How the Horse Impacted the Plains Indians

CULTURE | July 6, 2019

Bison Hunt, by Alfred Jacob Miller, 1858, 19th Century, watercolour on paper, 24,1 x 38,5 cm. Source: (gettyimages.com)

One of the most common images in historical memory is that of an American Plains Indian sitting astride a mustang ready to hunt a herd of buffalo. Curiously, the horse was a relatively modern introduction to Plains Indian culture and demonstrates how the addition of a single new element can revolution societies.

Circa 1850: A woman attaches a small travois to a dog in front of a skin lodge or tepee in an Assiniboine encampment. Source: (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Before the Horse

Horses originated in the Western Hemisphere but became extinct at some point between 8 to 12 thousand years ago. Nomadic Indians, who lived on the wide expanses of the Great Plains, relied on their feet to travel and hunt while some sedentary tribes scratched a living through agriculture and seasonal hunting. To haul items and supplies, Indians either carried it themselves or employed an A-shaped travois pulled by a dog or human.

CIRCA 1908: Several Atsina on horseback riding across grassy plains. Source: (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The Sacred Dog

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors started to explore and subjugate lands in North America. They brought with them their primary means of transport – the horse. Horses at first were referred to as variations of Indian terms for “dog” since they were seen as just larger dogs. The Assiniboine called horses “great dogs.” The Gros Ventre called them “red dogs.” The Blackfeet called them “elk dogs.” The Lakota called them honk-a-waken, meaning “mystery dog” or “amazing dog.” Sometimes they called them “sacred dogs.”

You get the idea.

Appaloosa horse. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Spread of Horse Culture

Even though the Spanish outlawed the selling of horses to Indians, it was impossible to regulate. In fact, it was easier for the Spanish to regulate the sale of firearms to the Indian tribes than horses. Either horses were surreptitiously sold, stolen, or Indians would capture feral animals.

The first “Indian ponies” were lightweight, being less than 1,000 pounds and were captured, escapees. These were later bred with larger Spanish animals. Particular breeds, such as the Appaloosa, were bred by American Indians.  

A map showing the various tribes of the Great Plains. Source: (Wikimedia)

Horse Care and Training

American Indians first learned how to care for horses from the Spanish, starting with the Pueblo who tended them for colonists along the Rio Grande. Interestingly, the first tribes who obtained horses used them to pull travois although later they mastered horse riding and horse breeding. These skills soon disseminated with horses, stolen, sold, or captured.

Indians in training horses did not break them like Europeans but rather gentled them. Boys who cared for them stroked them, spoke to them, and played with them. Owners sung to horses or blew smoke from a pipe in its face. When a horse matured, intense training began, but it was still treated gently in this fashion even as it was prepared for war or hunting.

circa 1970: Armed Canadian Indians ride their horses across a grassy plain. Taken on location during a battle scene for the film Little Big Man. Source: (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)

The Advantages of the Horse

By the mid-1600s a full-blown horse-cultures were developing among Apache, Kiowa, Navajo, and Ute. Raiding for horses became commonplace and in 1659 the first reported attack by Indians on horseback against the Spanish at Santa Fe occurred.

By the 1700s the use of the horse by American Indians on the Great Plains had become widespread. The impact of the horse on Native Americans cannot be understated. The horse granted increased mobility and speed to allow for effective hunting against the immense herds of American bison (buffalo) that covered the Great Plains. Where before a tribe might cover a few miles on food a day, with the horse, a camp could be moved 30 miles in a day. 

Native Americans on horseback hunting bison by George Catlin. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Horses too were a beast of burden and allowed Indians to carry more equipment and goods. In fact, some sedentary tribes like the Dakota and Cheyenne, gave up village life and agriculture in favor of a nomadic existence, choosing to follow the migrating herds which they could not have done before. Fixed lodges became replaced by large tipis.

Indians traded and raided for horses. The Pawnee, in particular, was known as horse traders. Horses became a symbol of affluence and prestige. It also was the main reason why tribes would raid from one another. And the buffalo became the centerpiece of the Indian economy.   

Sioux tipi, watercolor by Karl Bodmer, ca. 1833. Source: (Wikipedia)

 A Period of Prosperity

The horse also impacted Great Plains culture. The Apaches incorporated them into their oral mythology labeling them as a gift from the gods. According to historian Brian Fagan, the horse created an imbalance in Indian society, “The millennia-old communal values that stressed cooperation in large groups for survival gave way to highly individualistic doctrines and smaller bands that pitted family against family, with little concern for the common welfare…. Hunter vied with hunter for the allegiance of followers and fellow warriors. A flamboyant, almost frenzied era of Plains life dawned, one where most nomadic groups believed old age was evil, that it was better for a man to die in battle.”

This was also a period of prosperity as where before Indians eked by in a harsh land in a subsistence economy, they now saw an explosion of art and ornamental culture.

What is most shocking is how quickly the horse transformed the Plains Indians into one of the greatest horse-riding societies in world history. 

Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830–1902), The Last of the Buffalo, c. 1888, oil on canvas, 153 × 245.1 cm (60.2 × 96.5 in), Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming. Source: (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The End of the Horse Cultures

This horse culture too granted the Indian Tribes of the Plains strength and help it resist the incursions of a growing United States, for a little while. However, by the 1860s the sunset of this golden age of horse culture was coming to a close. Fur traders exchanged firearms for beaver pelts and in doing so gave the means to winnow the great herds of buffalo. This was exacerbated by the railroad with excursion trains where white hunters with repeating rifles would shoot into seemingly inexhaustible seas of bison.

But by the end of the 19th century, the bison had dwindled to a handful and the buffalo-economy and horse culture of the Great Plains American Indian had come to a close.

Tags: horses | indians

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.