cavalry that helped tame the West and in many cases decided the outcome of battles. The best known cavalry horse was Comanche, the sole survivor of General George Custer’s last stand at the Little Bighorn River. Comanche was nursed back to health from multiple wounds, and shipped back to Fort Riley, Kan., for retirement.
There were thousands of horses and pack mules at the beginning of World War II; however, told to me by my Captain, the advent of the automatic weapon proved the use of horses in battle impractical due to heavy fire power. And few military decisions were more controversial, many high ranking officers like General George S. Patton were former cavalrymen. Some old troopers were reported to have committed suicide at losing their horses. However pack animals were used extensively in Sicily and Italy during the war. Also some mounted horsemen are used in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban.
But the best known U.S. Cavalry combat unit was the First Cavalry who gave up their horses in the South Pacific and performed with distinction as infantry and reconnaissance. They were allowed to the high privilege of being the first military unit to enter Tokyo, Japan to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare She Ain’t What She Used to Be,” played by the Marine Corps band.
*Note: The information in this article is based on information from the text book “Horses: A Practical and Scientific Approach” written by Melvin Bradley.
Prior to his retirement, Roger Thompson was a CHA certified instructor of advanced Western horsemanship and beginning English riding.
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