Wild Mustang Coalition

Author: Lea

Why did horses die out in North America?

What drove horses to extinction in the Americas? Did humans have a hand in their demise, or did climatic changes and altering vegetation trigger it?

An artist’s impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre

A definitive answer has eluded scientists, but improving techniques and the growing value of DNA analysis has painted a clearer picture of events surrounding their demise.

While climate change dominates headlines in the modern era, it loomed large in the lives of the many species that inhabited the Americas thousands of years before mankind began belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The end of the Pleistocene epoch – the geological period roughly spanning 12,000 to 2.5 million years ago, coincided with a global cooling event and the extinction of many large mammals. Evidence suggests North America was hardest hit by extinctions.

This extinction event saw the demise of the horse in North America. It survived only because the Bering land bridge that once connected Alaska and Siberia had enabled animals to cross into Asia and spread west.

The end of the Pleistocene also saw the end of the woolly mammoth, American camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, stag-moose, woolly rhinos and giant ground sloths.

The story of the North American extinction of the horse would have been cut and dried had it not been for one major and complicating factor: the arrival of humans.

Humans, too, made use of the land bridge, but went the other way – crossing from Asia into North America some 13,000 to 13,500 years ago.

Why could the continent that gave rise to the horse no longer provide a suitable home?

The Bering Strait is a storm-prone stretch of water that separates two continents.

When we talk of a land bridge we tend to conjure up images of a narrow strip of terrain. The Bering land bridge was no such modest affair.

Its fortunes – and very existence – ebbed and flowed with rising and falling ocean levels. During cooler periods in the earth’s past, glacial ice would build up, dropping sea levels to expose or expand the land bridge.

A colder period that ended some 10,000 years ago saw the land bridge reach about twice the size of Texas, and scientists have even given it a name – Beringia.

You could even consider the current state of affairs, with a body of water separating Siberia and Alaska, as unusual. The land bridge has actually been in place more often than not during the past two million years or more.

It has come and gone for far longer than that. It first developed at least 70 million years ago and was a dry land route for the movement of plants and animals, including dinosaurs.

A quagga, pictured at London Zoo about 1870. DNA analysis has shown that the Quagga was a subspecies of the Plains Zebra (Equus Quagga). The quagga was hunted to extinction in the late 1800s.

When submerged, sea-dwelling life was able to move between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.The distribution and nature of much life on earth has been greatly influenced by this crucial land bridge. Its appearance and disappearance would also have had an influence on climate, with the closing of the land bridge affecting ocean currents.

The bridge enabled near-global distribution for some species. Mammals from as far away as Africa were able to spread north and east through Eurasia and into the Americas. Camels and horses instead went westward from the Americas, where their respective species had developed.

Horses originated in North America 35-56 million years ago. These terrier-sized mammals were adapted to forest life. Over millions of years they increased in size and diversified.

Horses got larger in size and underwent other changes to their feet and teeth to adapt to changing environments. From five million to 24 million years ago, a number of horses occupied niches to which they had adapted, including grazing the spreading grasslands.

It was about four million years ago that the genus of all modern horses arose. The modern horse, known as Equus, evolved from the horse Pliohippus, which arose around 5 million years ago and was extinct by two million years ago.

The genus comprised three species, but quickly diversified into at least 12 species in four different groups.

They co-existed with other horse species which had evolved different features, but it was members of Equus which made a move that not only saved the genus from extinction, but profoundly changed the path of humankind.

Equus occupied North America for the entire Pleistocene epoch, from about 2.5 million years ago until their extinction. Scientists believe Equus crossed the Bering land bridge around the beginning of the epoch.

Some made it as far as Africa to evolve into the zebras we know today. Others moved across Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa, evolving into the onagers and wild asses of today, both well suited to desert environments.

A Somali wild ass filly foal with her dam. © Saint Louis Zoo

Still others spread across Asia, the Middle East and Europe, evolving into the true horse, Equus caballus. North America remained home to Equus species for most of the next 2.5 million years until they died out. On latest evidence, that was just 7600 years ago.

