Horses have surely played a pivotal role in America’s story (and so have mules and oxen, but who speaks for them?). There’s a vast literature out there about these exceptional creatures, yet I could not discover any single account that encompasses the remarkably varied roles horses have played over the course of our history including in the American imagination. If that book is ever to appear I suggest it include a good many of the topics outlined below.
• Never before had the local populations in South America seen armed men riding horses. So formidable did they appear that conquistadores were everywhere victorious and soon established the foundations of Spanish empire in America.
• Native American tribes that learned to obtain and ride horses, such as the Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Blackfoot, became efficient buffalo hunters, and exceptionally formidable foes in battle.
• Horse thieves, whether, paleface or Native Americans, were a constant menace, especially in western regions.
• The first notable horse bred in America was the Narragansett Pacer, originating in Rhode Island and transported to the other colonies as well as the Caribbean.
• Mail service in the colonies depended upon horsemen travelling along post roads.
• To move about in Colonial America you’d best ride a horse, even within the cities, or consider boarding horse-drawn stage coaches offering seating inside or out.
• Get on a horse, let loose the hounds and go on a bracing fox hunt, an acquired taste for colonial elites, especially down south.
• Organized resistance to the British was made possible thanks to Committees of Correspondence established in many a colonial town. Keeping each of them abreast of developments were express riders whose horses galloped from one town to the next.
• The “Midnight ride of Paul Revere” on a borrowed horse saved the day after he had ridden out on false alarms on previous days. His warning enabled Sam Adams and John Hancock to escape from Lexington via horse and carriage. Afterward, a British patrol captured Revere and confiscated his horse.
• Thomas Jefferson referred to George Washington as a “renowned horseman of his time.” He cut quite a commanding figure on his two mounts, “Blueskin” and especially “Nelson,” both of which survived the Revolution and then retired to Mt. Vernon.
• Thomas Jefferson, long plagued by diarrhea, discovered relief by riding a trotting horse regularly. That exercise, he concluded, helped to strengthen his bowels.
• Cargo often passed through the Erie Canal, thanks to horses moving along the shore, pulling adjacent boats.
• In addition to the traditional roles of horses in agriculture, transportation, freight movement, war and recreation, they played a part in industry, e.g., in coal mines, in breweries (hauling barrels), grinding grain, pumping water and serving as the source of power in saw mills.
• In general, northern farmers preferred horses in the fields whereas southern agriculturalists had a preference for mules.
• U. S. Grant was widely acclaimed for his horsemanship which included training, managing and riding horses. It is estimated that for every soldier who died in the Civil War (750,000) five horses were killed. Mostly, horses pulled wagons, ambulances and artillery pieces. Notable cavalry units included those led by J. E. B. Stuart (South) and Phil Sheridan (North).
• Most famously, General Grant of Appomattox agreed to allow southern soldiers who owned their own horses to keep them so as to be able to plant their crops.
• Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, is said to have gone into battle more often than any other horse in the Civil War. Traveller survived the conflict and outlived Lee, who died in 1876, by a year.
• Riders of the Pony Express carried mail, messages and newspapers, thanks to relays of horses between Missouri and California for a brief period (1860-61). It has, nevertheless, become part of American lore as a bold example of the American “can-do” adventurous spirit.
• The cowboy enters the pantheon of American heroes. He and his horse were viewed as inseparable.
• U.S. cavalry units played a major role providing security to Western settlers and railroad construction crews (Iron Horse). There were, however, many Indian wars in the late 19th Century. American troops did suffer a major defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) at the hands of Lakota leader Crazy Horse.
• The 19th Century is considered to be the “golden age of the horse”, especially in America’s cities where they played an essential role in the urban economy relating to transportation (goods and people), manure production (used for fertilizer), valued for their bodies (hair, hides, bones and meat), stable construction and advances in horse equipment (harnesses and horseshoes).
• Horse-drawn railways and trolleys were at the heart of urban transportation and also encouraged expansion to neighboring suburbs.
• Horse racing became a major spectator sport during the late 19th Century, conducted on such notable race tracks as Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Saratoga and Belmont Park. Sizable crowds attended and over the years celebrated many an outstanding thoroughbred as Man O’War Dan Patch, Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat and Native Dancer.
• Horses served as a principal attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, as well as in the many rodeo exhibitions presented across the U.S. in the late 19th Century.
• Horses still played a significant role in World War I when, it’s estimated, that close to six million were employed. Cavalry units, however, were soon overcome by machine guns and tanks. Horses remained essential to the movement of supplies and artillery pieces to and from the battlefield.
• Modernized tractors began replacing horses in the fields after World War I. As a result, millions of horses became expendable and were eliminated.
• In the 1930’s, the New Deal’s WPA introduced the Pack Horse Library program through which books were transported by horseback to people living in remote areas of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.
• World War II saw the last cavalry charge on horseback by U.S. Troops (Philippines, 1942). Jeeps, tanks, and other mechanized vehicles assumed roles once filled by horses. German and Russian forces, however, still employed substantial numbers of horses.
• Horses became celebrities on TV and film. Consider “Trigger,” Roy Roger’s mount, and “Silver,” ridden by the Lone Ranger. Then there was Mr. Ed, the talking horse who enjoyed six years as a television celebrity.
• Let’s not omit horses trained to dive into deep waters (e.g., Atlantic City), merry-go-rounds where children rode atop painted wooden horses, and photographers taking pictures of children astride ponies.
• Wild horses by the tens of thousands are protected and continue to roam free today in parts of the American West. To some they represent a romantic reminder of freedom, and the frontier West. Others, closer to the scene, see uncontrolled overpopulation and damage to the region’s ecological balance.
So we have here a full, albeit incomplete, accounting of the roles horses have played throughout our history. Each topic cited requires in-depth research and interpretation. Hopefully someone will be inspired to undertake the task.