This is a slightly redacted version of this “wild west” essay that I sent to Carol Kennedy after an e mail about the wild horse crisis in her town. I tightened a few bolts.
Horses don’t like us. If the Sundance Kid, of Hole In The Wall gang fame, did not die in Bolivia with his partner Butch Cassidy, another story has him succumbing to a horse bite in 1905. That was a not infrequent anticlimax to a wild western life. Or maybe the creature breaks your leg with a kick, or if really mad rolls over on top of you. You can’t blame them; they were born free.
They are always shitting and pissing; by the late 19th Century they were turning cities into dung heaps. In San Francisco they sometimes lost traction on steep hills; the wagons or vehicles they were pulling would drag them to death. You could hear their screams across town. Many people longed for a horseless carriage.
Years ago in the stacks of the old SF Main Library I found a remarkable wild west memoir. I can’t recall the title; the author had been a teamster. He never carried a gun. He knew everyone in the scene; he helped bury Wild Bill Hickok. He had a rare skill set that everyone respected. He could handle big horse teams; pack a piano on a wagon and deliver it intact to a remote ranch house. Tombstone tensions ratcheted towards the OK Corral when a stage coach driver was killed by outlaws. Stage coach drivers were horse high tech.
Roy Rodgers never owned Trigger. Trigger was one of Hollywood’s most valuable properties; a horse that would do as directed. Every western star hoped, prayed for such a horse.
12,000 BCE. The people we will call Indians have arrived. There are huge herds of horses here. I think I recall reading that horses originated in these parts and crossed the northern land bridge into Asia and Europe. When the First People arrived there were all kinds of big meaty animals; none of them had learned about us. This was surely the Happy Hunting Ground. Over the next two thousand years most of those big hairy creatures disappear. I’m sure the human discovery of this hemisphere had a lot to do with that but I have a hard time imagining we ate every last horse and giant sloth. If we did eat the last horse we probably didn’t notice; there were still a lot of steaks out there. (I’ve heard horse meat is very tasty.) Those people would not have known they were setting up their next twelve thousand years.
After about 10,000 BCE the only beasts in this hemisphere that might bear a burden, excepting the very limited range and ability of the alpaca, were dogs and humans. A dog can tote forty pounds max. Women are bigger and stronger. I’ve passed in a car a cliff in New Mexico that was for thousands of years a buffalo jump. It is not easy to hunt buffalo on foot; it requires organization. The prairies may have been partly a vast ecological artifact maintained by hunting fires. At even a sniff of predator buffalo are off and running. You have to drive them towards traps, waiting hunters, or over drops. Buffalo robes were extremely valuable articles of trade; they were not easily obtained.
No draft animals cramped human ambitions in this hemisphere. There was never a Mayan Empire; no king could extend authority more than five days away, porters could not carry enough food to victual warriors for longer marches. (I’ve seen the math laid out.) There were no animals that could pull iron plows like made northern European agriculture possible, which is no doubt one reason no one here worked iron. By 1492 hunter-gatherers like the first arrivals had been pushed off to the margins. Most people were farmers or at least gardeners. But they could only scratch the soil with digging sticks. Those who had land amenable to that guarded it fiercely. A pueblo was a formidable castle; hungry nomads need not apply. The powerful also controlled access to the buffalo herds. This was already a continent of haves and have-nots when Columbus’s lookout sighted it.
Around 1400 newbies began to arrive in the Southwest. They speak Athabaskan languages from north east Alaska and the Great Slave Lake in Canada. They later morphed into the Apache and Navaho of the wild west. It is a long slog from Alaska to New Mexico. So long it suggests to me that they found no place to stop in all that way. I think most of the habitable niches of this continent had been claimed by the time we arrived. The straggling immigrants often sheltered beneath the walls of pueblos, earning a grudged keep as laborers. Their teeth must have been on edge for a long time when strange paleface men arrived riding giant dogs or deer. When first seen, scouts reported weird two headed four legged monsters from Outer Space.
Horses thrived here. The Pueblo Revolt threw out the Spanish for ten years; the left behind horses were home free. Every Euro expedition lost horses, other horses escaped California Missions. The people who would become known as “Apache” made the first horse power bid in the 17th Century. The pueblo lords huddled in obsolete forts while their former porters took over the territory. It was easy to kill buffalo on horseback, even with a bow. Nobody on the ground had a chance; those you didn’t kill you took back to the Taos Pueblo and sold to the mines in Northern Mexico. In early New Mexico slaving was the major industry.
Apaches never quite made the full horse transition. They had learned to plant; part of the year there were no Apache raids because they were tending their corn. They were good riders but never learned to breed horses and couldn’t resist eating them. But you cannot have a horse and eat it too.
Among the archaic geopolitical losers were the Numunru living almost furtive lives as deer hunters in the mountains of eastern Wyoming. The first recorded sighting of the Comanche was around 1723. They were still afoot. Women toted three, four hide teepees. They ate anything they could. Eighty years later they have run the Apache to remote strong holds in Arizona. They exterminated or drove off most of the truly native tribes of Texas, Kansas, Arizona….the southern wild west. When they got on horses there was nothing holding them back. They were the first true horse barbarians in north America. By the late 18th Century the whole continent was in an uproar. The roar we heard most clearly was what we call the French-Indian War; but everyone was up against the wall from Canada to Texas. Those that did not get horses and guns disappeared into place names or wind ghosts.
Horses are formidable beasts. Stand back, forget Black Beauty, and imagine screwing up the nerve to get on top of one. Even the Romans never fully mastered horses. The steppe Scythians seem to have been the first true horse people in the world. A prominent native family lineage in the north is “Man Afraid Of His Horses”. It was often a three generation learning curve.
I never did learn to ride. My few horse experiences were butt jarring misery. I’m always nervous around lifeforms that big with brains that small."