While the genus adapted to life outside North America, the “home bodies” did not fare so well. Their extinction came quickly, as it did for many other large mammals on the continent.

They faced a changing climate, altering vegetation – and the arrival of man.

Artifacts from the first Americans, known as the Clovis, cast some light on the relationship of these people with the horse.

A remarkable find of a cache comprising 83 stone implements within the city limits of Boulder City, Colorado, in 2008 provided scientists with invaluable insights.

Biochemical analysis showed that some of the 13,000-year-old implements were used to butcher ice-age camels and horses.

The University of Colorado study was the first to identify protein residue from extinct camels on North American stone tools and only the second to identify horse protein residue on a Clovis-age tool. A third tool tested positive for sheep and a fourth for bear.

All 83 artifacts were shipped to anthropology professor Robert Yohe, of the Laboratory of Archaeological Science at California State, Bakersfield, for the protein residue tests.

“I was somewhat surprised to find mammal protein residues on these tools, in part because we initially suspected that the cache might be ritualistic rather than utilitarian,” Yohe said.

“There are so few Clovis-age tool caches that have been discovered that we really don’t know very much about them.”

Anthropology professor Douglas Bamforth, who led the study, said the discovery of horse and camel protein on the tools was the clincher for him that the tools were of Clovis origin.

“We haven’t had camels or horses around here since the late Pleistocene.”

The artifacts that showed animal protein residues were each tested three times to ensure accuracy.

Douglas Bamforth, Anthropology professor for the University of Colorado at Boulder, left, and Patrick Mahaffy, show a portion of more than 80 artifacts unearthed about two feet below Mahaffy’s Boulder’s front yard during a landscaping project in 2008. © Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado)
Bamforth believes the type of people who buried the cache “lived in small groups and forged relationships over large areas”.”I’m sceptical that they wandered widely, and they may have been bound together by a larger human network.”

Evidence of early Americans hunting horses had earlier been uncovered by University of Calgary scientists, who discovered the remains of a pony-sized horse while excavating the dry bed of the St Mary Reservoir in southern Alberta.

Several of the horse’s vertebrae were smashed and it had what appeared to be butcher marks on several bones.

About 500 metres from the skeleton, they found several Clovis spearheads. Protein residue testing and examination confirmed they had been used to hunt horse.

So does evidence of horse hunting place humans in the frame as being responsible for horse extinction? The weight of evidence suggests not.

One compelling argument centres around the timeline: that the comparatively few humans were unlikely to have played a major part in the demise of a species that was already in decline from climate and vegetation change.

That said, recent discoveries point to a rather longer overlap during which both horses and humans lived in North America.

Some scientists had earlier believed the evidence pointed to horses dying out some 500 years before the arrival of the first humans – a view since disproved by the discovery of horse protein on Clovis tools.

However, statistical analysis by Andrew Solow, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, offered a different view on the possible role of humans. He explored the radiocarbon dating of the 24 most recent known ancient horse fossils.

His analysis indicated the ancient horses of Alaska could have persisted until perhaps 11,700 years ago, providing an overlap of several hundred years.

Solow noted that the fossil record was very incomplete.

“Just because the most recent remain is from 12,500 years ago, that doesn’t mean that the horse became extinct at this time,” he said in one interview after the 2006 publication of his findings – an observation that was later to be proved correct.

It was, he suggested, impossible to rule out human hunting as a cause or major contributing factor to North American horse extinction.

Fast-forward to 2009 and DNA analysis added another dramatic twist to the mystery.

Horses, the evidence now suggests, may have survived in North America until 7600 years ago – some 5000 years longer than previously thought. The new timeline suggests an overlap with human habitation approaching 6000 years.

Researchers who removed ancient DNA of horses and mammoths from permanently frozen soil in central Alaskan permafrost dated the material at between 7600 and 10,500 years old.

