Wild Horses: Waging War

Wild Horses

Mustangs and Humans



Horses have served as comrade and soldier on the war torn fields of this country and abroad. Many gave their lives in service to their countryland. The International Museum of the Horse maintains an extensive history of horses in war from the dawn of man until current times. Horse were drafted into war in large numbers in service to this country for calvary and non-calvary roles alike. The history of the horse in battle in North America begins with the Spanish and the Native Americans.

1600s' New Firearms & Faster Horses Led to New Role for the Horse in Battle
The development of firearms greatly affected the use of the cavalry horse. Before then, Cavalry soldiers were previously armed with lances, which had proved effective against infantry and other cavalry. But these cavalry became vulnerable to the well-aimed shot of the musketeer. In order to survive, cavalry were equipped with firearms, both pistols and short muskets. The roles of the new cavalry produced new roles, such as cuirassiers (mounted cavalry with armor and firearms), and dragoons (mounted infantry), and cabineers (light dragoons).

Native Americans & Horses at War
Horses were a basis of wealth and were often the object, as well as the means, of war between tribes. Native American pictographs often featured their most prized possession and companion — the horse.The historic record of horses in North America begins when the Spanish brought horses back to the continent. Native American tribes quickly became expert horsemen.


Custer's Last Stand — June 25, 1876: All Killed Save One Tough Pony
One of the most storied events in the history of the American West was the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn, otherwise known as "Custer's Last Stand". George Armstrong Custer's earlier cavalry career included the interception of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. After the Civil War, Custer was assigned as Commander of the 7th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. When ordered to move a band of Natives toward a large American cavalry force, the ambitious and often arrogant Custer became over-zealous. As his forces reached the Lakota encampment, he divided his regiment and decided to fight. Custer's force was entirely annihilated within a short time. The other regiment force was rescued by supporting cavalry four days later, and the search for survivors of Custer's troops began. Not one man was found alive. Only one horse survived: Comanche.

Comanche was found in a thicket with seven arrows in his body. He was a gelding ridden by Captain Keogh, one of Custer's officers. The horse's wounds were treated, and he was carefully loaded onto a riverboat. Comanche was sent back to Fort Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, where he was given great attention until he recovered. As an honor, Comanche was given the freedom of the fort's grounds. The Seventh Cavalry's commanding officer insisted that Comanche be saddled for all engagements and official occasions, but he could never be ridden again. Comanche became a national celebrity.

On his death, his obituary appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Comanche was taxidermied and is now exhibited at the Museum of Kansas University.

Nez Perce Spotted Horses 1877
Few tribes could rival the Nez Perce in the art of selective breeding. The Nez Perce inhabited the mountainous plateau at the intersection of what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Here, near the Palouse River, the steep mountains and box canyons provided natural enclosures in which horses could be contained or separated for selective breeding. The trademark of the Nez Perce horses was their spots. These horses, named Appaloosas after the river near which they were bred, were renowned among western Indians for their speed and endurance.

The peaceful life of the Nez Perce was ended when settlers and miners intruded on their lands. Treaties were made and broken, until Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce led his people and 3000 horses on a 1600-mile evacuation to Canada in 1877. All along the way, the Natives fought off pursuing cavalry. In one battle alone, they lost 900 of their spotted horses. Just below the Canadian border, Chief Joseph surrendered to the cavalry as he heroically declared, "I will fight no more forever." His tribe was decimated, wounded, and starving. The remaining members were exiled to Oklahoma, and Chief Joseph was imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth. The remaining 1100 horses were dispersed. This threatened the purity and survival of the Appaloosa, until the breed was revived in the 1900s.

World War I 1914 - 1918: The Last Cavalry Battle
Well before the United States sent its men into the fray, another resource had been drafted — its horses. World War I was filled with classic calvary battle. But the new weapons of war proved devastating to the cavalry and their mounts. This war involved impenetrable barbed wire. Machine guns massacred people and horse alike with little or no direct contact with their enemies. The horse's utility in battle was over. The death of millions of horses in this war drastically reduced the world's equine population.

Some estimates hold that six million horses served in WWI's American war zones. Most of them were killed. In the four years of war, the United States forces were left with a seriously depleted stock of horses. The American Expeditionary Force took with it an additional 182,000 horses to the battle lines. Of these, 60,000 were killed, and only 200 made it home to the United States. British veterinarians treated 120,000 horses for wounds or disease in aftermath of the battles.With the newly developed weaponry one fact remained painfully obvious, the horse was the innocent victim.



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