The Plains Indians Horses

Horse. The horse became a very important part of all of the Plains Indian tribes. Each family owned at least a few and every person learned how to ride at a very young age. Plains Indians were excellent foot hunters before they acquired the horse but this animal made it much easier to hunt the buffalo, move from place to place and defend the tribe. Dogs previously pulled travois for these nomadic tribes. Often the Indian pony found water in the plains for the tribe by digging in the earth with its hooves.

The American Indian's horse was likely a descendant of the Barb horses introduced into Spain by the invading Moors of the 8th Century. In the hands of the Indians they developed a personality of their own. They were not fed any grain like the white man's work horses but they soon became a distinct breed that was hardy, tough and with plenty of endurance and speed. They were called the Mustang and some still run free and wild in many western states of the USA.

The Indian pony wasn't very pretty. It was just at the point of measurement that could be considered to be a horse or pony, averaging about 14 hands high and weighing 700 pounds. [A hand is equivalent to a man's palm width, about 4 inches.] The mustang has a large head and barrel, unmanageable manes, heavy shoulders and hips, strong legs and small feet with strong hooves. Pinto and buckskin colored horses were most preferred by the Plains Indians.

"Until the horse fell into the American Indian's hands, all horses were trained on the world-wide theory of the time-domination; bigger spurs, nastier bits, bigger whips, greater restraints where the tools of the day.

The Indian reversed the theory and tried something totally new - training the horse with kindness. The Indian had to approach the horse without frightening him. He slowly let the horse become familiar with him and with his bow, arrows, leather thong bit and blanket. When it came time to mount the horse, the Indian would gently put his elbow on the horse's back and apply pressure for short periods of time. It may have taken weeks before the horse would let the rider mount, but that was okay with the Indian.

Many horses were taken into a river or lake until the water reached their shoulders-then the rider mounted. The horse might try to buck or jump, but the water kept him injury free, and after having his head under water a time or two, he quieted down nicely.

Horses and Indians seemed to possess a certain affinity for each other, I told Walter. The Indian didn't feed treats, or grain, or curry and groom and shampoo his horse, but he didn't confine him either. He worked his horse, but he also gave him freedom to graze and play and be a horse."

"It took months of hard work to ready a horse for use in hunting and warfare, and not every steed could meet the requirements. Any buffalo in good condition could outrun a mediocre horse. An acceptable mount must be able to run down its quarry in a mile or less. Since an untrained animal would shy and buck whenever it came close to buffalo, it had to be taught to race through a confusion of beasts and up to an enraged bull while guided by knee pressure alone. The hunter needed both hands free in war and in the chase, and in both instances he either let the reins drop on his horse's neck, tucked the loose ends in his belt, held them in his teeth, or locked them in the crook of his right arm.

Each warrior had to have at least one horse which was trained to a fine point for buffalo hunts and warfare. It became his best and favorite, and was usually too valuable to sell or trade. He guarded it like a treasure and picketed it just outside his tipi at night. After all, his existence and future depended upon it to an amazing degree. A buffalo and war horse was trained to stop instantly at a nudge of the knees or a tug from the rawhide thong, called a "war bridle," which was tied to the animal's lower jaw. But more than that thong was necessary, since racing through thundering herds over rough ground that was riddled with bushes, rocks, and hidden burrows portended frequent collisions and spills for the rider, so during battles and hunts a fifteen- to twenty-foot rope was often tied around the horse's neck so that its free end would drag behind the horse. When a falling rider seized the rope, his horse came to a sharp stop, and in a moment the man was on his feet and mounted again. Often one who had an especially valuable buffalo horse cut V-shaped notches in his ears."

"Between 1630 and 1770, Spanish horses and horse culture spread across the Great Plains. The Plains Indians' passion for stealing horses earned them honor and high adventure. It also fueled intertribal feuds that kept certain tribes locked in bitter retaliatory wars for generations. Since raids sometimes ended in pitched battles, young warriors had ample opportunity to display their courage. In 1833 a party of 40 Southern Cheyenne, bent on stealing Kiowa horses, was surprised by the Kiowa, who then killed, scalped, stripped and laid all 40 of them out on the ground for the wolves.

Among Southern Cheyenne, professional pride decreed that raiding parties should set out on foot, without horses, and travel mostly at night. After infiltrating the enemy's herd, they rode home triumphantly on stolen animals, driving a large horse herd before them. But the journey south to Comanche country was considered too long and dangerous to be made on foot by Indians living farther north than the upper Arkansas River, so a territorial system of theft and trade evolved.

Raiding as they did below the Mexican border, the Comanche and Apaches became noted for the quality of their horse herds. The Southern Cheyenne, living along the Arkansas River, were a mere eight "sleeps" away, so they usually targeted Comanche or Apache pony herds. Sometimes, out of spite, they stole Pawnee horses, because the Pawnees were the Cheyenne' bitterest ancestral foe. (One reason many Pawnees served gladly as U.S. Army scouts in the 19th century was because it gave them an excuse to hit back at their long-time enemies.)

The Northern Cheyenne and Sioux from the Black Hills region either raided the Southern Cheyenne horse herds or traded peacefully with these near relatives for mounts. Blackfoot, Flathead, Crow, Shoshone, Ute and Arapaho Indians, along with other northern tribes, usually stole their horses from the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. Farther west, the Nez Perce obtained horses from Shoshone herds and eventually became well known for their excellent mounts.

This rage for horses completely transformed the once cautious and ground-tied Plains tribes. From time immemorial they had all hunted on foot, many too frightened of enemy hunters to even venture out onto the buffalo plains. Then suddenly one day it seemed to be raining horses, and pony tracks were everywhere! The speed and exhilaration of riding made horses attractive, but it was more than that. The Plains Indians now needed horses to survive and prosper. Horse theft began to be regarded as high art. Certainly, it could earn young warriors the admiration of their people and the respect of their enemies."

Graphic from