The findings suggested populations of these now-extinct mammals endured longer in the continental interior of North America, challenging the conventional view that these and other large species disappeared about 12,000 years ago.

It is possible the researchers unearthed the tiny genetic footprint of the last few hundred ancient horses to roam North America.

“We don’t know how long it takes to pinch out a species,” said Ross MacPhee, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History.

“Extinctions often seem dramatic and sudden in fossil records, but our study provides an idea of what an extinction event might look like in real time, with imperiled species surviving in smaller and smaller numbers until eventually disappearing completely.”

The researchers’ remarkable findings were made possible thanks to the DNA-preserving properties of permafrost.

MacPhee and his colleagues decided that the permafrost around wind-blown Stevens Village, on the banks of the Yukon River, fitted the bill perfectly.

In this location, sediments were sealed in permafrost soon after deposition.

Cores collected provided a clear picture of the local Alaskan fauna at the end of the last ice age. The oldest sediments, dated to about 11,000 years ago, contained remnant DNA of Arctic hare, bison, and moose; all three animals were also found in higher, more recent layers, as would be expected.

But one core, deposited between 7600 and 10,500 years ago, confirmed the presence of both mammoth and horse DNA. To make certain there was no contamination, the team did extensive surface sampling around Stevens Village.

No DNA evidence of mammoth, horse, or other extinct species was found in modern samples, a result that supports previous studies which have shown that DNA degrades rapidly when exposed to sunlight and various chemical reactions.

“The fact that we scored with only one layer is not surprising,” says MacPhee. “When you start going extinct, there will be fewer and fewer feet on the ground, and thus less and less source material for ancient DNA such as faeces, shed dermal tissues, and decaying bodies.”

His team also developed a statistical model to show that mammoth and horse populations would have dwindled to a few hundred individuals by 8000 years ago.

“At this point, mammoths and horses were barely holding on. We may actually be working with the DNA of some of the last members of these species in North America,” says permafrost expert Duane Froese, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta.

Why then, with such a substantial overlap in human and horse habitation, does the weight of evidence rest elsewhere?

The fossil record indicates that major changes in climate and vegetation at the end of the Pleistocene may have been the last nail in the coffin for the horse.

Extinction is not a rare event among life on Earth. In fact, the vast majority of species that have inhabited the planet are now extinct.

While the extinctions around the late Pleistocene saw the end to mammoths, giant sloths, horses and the like in the Americas, the extinction rate of North American mammals actually reached its highest level some six million years ago, resulting in the demise of about 60 genera. Several species of horses were driven to extinction at that time.

That period delivered the highest rate of extinctions in the Americas in 30 million years.

Evidence of climate change and the resulting change of vegetation is considered the most likely cause for horse extinction, but investigations by Johns Hopkins paleobiologist Steven Stanley may have pinned down the cause even more specifically.

Stanley, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, looked at the findings of other scientists and found evidence that it was the grittier nature of grass that may have caused the demise of equine species.

For tens of millions of years, as the Earth’s climate became cooler and dryer, the trend toward expanding grasslands and receding forests continued in North America.

About 13 million years ago, the 15 or so species of horses in North America were split between those with long teeth and those with shorter teeth. Also at that time, a few new species emerged that had very long teeth.

Grasses have a gritty compound called silica, which is contained in sand and is used to make glass. As animals chew grass, the silica wears down their teeth. Therefore, animals with longer teeth live longer because their teeth don’t wear as fast, and they can continue to feed.

As grasslands expanded, the horses with long teeth lived longer because they were best adapted to eating grasses instead of leaves. Living longer enabled them to produce enough offspring to guarantee survival of their species and the evolution of new species.

By 11 million years ago, only the horses especially adapted to eating grasses – those with longer teeth – were surviving in North America.

“Then, there is this sudden event, six million years ago, more or less, and what you see is a big extinction pulse, a big drop in total diversity, and the survivors are all the ones with very long teeth,” Stanley said.

