The western plains and outer banks of the east coast of America are populated with free roaming horses but they are not wild horses. These free roaming horses are members of Equus caballus; they are feral horses. Wild horses are members of Equus ferus.
Feral horses are descended from domestic horses that strayed, escaped, or were deliberately released into the wild and remained to survive and reproduce. So where did all of these horses come from?
It is fascinating to look at the history of the horse in Americas. Most people do not realize that the many horse breeds of the Americas that we are familiar with, have developed here in only the last 500 years. 500 years ago, there were 60,000,000 bison, thousands of deer and dogs in North America and llamas in South America. There were no hogs, horses or cattle; these animals had to come from Europe with the early explorers, early settlers and colonists.
Archeologists and anthropologists, through the study of a very long and contiguous fossil sequence, suggest that the horse’s ancestors originated, lived, and evolved in North America for 55 million years, and eventually migrated around the globe. The horse eventually disappeared in the Americas. Even though the predecessor of our horse lived here in prehistoric times the horse, as we know it today, was brought to the America’s by the Spanish, French, Dutch and English who started to explore the new world in the 1500’s. Over the years, and through the introduction of stock from many European sources, the United States has ended up with a more diverse equine population than any other country in the world. We are a multi-cultural country of many religions and races and our horse population reflects this same diversity.
The relatively new (27-year-old) field of molecular biology, using mitochondrial-DNA analysis, has recently found that there is some conflicting evidence as to the origin of horse breeds in America; but regardless, the recorded history of horse breeds, as we know them in the Americas now, began in the 1500’s.
A study commissioned by the American Horse Council Foundation and conducted by the Barents Group concluded that there are currently 9.2 million horses in the United States alone! That is amazing since there were no horses in the Americas before the 1500’s. Horses were brought to the Americas, mostly by Europeans, and now the United States alone has more horses than all of Europe; Europe has a little over 6 million horses.
Hernán Cortés wasa Spanish conquistador who led an expedition in 1519 that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire. In less than 2 years Cortés destroyed the Aztec monarchy, gained complete control of the Mexican capital of Tenochtitlan and extended his jurisdiction over most of the Aztec Empire. Cortes quickly secured the area from the natives, who were terrified by the large beasts which they had never seen before. Cortes was quoted as saying, “Next to God, we owed our victory to the horses.”
Another explorer, Hernando de Soto headed an expedition that traveled throughout Florida north through the Carolinas, into Tennessee, south into Alabama, west into Mississippi, Arkansas and finally Texas. DeSoto sailed from Spain with 9 vessels and 600 men, in April 1538, for Santiago, Cuba. He left Havana for Florida where he established a camp near Tampa Bay. He came ashore with 237 horses. He traveled on, leaving 50 footmen and 30 horses as a garrison. The men and horses of this garrison joined him later at Apalache. From the camp near Tampa Bay he set out on his westward exploring expedition, taking with him 550 men and 200 horses. Of these 200 horses, 12 were killed in what is now Alabama; 70 were wounded and 50 perished at the Chickasaw battle in the now state of Mississippi. DeSoto reached the east bank of the Mississippi in May, 1541, with about 98 horses, including 30 that joined him at Apalache. Those that survived were ferried across the Mississippi never to return.
Many horses were brought to the eastern shores of America as well. Horses of French, Dutch and English lineage were allowed to roam and breed freely. By 1669 there were so many freely roaming horses in Virginia that further importation was prohibited. Stallions were to be gelded if caught and laws were passed for horse owners to reimburse farmers for damaged crops.
Throughout the 1500’s and into the early 1700’s Europeans continued to bring horses on the many expeditions to the Americas. Many horses that came were turned loose or allowed to roam freely but many more did not even survive.
America was becoming a divided sprawl of Quakers and Puritans, Catholics and Dutch, Yankees and Southerners, Tories and slaves. More than a million people resided in what was still, in some ways, a brutal frontier, with disease claiming many children, Indians attacking the fringes, and pickpockets and horse thieves being put to death. But a sophisticated society was rapidly evolving as every year ships delivered more people and culture from England. There was theater to enjoy, newspapers to read and postal routes for the mail. The population was still too far-flung and dissimilar to agree on much, especially independence, an idea just beginning to percolate. But colonists from Rhode Island to the Carolinas could all agree that nothing was more heavenly than a fast horse. A few 2nd and 3rdgeneration Virginia planters were able to accumulate large land holdings. They built large plantations and bred horses.
