Indians and the Horse

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INDIANS AND THE HORSE. Spaniards brought horses to the Americas, but traditional Indian stories about the acquisition of the horse do not begin with a bow toward the Iberian Peninsula. Rather, the stories speak of the holy people or brave individuals within the community who bestowed or obtained these remarkable animals. In the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Plateau regions, the horse made possible new horizons and new dreams for Native communities.

During the 1600s, Indian peoples began acquiring horses and realizing their potential for the hunt, for transportation, and for war. Given the Spanish presence in the South, horses moved through Indian Country from south to north, and Santa Fe was a vital center for the trade. Through trade and purchase, by "borrowing" and raiding, Indians began to gain sufficient horses for their purposes. The results could be dramatic, and in no location were they more dramatic than in the Plains. In this area successful farming communities like the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras had held the advantage. With the arrival of horses (and new diseases like smallpox), such sedentary communities suddenly were vulnerable, and other peoples like the Lakotas and the Cheyennes became dominant. In the Southwest, Pueblo communities now had to confront newly powerful groups like the Apaches, the Navajos, and the Comanches. Although horses transformed daily life, they did not necessarily change central values. An individual among the Cheyennes still sought to be generous and to be courageous; the horse allowed new means of achieving those objectives.

Horses therefore are associated with an era of Native ascendancy, and Indians on horseback became indelibly stamped in the American public memory as a central representation of who Indians were. In film, in art, and in imagination, Indians on horses chased buffalo, rode over ridges to ambush the army, and accompanied the wind. In the twenty-first century, filmmakers, artists, and storytellers continued to seize upon this element in their renditions of Native life. Their depictions suggested that "real" Indians are on horseback rather than in pickup trucks.

When Indian peoples were confined to reservations in the second half of the nineteenth century, horses remained important. Indian family names like Riding In (Pawnee), Her Many Horses (Lakota), and Buckinghorse (Navajo) exemplified the significance of horses. Many Native groups turned to cattle ranching as a central economic and cultural activity and of course employed horses. Horse racing proved a popular pastime at newly organized gatherings like Crow Fair. Indians started to compete in rodeos, and legendary cowboys like Jackson Sundown (Nez Perce), George Defender (Lakota), Sam Bird-in-Ground (Crow), and Tom Three Persons (Blood) achieved great success. The Native fondness for horses encouraged the proliferation of tribal herds with consequent complications in regard to soil erosion. During the New Deal era, the commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, attempted to eradicate horses, but he met stiff resistance from the Navajos and other tribes. The Navajos in fact applied a new term to the worst-looking horses, the ones with little economic value but whose owners liked having them around. They called them "john colliers."

Indian communities became more urban by the twenty-first century, but demographic and technological change did not diminish the appeal of horses. Cattle ranching remained important on some Indian reservations, and rodeos continued to involve thousands of Native men, women, and children. A good horse is the key to success in roping events, steer wrestling, and barrel racing and thus to bringing honor to self, family, and community. Indian artists portray horses in all the colors of the rainbow, not only black, white, and brown but also blue and red. Children learn that horses are a sacred gift that represents a cultural obligation. The Crow Fair features an endless parade of horses, and john colliers live in pastures a few miles north of Nazlini. Horses thus have endured as symbols of Indian identity and significant parts of Indian life.


Holder, Preston. The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Iverson, Peter. When Indians Became Cowboys: Native Peoples and Cattle Ranching in the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

———. Riders of the West: Portraits from Indian Rodeo. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.


See alsoIndian Economic Life ; Indian Social Life ; Warfare, Indian .

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Indians and the Horse

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