The conventional wisdom has suggested that the long-toothed horses disappeared because of expanding grasses. But that just didn’t make sense, Stanley said, because the horses with long teeth were especially adapted to eating grasses.

“So, why would more grass be a problem for them?” Stanley asked.

Somehow, something about the grasses must have changed, he reasoned.

Meanwhile, other scientists had discovered that, as the climate became dryer and cooler, a different type of grass began to dominate North America. Those grasses, known as C4 grasses, which thrive in dryer climates, replaced many of the previously dominant grasses, known as C3 grasses.

“I thought, well, this seems like a long shot, but I wonder if there are on average more silica bodies in the C4 grasses than C3 grasses,” Stanley said.

His hunch proved correct. Stanley found that, on average, C4 grasses contained about three times as many of the silica particles as do C3 grasses.

“Think about a species that was doing all right eating C3 grasses. Maybe it lived 10 years on average and produced enough colts to reproduce the species. Well, what happens if that horse is suddenly only living seven years, or six years? It may not produce enough colts to perpetuate its species.

“I think that’s what happened. I think there was a big grind down.”

A blow it might have been, but the horse was far from finished in North America. But what led to their ultimate demise, along with a raft of other large mammals?

Several explanations have been offered by scientists, ranging from overhunting by humans to a meteor or comet impact, and novel infectious diseases.

However, most scientists find it hard to look beyond yet another period of substantial climate and vegetation change wrought by the end of the last glacial period.

The last glacial period began about 110,000 years ago and ended about 12,500 years ago, around the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Glaciation was at its peak about 18,000 years ago.

Some 70 per cent of North American large mammals became extinct between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago.

“The causes of this extinction – the role of humans versus that of climate – have been the focus of much controversy,” Dale Guthrie, of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, wrote in the journal Nature.

“Horses have figured centrally in that debate, because equid species dominated North American late Pleistocene faunas in terms of abundance, geographical distribution, and species variety, yet none survived into the Holocene epoch.

“The timing of these equid regional extinctions and accompanying evolutionary changes are poorly known,” he said.

He believes climate change and a shift from grasslands to tundra is the likely cause, resulting in a reduction in the animals’ food supply.

“Horses underwent a rapid decline in body size before extinction and I propose that the size decline and subsequent regional extinction … are best attributed to a coincident climate/vegetation shift,” he said.

Guthrie radiocarbon-dated bones from two species of extinct Alaskan horses. The bones date back about 12,500 years – 500 years before the first signs of human settlement in the area.

He found that the bones were about 12 per cent shorter than those from another horse that lived nearly 15,000 years earlier.

The evidence did not support human overkill and several other extinction causes,” he said.

“Comparable size declines at the end of the Pleistocene are not unique to horses,” he pointed out. “Bison declined more dramatically in an even shorter time span, but at a later date.

“The significance of this size decline among Alaskan horses just before their regional extinction is that environmental pressures provoking smaller body size may well have been the same ones that ultimately resulted in their extinction.”

What of the environmental changes in Alaska at the time of these extinctions? The last glacial period was a time in which the cold/arid northern Mammoth Steppe was most extreme, he said, though still capable of supporting a rich diversity of large mammals.

Evidence pointed to arid and windy conditions with a treeless, short grass-sedge-sage sward.

“Although the region’s large mammals were evidently adapted to handle cold/arid extremes, each species was evolutionarily fine-tuned to different optimal diets and habitats.”

A dramatic pollen shift occurred around 12,500 to 13,000 years ago. Landscape changes included the creation of lakes, bogs, shrub tundra, forests, low-nutrient soils, and plants highly defended against herbivore grazing.

“Vegetation in the north now supports a relatively small biomass of large herbivores, and almost no grazers,” he noted.

“The present data suggest that Alaskan horses prospered during the last glacial maximum, and appear to have been particularly well adapted to the more intense versions of the cold/arid Mammoth Steppe.