By the 1750s, all the tribes of the Great Plains had horses. They had become experts at raising, training and riding horses. Each Indian of the Great Plains could ride a horse by the age of five. As an adult, a young man would have a special horse for work. Another horse would be trained for hunting and another would be trained for war. An Indian warrior's success depended upon how closely he and his horses worked together.
George Catlin was an artist who traveled a great deal in the early American west. He painted many beautiful pictures of American Indians. Mr. Catlin said the Plains Indian was the greatest horse rider the world has ever known. He said the moment an Indian rider laid a hand on his horse he became part of the animal. (above: Buffalo Hunt by George Catlin 1844)
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, most of the British troops in the American colonies were billeted in Boston. There was no cavalry, few field guns and no field supply system. The shortage of cavalry in the Revolutionary War was a major drawback for the British. In October 1775, the British undertook a remarkable effort to supply the army in Boston with enough quality fresh provisions to last through the winter. The firm of Mure, Son & Atkinson was contracted to furnish enough fresh food and livestock to fill 36 ships. Only 13 ships eventually made it to Boston. Only the preserved food (sauerkraut, vinegar, and porter, a type of beer) survived intact. Most of the other provisions were rotten or damaged. Out of 856 horses shipped, only 532 survived the voyage. Shipment of many commodities from Britain was deemed impracticable so the army resorted to local sources for fresh food, fodder, and transportation. This had a great impact on the course of the war; when supply reserves dropped below the 2-month level, which they often did, British generals stopped thinking about offensive action and began to plan evacuation. To have any hope of victory, the British had to seek out the rebel army and defeat it. Yet far too often their soldiers were forced to sit and wait or, worse, to evacuate a position, garrison, or city that had already been gained through difficult fighting. The effect that logistics deficiencies had on these decisions to wait or pull back is undeniable. The convoy of 36 ships marked the last time that Britain attempted to ship fresh food and livestock to its army.
Explorers and settlers brought many different types of horses with them to the New World. The types of horses were most often the type used in the area they came from. Early settlers to the Americas probably assumed the needs for horses would be the same as they had been in Europe – transportation, warfare and farming. Little did they know that just surviving would be so difficult and that hippophagy (the eating of horse flesh) would be necessary for survival. As situations improved, more horses survived and horses served many purposes. Until the last years of the 18th century, livestock received a significantly low amount of care. Domestic animals could survive only if they were strong enough to last through the winter, relying mainly on forests and natural meadowland for subsistence. Farmers became more attentive to the well-being of their animals when lucrative markets or sporting opportunities could be gained. Importing horses for a purpose and breeding for a purpose did not begin until the Americas were well established. Before breed registries, horses were organized by breeding practices and performance standards. Rhode Island became the breeding capital of the early North American Colonies.
The horse, one of the most remarkable prime movers on the planet, pretty much ruled 19th century urban life and rural culture in both Europe and North America. Until the 19th century, horses remained largely a status animal that signified wealth. The well-to-do could afford horses, and used them for personal transportation, but most people just walked. The poor harnessed the sturdy and practical ox to a wagon for longer travels. Most 19th century cities were no wider than 2 miles and highly walkable. Before long however, the horse became the backbone of 19th century life. North Americans employed 4,000,000 horses in 1840 for agricultural work and travel. By 1900 they were harnessing more than 24 million horses, a six-fold increase, to plow fields, as well as pull street trolleys, drays, brewery wagons, city vehicles, omnibuses and carriages. For every 3 people there trod 1 working horse in the United States.
Today, there are many breeds of horses in the Americas that are the result of cross breeding the early breeds as well as cross breeding many different breeds and types of horses. DNA research has shed light on the origins of many breeds and research continues using this fairly new field of study. Some of the scientific and anthropological research has shown that what was thought about the origin of some breeds as well as the feral horses may not be entirely true.
EQUINE HERITAGE INSTITUTE
Join us as we explore the history of the horse. We share our love of horses with you!
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