Section 1: Introduction

Horses evolved in North America. They went through many stages; they evolved from three-toed to one-toed and grew in size. They were well-adapted to the grasslands of North America when they disappeared from the continent. Scientists do not know why horses disappeared. It may have been because of some ecological disaster, disease, over-hunting by humans, or all three. Paleontologists have discovered that some North American horses migrated westward and crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Asia where they prospered. Whatever the cause, there were no horses (Equus species) in North America from about 13,000 years ago until about 1520 A.D.

When Columbus made his second expedition to the Caribbean islands, he brought horses, but it is doubtful that any of those animals were released on the continent. In 1519, however, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) brought horses into the southern Great Plains of the continental mainland. Horses had returned to North America, but they were now domesticated animals trained to work for humans.

Spanish explorers, missionaries, and rancheros kept horses for transportation, for beasts of burden, and for farm work. Some historians believe that some of these horses escaped from the ranches and began to live as wild animals. Though domesticated, horses had no trouble finding the food and water they needed. Spanish horses quickly picked up the behavioral traits of wild horses. Wild herds were soon established in the American West

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Image 1: This intricately braided rope, or horse rein, was made from red (sorrel), black, and white horse hair. It was probably used only for ceremonial purposes. This rope is in the collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. SHSND Museum 10934.

Many tribal historians believe that Indians seldom captured and trained wild horses. More likely, Indians, especially Navajos, raided Spanish towns and ranches to acquire trained horses. Sometimes ranchers abandoned their horses which Indians later captured.

Trade between tribes brought horses north from New Mexico. The Shoshonis (who now live in Montana) often made journeys south to trade for horses. Their trade involved more than horses. They also traded buffalo robes and other goods for bridles and saddles. Using the Spanish model, American Indians made their own bridles and saddles.

By 1680, horses had moved as far north as modern Nebraska. By 1770, the tribes of the Upper Missouri River country had acquired horses. By 1800, horses had become incorporated into the life ways of Indian tribes and were part of a web of trading and raiding among the tribes.

Horses brought great advantages to Indian tribes. (See Image 1.) Hunters could travel farther to find bison herds. Horses added speed and efficiency to the bison hunt. They carried heavier and larger burdens than a dog or human could carry.

However, horses also brought disadvantages. Horses competed with bison for grass and water. Horses could go only where there was enough grass and water for the herd which limited the destinations of the nomadic tribes. They required grass or cottonwood tree bark for winter feed. Riders were occasionally injured by a fall from a horse.

Like metal goods and guns, horses arrived on the northern Great Plains in advance of non-Indians.  Though horses and other European trade goods brought many advantages, they were also a sign that white soldiers and settlers would soon follow.