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Horses in America

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  • Horses in America

    Although horses originally evolved in North America (the wild horse Equus ferus and several species of stilt-legged horse - notably Equus francisci and Equus calobatus), they seem to have undergone several extinctions and re-populations back from Eurasia. They were finally hunted (maybe) to extinction at the end of the last ice age, around 10,000-12,000 years ago. Horses had never been domesticated by early native Americans and were regarded primarily as food.

    At the beginning of what is known as the “Columbian Exchange” when all kinds of new species of animals and plants were introduced to the Americas, there were no horses of any kind on the American continent. Horses (domesticated ones) were effectively reintroduced to the mainland by the conquistadore Cortés in 1519 via the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and a little later by De Coronado via New Mexico and De Soto via Florida around 1539-1540.

    It seems that a few horses got into native hands (escapees or by theft?) by about 1650, but Spanish law made it a crime for a native to own a horse. After the Pueblo revolt against the Spanish in New Mexico in 1680, the Spanish retreated in haste, leaving behind many of their horses and they began to run wild - mainly into western North America.

    The Pueblos learned horsemanship skills while enslaved to the Spanish and began raising large herds from which they sold and traded horses to the Kiowa and Comanche among others. There were horses as far north as Nebraska by the 1680s but it was some time before they were widely adopted for transportation (load-carrying, hunting, fighting) and the consequent dramatic revolution in lifestyle for many tribes.

    Apache groups from New Mexico also took horse herds to Kansas and all the way to the Dakotas, trading them for hides and other goods. When the Spanish returned, they were major participants in this trade. In general, most plains tribes didn’t acquire horses until the early 18th century. French traders reported that the Cheyenne in Kansas got their first horses in 1745, for example. In these times, horses would never have been regarded as food – they were a highly valuable commodity, referred to by some plains tribes as “sacred dogs”.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.