Horses of the Plains
Written and Illustrated by Frederic Remington
from The Century, a popular quarterly, Volume 37, Issue 3, January 1889

To men of all ages the horse of northern Africa has been the standard of worth and beauty and speed. It was bred for the purpose of war and reared under the most favorable climatic conditions, and its descendants have infused their blood into all the strains which in our day are regarded as valuable. The Moors stocked Spain with this horse, and the so-called Spanish horse is more Moorish than otherwise. It is fair to presume that the lightly armored cavaliers of the sixteenth century, or during the Spanish conquests in America, rode this animal, which had been so long domesticated in Spain, in preference to the inferior northern horse. To this day the pony of western America shows many points of the Barbary horse to the exclusion of all other breeding. His head has the same facial line; and that is a prime point in deciding ancestry in horses. Observe, for instance, the great dissimilarity in profile displayed by old plates of the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian, two famous sires, kings of their races, the one a Barb and the other an Arabian.

In contemplating the development of the horse, or rather his gradual adjustment to his environment, no period more commends itself than that of the time from the Spanish invasion of Mexico to the present day. The lapse of nearly four centuries and the great variety of dissimilar conditions have so changed the American bronco from his Spanish ancestor that he now enjoys a distinctive individuality. This individuality is also subdivided; and as all types come from a common ancestry, the reasons for this varied development are sought with interest, though I fear not always with accuracy. Cortes left Cuba on his famous expedition with sixteen horses, which were procured from the plantations of that island at great expense.

The First of the Race, drawing by Frederic Remington

The First of the Race, drawing by Frederic Remington

As a matter of course these horses did not contribute to the stocking of the conquered country, for they all laid down their lives to make another page of military history in the annals of the Barbary horse. Subsequent importations must have replenished the race. Possibly the dangers and expense attendant on importation did not bring a very high grade of horses from Spain, though I am quite sure that no sane Don would have preferred a coarse-jointed great Flemish weight-carrier for use on the hot sands of Mexico to a light and supple Barb, which would recognize in the sand and heat of his new-world home an exact counterpart of his African hills. As the Spaniards worked north in their explorations, they lost horses by the adverse fortunes of war and by their straying and being captured by Indians. At a very early date the wild horse was encountered on the plains of Mexico, but a long time elapsed before the horse was found in the north. LaSalle found the Comanches with Spanish goods and also horses in their possession, but on his journey to Canada it was with great difficulty that he procured horses from the Indians farther north. In 1680, or contemporaneously with LaSalle's experience in the south, Father Hennepin lived with the Sioux and marched and hunted the buffalo on foot.

Indian Pony Pulling a Travaux by Frederic Remington

Indian Pony Pulling a Travaux by Frederic Remington

At a much later day a traveler heard the Comanches boast that they "remembered when the Arapahoes to the north used dogs as beasts of burden." That horses were lost by the Spaniards and ran in a wild state over the high, dry plains of Mexico and Texas at an early day is certain; and as the conditions of life were favorable, they must have increased rapidly. How many years elapsed before the northern Indians procured these animals, with which they are so thoroughly identified, is not easily ascertainable. Cheyenne Indians who were well versed in that tribal legend which is rehearsed by the lodge fire in the long winter nights have told me gravely that they always have had horses. I suspect that this assertion has its foundation in the vanity of their cavalier souls, for the Cheyenne legend runs very smoothly, and has paleface corroboration back to a period when we know that they could not have had horses.

Only on the plains has the horse reached his most typical American development. The range afforded good grass and they bred indiscriminately, both in the wild state and in the hands of the Indians, who never used any discretion in the matter of coupling the best specimens, as did the Indians of the mountains, because of the constant danger of their being lost or stolen, thus making it unprofitable. Wild stallions continually herded off the droves of the Indians of the southern plains, thus thwarting any endeavor to improve the stock by breeding. It is often a question whether the "pinto" or painted pony of Texas, is the result of a pinto ancestry, or of a general coupling of horses of all colors. The latter, I think, is the case, for the Barb was a one-color horse, and the modern horsebreeder in his science finds no difficulty in producing that color which he deems the best. The Comanches, Wichitas, and Kiowas hold that stallion in high esteem which is most bedecked and flared by blotches of white hair on the normal color of his hide. The so-called Spanish horse of northern Mexico is less apt to show this tendency towards a parti-colored coat, and his size, bone, and general development stamp him as the best among his kind, all of which qualities are the result of some consideration on the part of man with a view to improve the stock. The Mexicans on their Indian-infested frontier kept their horses close herded; for they lived where they had located their ranches, desired good horses, and took pains to produce them. The sires were well selected, and the growing animals were not subjected to the fearful setbacks attendant on passing a winter on the cold plains, which is one of the reasons why all wild horses are stunted in size. Therefore we must look to the Spanish horse of northern Mexico for the nearest type to the progenitors of the American bronco. The good representatives of this division are about fourteen and a half hands in stature; of large bone, with a slight tendency to roughness; generally bay in color; flat-ribbed, and of great muscular development; and, like all the rest, have the Barbary head, with the slightly oval face and fine muzzle.

Nearly identical with this beast is the mustang of the Pacific coast--a misnomer, by the bye, which for a generation has been universally applied by fanciful people to any horse bearing a brand. This particular race of horses, reared under slightly less advantageous circumstances than the Spanish horse of old Mexico was famous in early days; but they are now so mixed with American stock as to lose the identity which in the days of the Argonauts their pride.

Old-time Mountain Man with his ponies, by Frederic Remington

An Old-time Mountain Man with his Ponies, Frederic Remington

The most inexperienced horseman will not have to walk around the animal twice in order to tell a Texas pony; that is, one which is full bred, with no admixture. He has fine deer-like legs, a very long body, with a pronounced roach just forward of the coupling, and possibly a glass eye and a pinto hide. Any old cowboy will point him out as the only creature suitable for his purposes. Hard to break, because he has any amount of latent devil in his disposition, he does not break his legs or fall over backwards in the pitching process as does the cayuse of the Northwest. I think he is small and shriveled up like a Mexican because of his dry, hot habitat, over which he has to walk many miles to get his dinner. But, in compensation, he can cover leagues of his native plains, bearing a seemingly disproportionately large man, with an ease both to himself and to his rider which is little short of miraculous.

I tried on one occasion to regenerate a fine specimen of the southern plains sort, and to make a pretty little cob of the wild, scared bundle of nerves and bones which I had picked out of a herd. I roached his mane and docked his tail, and put him in a warm stall with half a foot of straw underneath. I meted out a ration of corn and hay which was enough for a twelve-hundred workhorse in the neighboring stall. I had him combed and brushed and wiped by a good-natured man, who regarded the proceeding with as much awe as did the pony. After the animal found out that the corn was meant to be eaten, he always ate it; but after many days he was led out, and, to my utter despair, he stood there the same shy, perverse brute which he always had been. His paunch was distended to frightful proportions, but his cat hams, ewe neck, and thin little shoulders were as dry and hard as ever. Mentally he never seemed to make any discrimination between his newly found masters and the big timber wolves that used to surround him and keep him standing all night in a bunch of fellows.

Broncos and Timber Wolves by Frederic Remington

Broncos and Timber Wolves by Frederic Remington

On the whole it was laughable, for in his perversity he resisted the regenerating process much as any other wild beast might. For all that, these animals are "all sorts of a horse" in their own particular field of usefulness, though they lack the power of the Spanish horse. Once in Arizona I rode one of the latter animals, belonging to Chief Ascension Rios of the Papagoes, at a very rapid gallop for twenty-four miles, during the middle of the day, through the desert sand. The thermometer stood as high as you please in the shade, and the hot sun on the white sand made the heat something frightful; and personally I am not noted for any of the physical characteristics which distinguish a fairy. At the end of the journey I was confirmed in the suspicion that he was a most magnificent piece of horse-flesh for a ride like that, and I never expect to see another horse which can make the trip and take it so lightly to heart. He stood there like a rock, and was as good as at starting, having sweat only a normal amount. The best test of a horse is, not what he can do, but how easily he can do it. Some of the best specimens of the horse and rider which I have ever had occasion to admire were Mexican vaqueros, and I have often thought the horses were more worthy than the men.

Spanish Horse of Northern Mexico, drawing by Frederic Remington

Spanish Horse of Northern Mexico, by Frederic Remington

The golden age of the bronco was ended some twenty years ago when the great tidal wave of Saxonism reached his grassy plains. He was rounded up and brought under the yoke by the thousand, and his glories departed. Here and there a small band fled before man, but their freedom was hopeless. The act of subjugation was more implied than real, and to this day, as the cowboy goes out and drives up a herd of broncos to the corral, there is little difference between the wild horse of old and his enslaved progeny. Of course the wild stallion is always eliminated, and he alone was responsible for the awe which a wild horse inspired. As I have before remarked, the home of the Simon-pure wild horse is on the southern plains, and when he appears elsewhere he has been transported there by man and found his freedom later on. I have found food for reflection in tracing the causes of the varied development of these broncos under different conditions. A great many of the speculations in which I indulge may be faulty, as they deal with a subject not widely investigated by any more learned savants than one is apt to find about the fires of the cow camps in the far West. One must not forget, also, that the difficulty increases as years pass, because the horses are driven about from one section to another, and thus crossed with the stock of the country until in a very few years they became a homogeneous type. The solutions to these problems must always be personal views, and in no sense final. One thing is certain: of all the monuments which the Spaniard has left to glorify his reign in America there will be none more worthy than his horse. This proposition I have heard combated, however, by a person who had just been bucked violently from the back of a descendant of the Barbs. He insisted that the Spaniards had left little to glorify their reign in America, least of all their miserable scrubby ponies. Nevertheless, the Spaniards' horses may be found today in countless thousands, from the city of the Montezumas to the regions of perpetual snow; they are grafted into our equine wealth and make an important impression on the horse of the country.

There is a horse in the Indian Territory, Arkansas, and Missouri, called the Cherokee pony, which is a peculiar animal. Of low stature, he is generally piebald, with a great profusion of mane and tail. He is close set, with head and legs not at all of the bronco type, and I know that his derivation is from the East, though some insist on classing him with our Western ponies; but he is a handsome little beast, easily adapts himself to surroundings, and is in much favor in the Eastern markets as a saddle pony for boys and for ladies carts.

The Indian Pony, drawing by Frederic Remington

The Indian Pony by Frederic Remington

The most favorable place to study the pony is in an Indian camp, as the Indians rarely defeat the ends of nature in the matter of natural selection; and further, the ponies are allowed to eat the very greenest grass they can find in the summer time, and to chew on a cottonwood saw-log during the winter, with perfect indifference on the part of their owners. The pony is thus a reflex of nature, and, coupled with his surroundings, is of quite as much interest as the stretch of prairie grass, the white lodges, and the blanketed forms. The savage red man in his great contest with nature has learned, not to combat nature, but to observe her moods and to prepare a simple means of escape. He puts up no fodder for the winter, but relies on the bark of the cottonwood. Often he is driven to dire extremity to bring his stock through the winter. I have been told that in the Canadian Northwest the Blackfeet have bought grain for their ponies during a bad spell of weather, which act implies marvelous self-denial, as the cost of a bushel of oats would bring financial ruin on any of the tribe. Before the early grass starts in the spring the emaciated appearance of one of these little ponies in the far Northwest will sorely try the feelings of an equine philanthropist should he look along the humpy ribs and withered quarters. But alack! when the young grass does shoot, the pony scours the trash which composes his winter diet, sheds his matted hair, and shines forth another horse. In a month "Richard's himself again," ready to fly over the grassy sward with his savage master or to drag the travaux and pack the buxom squaw.

Indian Pony (rear view), by Frederic RemingtonYet do not think that at this time the Indian pony is the bounding steed of romance; do not be deluded into expecting the arched neck, the graceful lines, and the magnificent limbs of the English hunter, for, alas! they are not here. They have existed only on paper. He may be all that the wildest enthusiast may claim in point of hardihood and power, as indeed he is, but he is not beautiful. His head and neck join like the two parts of a hammer, his legs are as fine as a deer's, though not with the flat knee-cap and broad cannonbone of the English ideal. His barrel is a veritable tun, made so by the bushels of grass which he consumes in order to satisfy nature. His quarters are apt to run suddenly back from the hips, and the rear view is decidedly mulish about the hocks. The mane and the tail are apt to be light, and I find that the currycomb of the groom has a good deal to do in deciding on which side of the horse's neck the mane shall fall; for on an Indian pony it is apt to drop on the right and the left, or stand up in the middle in perfect indecision. The Indian never devotes any stable-work to his mount, although at times the pony is bedecked in savage splendor. Once I saw the equipment of a Blackfoot war pony, composed of a mask and bonnet gorgeous with red flannel, brass-headed tacks, silver plates, and feathers, which was art in its way.

Horse of the Canadian Northwest by Frederic Remington

As we go very far into the Canadian Northwest we find that the interminable cold of the winters has had its effect, and the pony is small and scraggy, with a disposition to run to hair that would be the envy of a goat. These little fellows seem to be sadly out of their reckoning, as the great northern wastes were surely not made for horses; however, the reverse of the proposition is true, for the horses thrive after a fashion and demonstrate the toughness of the race. Unless he be tied up to a post, no one ever knew an Indian pony to die of the cold. With his front feet he will paw away the snow to an astonishing depth in order to get at the dry herbage, and by hook or by crook he will manage to come through the winter despite the wildest prophecies on the part of the uninitiated that he cannot live ten days in such a storm.

Ponies Pawing in the Snow by Frederic Remington

Ponies Pawing in the Snow by Frederic Remington

The Indian pony often finds to his sorrow that he is useful for other purposes than as a beast of burden, for his wild masters of the Rocky Mountains think him excellent eating. To the Shoshonees the particular use of a horse was for the steaks and the stews that were in him; but the Indian of the plains had the buffalo, and could afford, except in extreme cases, to let his means of transportation live. The Apaches were never "horse Indians," and always readily abandoned their stock to follow the mountains on foot. In early times their stock-stealing raids into Mexico were simply foraging expeditions, as they ate horses, mules, cattle, and sheep alike. In the grassy valleys of the northern Rocky Mountains, walled in as they are by the mountain ranges, horse-breeding was productive of good, and was followed. Thus the "cayuse," a fine strain of pony stock, took its name from a tribe, though it became disseminated over all that country. As it was nearly impossible for the Indians to steal each other's horses on every occasion, the people were encouraged to perpetuate the good qualities of their favorite mounts.

A "Cayuse" by Frederic Remington

A "Cayuse" by Frederic Remington

The cayuse is generally roan in color, with always a tendency this way, no matter how slight. He is strongly built, heavily muscled, and the only bronco which possesses square quarters. In height he is about fourteen hands; and while not possessed of the activity of the Texas horse, he has much more power. This native stock was a splendid foundation for the horse-breeders of Montana and the Northwest to work on, and the Montana horse of commerce rates very high. This condition is not, however, all to the credit of the cayuse, but to a strain of horses early imported into Montana from the West and known as the Oregon horse, which breed had its foundation in the mustang.

In summing up for the bronco I will say that he is destined to become a distinguished element in the future horse of the continent, if for no other reason except that of his numbers. All over the West he is bred into the stock of the country, and of course always from the side of the dam. The first one or two crosses from this stock are not very encouraging, as the blood is strong, having been bred in and in for so many generations. But presently we find an animal of the average size, as fine almost as a thoroughbred, with his structural points corrected, and fit for many purposes. He has about the general balance of the French ponies of Canada or perhaps a Morgan, which for practical purposes were the best horses ever developed in America. At this stage of the development of the bronco he is no longer the little narrow-shouldered, cat-hammed brute of his native plains, but as round and square and arched as "anybody's horse," as a Texan would express it. In this shape I see him ridden in Central Park, and fail to see but that he carries himself as gallantly as though his name were in the Stud-Book. I often see a pair of these horses dragging a delivery wagon about on the pavements, and note the ease with which they travel over many miles of stone-set road in a day. I have also a particular fad which I would like to demonstrate, but will simply say that this horse is the ne plus ultra for light cavalry purposes. In the Department of Arizona they have used many Californian horses, and while some officers claim that they are not as desirable as pure American stock, I venture to think that they would be if they were used by light cavalry and not by dragoons.

A Bronco in Central Park by Frederic Remington

A Bronco in Central Park by Frederic Remington

In intelligence the bronco has no equal, unless it is the mule, though this comparison is inapt, as that hybrid has an extra endowment of brains, as though in compensation for the beauty which he lacks. I think that the wild state may have sharpened the senses of the bronco, while in domestication he is remarkably docile. It would be quite unfair to his fellows to institute anything like a comparison without putting in evidence the peculiar method of defense to which he resorts when he struggles with man for the mastery. Everyone knows that he bucks, and familiarity with that characteristic never breeds contempt. Only those who have ridden a bronco the first time it was saddled, or have lived through a railroad accident, can form any conception of the solemnity of such experiences. Few Eastern people appreciate the sky-rocket bounds, and grunts, and stiff-legged striking, because the bucking process is entered into with great spirit by the pony but once, and that is when he is first under the saddle-tree. If that scrape is ridden out by his master his spirit is broken; and while he may afterwards plunge about, he has intelligence enough not to kick against the pricks.

His greatest good quality is the ease with which he stands any amount of hard riding over the trail; and this is not because of any particular power which he has over the thoroughbred, for instance, but because of his "hard stomach." He eats no grain in the growing stages of his life, and his stomach has not been forced artificially to supply a system taxed beyond the power of the stomach to fill. The same general difference is noted between and Indian and a white man. You may gallop the pony until your thoroughbred would "heave and thump," and "go wrong" in a dozen vital places, and the bronco will cool off and come through little worse for the experience.

A Texan Pony by Frederic Remington

Some years ago I drove up to a stage station in the San Pedro Valley in Arizona, and the Mexican stock tender had had a hard time in rounding up his stage stock. His herd pony had been on the run until, as he stood there under the shade of a brush corral, covered with foam and dust, with his belly drawn up almost to his spine and gasping occasionally as though it was his last, I felt sure I should see him die before I left the station. I was afterwards told by the stage boss in a bluff, matter-of-course way, in answer to my inquiry, that he had "pulled through all right: you can't kill them critters"; and now I am perfectly positive that you cannot.

As a saddle animal simply, the bronco has no superior. The "lope" is a term which should never be applied to that motion in any other breed of horses. I have watched a herd of cowponies being driven over the prairie where the undulations of the backs in the moving throng were as regular and easy as the rise and fall of the watery waves. The fox-trot, which is the habitual gait of all plainsmen, cowboys, and Indians, is easily cultivated in him, and his light, supple frame accommodates itself naturally to the motion. This particular American horse lays claim to another quality, which in my estimation is not least, and that is his wonderful picturesqueness. He graces the Western landscape, not because he reminds us of the equine ideal, but because he comes of the soil, and has borne the heat and burden and the vicissitudes of all that pale of romance which will cling about the Western frontier. As we see him hitched to the plow or the wagon he seems a living protest against utilitarianism but, unlike his red master, he will not go. He has borne the Moor, the Spanish conqueror, the red Indian, the mountain-man, and the vaquero through all the glories of their careers; but they will soon be gone, with all their heritage of gallant deeds. The pony must meekly enter the new regime. He must wear the collar of the new civilization and earn his oats by the sweat of his flank. There are no more worlds for him to conquer; now he must till the ground.

by Frederic Remington

Frederic Remington was born in St. Lawrence County New York, in 1861. He studied drawing for a year in the Yale School of Fine Arts at New Haven, and went West in 1880. With the exception of this single year of instruction, he derived all his knowledge from constant observation and study. He wrote entertainingly and accurately of life in the West, as well as illustrating it in his drawings and pictures.

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See also Across Country with a Cavalry Column by R. F. Zogbaum

References:

Secoy, Frank Raymond. Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. (First published 1953.)

Grafton, John. The American West in the Nineteenth Century: 255 Illustrations from "Harper's Weekly" and Other Contemporary Sources. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992. (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)

Rickman, David. Cowboys of the Old West. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1985. (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)