Wild Horses: Catlin's Observations

Wild Horses

Mustangs and Humans



Wild Horses

"The tract of country over which we passed, between the False Washita and this place, is stocked, not only with buffaloes, but with numerous bands of wild horses. . . . There is no other animal on the prairies so wild and so sagacious as the horse. . . . We saw all the colours. . . . Some were milk white, some jet black - others were sorrel, and bay, and cream colour - many were of an iron grey; and others were pied, containing a variety of colours on the same animal. Their manes were very profuse and hanging in the wildest confusion over their necks and faces - and their long tails swept the ground. . . . The wild horse of these regions is small, but a very powerful animal . . . and undoubtedly, have sprung from a stock introduced by the Spaniards, at the time of the invasion of Mexico; which having strayed off upon the prairies, have run wild, and stocked the plains from this to Lake Winnepeg, two thousand miles to the North. This useful animal has been of great service to the Indians living on these vast plains, enabling them to take their game more easily, to carry their burdens, and no doubt, render them better and handier service than if they were of a larger and heavier breed. Vast numbers of them are also killed for food by the Indians, at seasons when buffaloes and other game are scarce."

Breaking Down a Wild Horse
Catlin described the Native American method for breaking wild horses:

"The Indian, when he starts for a wild horse, mounts one of the fleetest he can get, and coiling his laso on his arm, starts off under the "full whip", till he can enter the band, when he soon gets it over the neck of one of the number; when he instantly dismounts, leaving his own horse, and runs as fast as he can. Letting the laso pass out gradually and carefully through his hands, until the horse falls for want of breath, and lies helpless on the ground; at which time the Indian advances slowly towards the horses' head keeping his laso tight upon its neck, until he fastens a pair of hobbles on the animal's two forefeet, and also loosens the laso (giving the horse a chance to breathe) and gives it a noose around the under jaw, by which he gets greater power over the affrightened animal, which is rearing and plunging when it gets breath; and by which, as he advances, hand over hand, towards the horse's nose, he is able to hold it down and prevent it from throwing itself over on its back, at the hazard of its limbs. By this means, his hand on the animal's nose, and over its eyes; and at length to breathe in its nostrils, when it soon becomes docile and conquered; so that he has little else to do than to remove the hobbles from its feet, and lead or ride it into camp."

Horse and Hunter

"The chief hunting amusement of the Indians in these parts consists in the chase of the buffalo, which is almost invariably done on horseback, with bow and lance. In this exercise which is highly prized by them, as one of their most valued amusements, as well as for the principal mode of procuring meat for their subsistence, they become exceedingly expert; and are able to slay these huge animals with apparent ease. . . . The Indian . . . mounted on his little wild horse, which has been through some years of training, dashes off at full speed amongst the herds of buffaloes, elks, or even antelopes, and deals his deadly arrows to their hearts from his horse's back."

Camp Moving by Horses, Dogs, and Women
Catlin observed that the adoption of the horse as a beast of burden eased the pack-carrying duties of both women and dogs. The heaviest load, the buffalo lodges, were now carried by the horses, giving the tribe added mobility.

". . . The poles of a lodge are divided into two bunches, and the little ends of each bunch fastened upon the shoulders or withers of a horse, leaving the butt ends to drag behind on the ground on either side. Just behind the horse, a brace or pole is tied across, which keeps the poles in their respective places; and then upon that and the poles behind the horse is placed the lodged or tent,which is rolled up, and also numerous other articles of household and domestic furniture, and on the top of all, two, three and even (sometimes) four women and children! Each one of these horses has a conductress, who sometimes walks before and leads it, with a tremendous pack upon her own back."

War Games on Horseback
Like all great cavalries, Catlin noted that Comanche games served as training for their more serious duties as warriors.

"The Comanches . . . have many games, and in pleasant weather seem to be continually practicing. . . . The exercises of these people . . . is chiefly done on horseback; and it stands to reason that such a people, who have been practicing from their childhood, should become exceedingly expert in this wholesome and beautiful exercise. Amongst their feats of riding, there is one that has astonished me more than anything . . . in my life:a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body upon the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectually screened from his enemies; weapons as he lays in horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse's back; by which he has the power of throwing himself up again, and changing to the other side of the horse if necessary. In this wonderful condition, he will hand whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and his shield, and also his long lance of fourteen feet in length, all or either of which he will wield upon his enemy as he passes; rising and throwing his arrows over the horse's back, or with equal ease and equal success under the horse's neck."


"In their ball-plays, and some other games, they (Comanche) are far behind the Sioux and others of the Northern tribes; but, in racing horses and riding, they are not equalled by any other Indians on the Continent. Racing horses, it would seem, is a constant and almost incessant exercise, and their principal mode of gambling; and perhaps, a more finished set of jockeys are not to be found."



Ancient Connection          Journey to the New World
Native Americans          Catlin's Observations
Palo Duro Canyon Tragedy           The Horse in Agriculture
Moving Humans & Machinery          Waging War
The Sporting Horse          Equine Quiz