Wild Horses: The Sporting Horse

Wild Horses

Mustangs and Humans



Horses have been a companion in play as well as work. Given the competitive nature of humans, it's fair to assume that from the time there were two people and two horses, they were probably pitted against each other in races for speed, agility, and strength. The history of horse sports is a rich one in this country. Many of these sports developed out of preparation for battle, both physically and emotionally. The International Museum of the Horse provides a comprehensive history of horses in sport.

Up through the mid-19th century, horse racing was the main form of organized sport in America. Today, Americans tout human athletic rivalries, from small towns to large cities. In colonial America, the same rivalries were more commonly organized around the sport of horse racing. Much like today, legions of colonial fans traveled far to early "quarter-race" tracks to place hard earned wagers on their town's horse and rider. Wages in the early days of this country may have included money, tobacco, slaves, and property.

Emotions ran high and tempers flared with unjust calls, false starts, or a rider interfering with another's horse. From the early races, often conducted in the woods, to today's well manicured tracks, the sport of quarter horse and thoroughbred racing remains a popular American pastime for horse and humans alike.

The Fox Hunt
One of the earliest equine sports in this country found its roots in the sport of the fox hunting. As early as 1650, a man by the name of Colonel Robert Brooke brought hounds to Maryland from England. The sport became very popular and many of our founding fathers became active in the "The Hunt". George Washington, who began hunting at 16 years of age, was well known for his pack of hunting hounds as well as the horses he rode in the chase.

Fox hunting was quite popular in every region of the United States, but its strongest roots were planted firmly in the Mid-South. The lay of the land made it an ideal setting for the sport. This area maintained many of the rich traditions handed down to America from the aristocrats of England.

A Kentuckian wrote in 1852: "Fox hunting in the middle and southern states is quite as much a subject of enthusiasm as it has been in England. . . ." Among the most famous hunts in America, the Iroquois Hunt in Kentucky ranks as one of the finest. Founded in 1880 by Roger D. Williams, it is named after the first American horse to win the Epson Derby in England, Pierre Lorillard's Iroquois. The Bluegrass region of Kentucky offers particularly favorable land for fox hunting due to its fine turf and the absence of wire fencing, an anathema to fox hunters. 

1876 — First American Polo
Another horse game readily adopted and richly rooted in the traditions of this country is polo. Although polo and hunting are perhaps the oldest horse sports, polo was not played in the Western Hemisphere until the 1800s. The sport was brought to America by James Gordon Bennett in 1876. The New York City riding arena was the first official unveiling of indoor Polo in this country. Due to the immense popularity of the sport, Harvard University formed an intercollegiate polo team in 1885. By 1886, the British and Americans were competing against each other in regularly scheduled matches. By 1892, there were 13 U.S. polo clubs, most in the Eastern portion of the country.

The First Rodeo or "Cattle Ring"
In 1886, the cattle drive spawned the robust entertainment dubbed "the rodeo". This cowboy sport became a real entertainment draw. Rodeo began as a way to celebrate the end of the long cattle drive. The cowboys had to look over their herds until they were sold at market. After the pens were emptied, cowhands would challenge each other to a calf-roping contest or maybe a bareback ride on the orneriest horse on the lot.

Soon the draw of the rodeo was sweetened with dramatic and equally entertaining "Wild West" shows. These extravaganzas included wagon races, bull-riding, and steer-wrestling. An African American cowboy named Bill Pickett invented one of the most exciting events in the rodeo, bull dogging. As the story goes, Pickett became enraged at a bull that refused to enter a corral. He leapt on the bull from his horse, grabbed its horns, gripping its upper lip in his teeth and bringing it to the ground like a "bulldog".

Horses of Hollywood
The Grand Generation and Baby Boomers of this country are familiar with some of the best-loved horses of motion pictures and TV. To many, growing up in the 1920s through early 1950s, the horses of the screen were as famous as the heroes who rode them. William S. Hart and Fritz, Tom Mix and Tony, Gene Autry and Champion, Roy Rogers and Trigger. The "western" soon became one of film's dominant genres, depending heavily on the horse.

Television introduced, another host of heroes: the Lone Ranger and Silver, Tonto and Scout, Hopalong Cassidy and Topper, as well as such individual stars as Fury, Flicka, and Mr. Ed.

Think you know a lot about horses in Hollywood?
Take this Trivia Quiz.



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