How Horses Galloped Their Way Into American History
Updated: May 14, 2021
WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
When the writers asked if I would do a blog about horses, I thought it would be amazing to have an interview with one! But when I asked my friend’s horse, he declined, saying, “Neigh.”
I know, I know, I’m hilarious. The interview part was a joke, but the blog topic isn’t! Today we’re going to dive into the history of the horse, discovering how they trotted their way into America, changing everything from hunting to mail to police.
When Columbus and his gang of Spaniards first reached Hispaniola (a Caribbean island in the West Indies) in 1492, they brought with them a creature never before seen by the Native American tribes: a horse. Columbus quickly realized that allowing the Carib natives access to horses would be disastrous to him, for they were a fierce, intelligent people with excellent war knowledge and vicious fighting skills. (History whispers that they may have even been cannibals.) He did his best to keep the Spaniards (quite literally) above the native tribes, until 1680, when the Pueblo tribe of Sante Fe had had enough of the tyrannical Spanish rule. They were an otherwise peaceful people, focusing on family tradition, farming, and crafts; however, when they finally rose against the Spanish, they were brutal fighters. They drove the Spanish from their lands and captured their horses, and that act of resistance would change the course of the future.
Finally, in possession of the powerhouse they called the “elk dog”, “sky dog”, or “holy dog”, every aspect of their lives shifted. Quick to trade this gift with other tribes, horses galloped up from South America into the desert of the Southwest, the plains of the Midwest, and the mountains of the Northwest. Hunting buffalo, usually a dangerous and often unfruitful sport, completely evolved with the use of the horse. Warriors were now at the same eye level as their prey, could run at their same speed, and were less at risk of being trampled. The more buffalo the tribes brought in, the more meat their families could eat, and the more skin and bone their women could trade and create useful tools with. Trading boomed. Workloads were eased, giving women more time to create art that we can still appreciate today. Higher honors were granted to warriors who could master a horse, more deeply rooting the beautiful native traditions that are still upheld today (see our Native American episode for more!).
Cue the fast-forward sound effect! Skipping ahead to 1860, you’ll see that horses are just as exciting in that booming American economy. The introduction of the short-lived Pony Express spiked horses’ value to $5 per half-ounce of mail, the modern-day equivalent of about $130. So for such a high price, riders were held up to the highest standards: weighing between 100 and 125 pounds, they must be courageous enough to deal with Native American attacks, deft enough to maneuver reigns at top speeds, and honest enough to uphold the views of the Express company. Upon entry into the riding force, all were expected to take the following oath:
“I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”
The horses themselves were also held to a high standard. Morgan horses, known for their calm temperaments, long-endurance, and tireless loyalty, were a top choice for the Express. However, when it came to the tougher terrains of the desert—where steep climbs and looming danger were the main obstacles—the Mustang was the most popular breed for the job. Horses had to be able to run at top speed, up to 25 miles per hour, carrying a rider and baggage for extended periods of time. However, Russell, Majors, and Waddell recognized the importance of caring for their horses in order to produce the most efficient and speedy mail line, so they set up around 200 relief stations from Missouri to California.
Remember that oath the riders had to take? Let’s play a little game called “Which of These Things Did the Pony Express Riders Actually Do in Reference to the Oath?”. Did they:
Uphold the oath and ride across the country as respectful gentlemen?
Get the oath tattooed on their lower backs?
Take the oath but then act so wildly that they spark the legend of the Wild West?
If you guessed C), you would be absolutely correct! If you happened to read my blog about trains, you’d remember that the over-worked, under-paid immigrants building the Transcontinental Railroad inspired many of the tales of the Wild West with their pop-up towns, every-man-for-himself-attitudes, and constant fighting with each other and the Native American tribes. That is absolutely true, but looking back even further into history tells us that legends such as Buffalo Bill, Lonestar cowboys, and horseback gunfights actually began within the year that the Pony Express was in operation--no doubt due to the wild nature of the riders. Though they swore to uphold the most gentlemanly of actions, with each relief station blossomed a new pop-up town, another drunk young man, another gunfight. And as the Pony Express spread across the West, so did they, leaving the legends of the Wild West in their wake.
In that same timeframe of the 1800s, American police forces adopted the European and English method of “mounted police”, or police on horseback. While most places in the US have dissolved their horse-back departments, many countries in Europe still use horses as a regular part of their police patrol. For instance, my family and I were vacationing in France a few years ago, strolling down the Champs Élysées in Paris, when we heard the sound of hoofbeats on the cobblestones. Luckily, we turned around just in time to see a policeman coming down the sidewalk at a full gallop into the crowd. We all scattered in different directions and watched as the officer singled out a random man in the crowd, yelling angrily at him in French, then grabbing him by the back of his shirt and literally dragging him off the road and away on the horse. Honestly, I have no idea what that guy did, but it must have been something pretty serious. And for my first experience with mounted police, it was terrifying! Horses look WAY bigger in real life than they do in pictures, let me tell you. Word to the wise: don’t do anything illegal in France. Or, in general, obviously, but especially not in France, unless you happen to like being charged at by a very scary Frenchman on a horse.
Nowadays, horses aren’t a part of most people’s everyday lives. We have motorized vehicles instead of horse-drawn carriages, laws prohibiting the hunting of wild buffalo, and modern police forces. Mail is carried by car, boat, or plane. With the passing of time and the invention of more efficient tools,, horses have become less and less useful to the American citizen. However, that doesn’t make their species any less valuable or their history any less rich! To learn more about the history of horses in America, check out Season 1, Episode 5 of Reconnecting Roots: “Horse Power”! You can check your local provider to catch us on the air, or stream for free on-demand at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots!