The History of the Horse in North America

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Podcast Transcript

When one thinks of the history of North America, it often invokes images of native Americans and cowboys riding on horseback. 

However, horses weren’t in the Westen Hemisphere when Europeans arrived. There was a time when if native people had to move from one place to another, they had to do so on foot. 

But, while that is true, the truth is more complex because if you go back far enough, there was a time when horses were in North America. 

Learn more about the complicated history of horses in North America, and how they unleashed a revolution, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When I began this podcast almost two years ago, I started by creating a list of 100 ideas for episodes. The topic of this episode was one of the first ideas that I came up with. The reason why is because the story of horses in North America is fascinating. 

The story lies at the intersection of history, politics, technology, archeology, and evolutionary biology. 

I’m going to start the story somewhere in the middle, which is the point where we have first-hand information that we can verify, which is when Europeans arrived in the New World. 

When Columbus landed in what today we know as the Bahamas, in 1492 he didn’t have any horses with him. However, he found that the local people didn’t have any horses either.

On his next trip in 1493, he had with him about two dozen Andalusian horses. When these horses landed, they were the only horses in the Western Hemisphere. 

The Taíno people of the Caribbean were terrified at the sight of men riding on horses. At first, they thought they were some sort of monstrous man-beast. Not only had they never seen horses, but they had never seen anyone riding any sort of animal. 

In Cuba, there was enough land where the Spanish could begin breeding horses, and there they thrived. 

Horses remained solely in the Caribbean until 1519 when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico with 16 horses and a handful of men. Over the next two years, with additional reinforcement of men and horses, he managed to conquer all of Mexico. 

The Aztecs too initially had a fear of horses, but soon the fear dissipated and they were just left with the reality that the Spanish had superior technology in the form of the horse. 

The Spanish realized this too. Yes, they certainly had other advantages in the form of ships and firearms, but the real advantage they had over the native peoples they encountered was the horse. 

They had a standing rule that under no circumstances were horses to be allowed into the hands of native people. To do so would eliminate the Spanish technical advantage. 

For 160 years after the arrival of Cortez in Mexico, the Spanish were able to, more the most part, keep their monopoly on horses. Some Aztecs, for example, were riding individual horses as early as 1541, but they didn’t have the ability to breed them and use them in large numbers. 

The first horses which were brought over were actually rather small due to space constraints on ships. Once the horses arrived they began breeding and through natural selection, new breeds of horses were created that were unique to the New World. 

One breed, in particular, was the Galiceño. 

Over the years as the Spanish expanded their empire, the native people they encountered developed a respect for the horse. Their size and speed were something they desired.  The names given to horses in the local languages were usually based on the animals they already knew. These included names like “elk dog” and “holy dog”. 

The Spanish horse monopoly, of course, eventually came to an end. In fact, the transfer of the horse technology occurred in one particular event, which changed the course of history. 

It happened in 1680 in what is today the state of New Mexico. 

The Spanish were ruling over the Pueblo people.  The Pueblos were not nomadic but lived in established communities with subsistence agriculture. 

The Spanish rule was by any definition tyrannical. They outlawed the Pueblo religion, whipped and killed their religious leaders, and destroyed their religious objects and places of worship. 

The Pueblo people lived with this for over a century and eventually one of their leaders decided that enough was enough. 

A Pueblo shaman by the name of Popé organized 46 Pueblo communities in the region over a course of five years for a coordinated attack on the Spanish. It is believed that some other tribes including Apache and Navajo also may have participated in the rebellion. 

On August 10th, 1680 the uprising began in the town of Santa Fe. The first thing they did was steal the horses and mules so the Spanish couldn’t get the word out to bring in reinforcements. 

Over the course of the next two weeks, they destroyed every Spanish settlement, killed every Catholic priest they could find, and burned down every church. 400 Spanish were killed and the remaining 2,000 people were expelled from the territory. 

However, as far as history is concerned, the biggest thing to come out of this uprising was that now the Pueblo people had horses. Thousands of horses.

The Spanish didn’t come back to conquer this region for another twelve years. That was plenty of time for the horse genie to get out of the bottle. 

The Pueblo began trading horses with their trading partners and soon the horse technology began to spread. 

Within years, tribes all over the American West and the Great Plains had their first horses.  The Apache, Navajo, Kiwa, Nez Percés, Blackfoot, and Comanche all soon had horses. Within decades horses were in the possession of the Lakota, Sioux, Cree, and the Crow. 

It is hard to state just how much the horse radically changed everything for these people. It was the greatest cultural and technical revolution that had been seen in North America for thousands of years. 

The horse literally changed almost everything, especially for the people who lived on the great plains. 

Prior to this point, the only domesticated animal that the native people of North America had were dogs. Dogs eat meat, which meant that a portion of whatever was hunted had to go to your dogs. Also, dogs are rather small and can only haul so much. 

Horses were the perfect fit for the plains. Horses ate grass and other than the Eurasian steppes, there was no better place in the world for horses. 

Horses dramatically improved the ability of bands of people to travel from one place to another. Hunting became much easier. Rather than herding a group of bison off a cliff (which was a pretty common method of hunting bison), hunters could much more easily go out and kill just a few when needed. 

Some tribes totally changed how they lived. Some native peoples in the east of the Mississippi were more settled and engaged in more agriculture. However, the horse now made it possible to roam and hunt in a way that made growing corn unnecessary. 

Horses became the most valuable thing someone could have. Wealth was now expressed in horses. 

Perhaps the best example of just how radical this transformation was can probably be best seen in the Comanche. Not every tribe developed the same sort of horse culture. Some were more pragmatic in their use of horses and others like the Comanche centered their whole culture around the horse. 

The Comanche were some of the first people after the Pueblo to get horses. Within the span of just a few generations, the Comanche went from having no experience with horses, and perhaps having never even seen a horse, to becoming some of the greatest horsemen in the world. 

Their military ability as light calvary was on a par with the Mongols, who had developed similar techniques over the course of centuries. 

They developed wholly innovative methods of capturing wild horses and breaking them. 

They quickly began selectively breeding horses for strength and endurance. 

As with all quick and significant cultural changes, there was a downside as well.  Horses made it easier to wage war. An imbalance in horses meant that one tribe would be significantly stronger than another. Horses became a cause of conflict, and there was an arms race over horses amongst some tribes. 

Horses also competed with bison for grazing. It was now much easier to overgraze an area than it would have been before. 

Over time, horses also got loose and became feral. Feral horses are known as mustangs and there were large herds of mustangs that began to roam the prairies. While they are often called wild, they are technically feral because they are descended from domesticated horses. 

The mustang population probably peaked in the late 18th or early 19th century with somewhere between 2,000,000 to 5,000,000 horses. 

Today there are somewhere between 75,000 and 90,000 mustangs in the United States

I’d like to make a special note of one of the best places to see mustangs in North America: Sable Island. Located off the coast of Nova Scotia, it is really just a long sand bar in the Atlantic Ocean that is 31 square kilometers or 12 square miles in area. 

200 years ago horses were taken to the island to be kept because they couldn’t run away. They were eventually abandoned and they have lived there feral ever since. There is currently a population of about 550 horses which has developed into its own breed.

It is a difficult place to visit, but it is well worth it, especially if you love horses. I visited in 2017, and it was an incredible experience.

Now that the very beginning I said that I was starting this story in the middle. If you listened carefully, I said that there were no horses in the Americas when Europeans arrived, which is true. But I never said that horses weren’t native to the Americas. 

The real beginning of this story actually goes back millions of years ago. 

In the 1830s, an early American paleontologist by the name of Joseph Leidy found fossils that looked suspiciously like horses. He figured horses had to have been in North American thousands of years ago.

At first, his theories were rejected, because it was well known that there were no horses in North America until the Europeans brought them. However, over time the evidence began to pile up, and a clearer picture developed as to the real history of the horse. 

It turns out that there were 45 million-year-old fossils of an early ancestor of the horse called an Eohippus, have been found in North America. 

The current theory is that horses didn’t originally come from Asia. They actually evolved in North America. 

During the several ice ages when the land bridge connecting North America and Asia was exposed, horses migrated from east to west, from North America into Asia. 

The horse populations were eventually cut off from each other and they diverged. 

It is believed that the North American horse probably went extinct soon after the last ice age ended about 11-12,000 years ago, along with many large mammals on the continent.  There is no evidence that these horses were ever domesticated, and they were probably hunted for meat. 

It was several thousand years after the extinction of the North American horse that they were domesticated in Eurasia.

So, Europeans didn’t introduce horses to the Americas. They inadvertently reintroduced horses to the Americas. 

By the year 1912, the United States had the largest population of horses in the world, and after that, like everywhere else in the world, modern technology caused horse populations to decline rapidly.

I find the story of the horse in North America to be a fascinating one. It is a story of conquest, rebellion, cultural and technical changes, adaption, and evolution. 

In the end, it is the story of an animal that traveled around the world to find its way back to where it originally came from.


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Oppie_NZ over at Apple Podcasts in New Zealand. They write, 

Best out of many

There is no shortage of podcasts nowadays; a new one pops out of the woodwork almost daily. This one is by far the most interesting, and I learn things I wasn’t even aware of being curious about.

Also, what is the music each episode starts with? I quite like that.

Thanks, Oppie! I’m always glad to hear from folks in one of my favorite countries. I love to make Kiwis jealous by telling them I was in the stands at Eden Park for the finals of the 2011 Ruby World Cup to watch the All Blacks win. 

As for the music, it was something I selected and purchased the rights for over a year before I actually launched the podcast. It was composed by Sergey Osipov who writes music for video games, movies, and TV. 

I only play about 9 seconds of what is a much longer piece of music. If you go back to episode 100, and it is titled Episode 100, at the very end of the episode I actually play the entire piece of music. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.