“Perhaps the declining body size of Alaskan horses and their extinction relate not only to the absolute decline of their access to optimal food resources, but also to increasing competition with other large mammals possessing the physiological capacities to thrive on the vegetation characteristic of this … end-Pleistocene transition.”

However, not all scientists ascribe to this view.

J. Tyler Faith
Recent findings from J. Tyler Faith, Ph.D candidate in the hominid paleobiology doctoral programme at the University of Wyoming, and Todd Surovell, associate professor of anthropology at the university, suggest the mass extinction occurred in a geological instant.Faith’s research revealed the extinctions as a sudden event that took place between 13.8 and 11.4 thousand years ago.

Faith’s findings provide some support to the idea that this mass extinction was due to human overkill, an extra-terrestrial impact or other rapid events rather than a slow attrition.

“The massive extinction coincides precisely with human arrival on the continent, abrupt climate change, and a possible extraterrestrial impact event” Faith said.

“It remains possible that any one of these or all, contributed to the sudden extinctions. We now have a better understanding of when the extinctions took place and the next step is to figure out why.”

So was it climate change and a resulting change in vegetation that drove horses to extinction? With evidence that changes in grass resulted in the extinction of roughly half of North America’s equine species six million years ago, is it not reasonable to assume that a similar vegetative change some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago could not have done the same thing?

The weight of evidence still rests in this camp, but totally dismissing the role of over-hunting is no longer so easy.

Not so long ago, there was no evidence of an overlap between North American horse extinction and the arrival of humans, let alone evidence of their hunting horses.

Researchers dig for evidence of early horse domestication in Kazakhstan.
Then, findings indicated an overlap of perhaps a few hundred years. Latest research suggests at least one pocket of horses in Alaska persisting until some 7600 years ago, creating a potential overlap of some 6000 years.However, the undoubted regional variations in horse extinction and limited knowledge about the geographical spread and numbers of the earliest human inhabitants of North America further clouds the picture.

There is now clear evidence that mankind hunted North American horses but were they doing so in numbers that made a difference? It is a question that may never be answered.

As for horses, their crossing of the Bering land bridge was a life-saving move for horses – and a life-changing one for humankind.

Last year, researchers found evidence that pushed horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan around 5500 years ago – some 1000 years earlier than thought and about 2000 years earlier than domesticated horses are known to have been in Europe.

Evidence suggests horses were originally domesticated, not just for riding, but also to provide food, including milk.

There is also evidence of selective breeding – the first tentative steps towards the breeds we are familiar with today.

So, in North America, was it climate change, altering vegetation or human predation that saw the extinction of the horse and other large-animal species? Could disease have played a part?

“It’s hard to see this as one of those things where a single piece of evidence will make it obvious what happened,” Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic.

“The phenomenon that people are trying to explain is not something that happened in one place at one time. It happened across the globe, at different times on different continents. I think that there are clearly multiple factors involved.”

Douglas Bamforth, Anthropology professor for the University of Colorado at Boulder, places his hand on one of the artifacts unearthed in Boulder. The artifacts, which may have been made during the Clovis period nearly 13,000 years ago, were neatly arranged in a cache near where this portrait was taken, suggesting that the users of these instruments may have intended to reuse them. © Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado)
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Solow concurs. “I think the notion that there was a single cause is probably not right. It’s probably more complicated than that.”I think that leaves everyone with a big job to do to investigate new sites, date remains, date human occupations, and try to do the best that they can,” he said.

The story of North American horses was far from over when the last few died out.

Horses made their return to the continent from 1493, through the Spanish Conquistadors.

The land that just a few thousand years earlier had proved too big a challenge for survival proved very much to their liking.

By the late 1700s parts of the western rangeland – Texas, in particular – were home to vast herds of wild horses.

While no scientific count was ever done in the 1800s to calculate horse numbers, estimates range up to two million. Researchers have suggested that one million is a more credible estimate.

Today, an estimated 27,000 wild horses occupy the western rangelands, with more than 30,000 held in holding facilities under a management programme viewed by wild horse advocates as controversial.

Horses ultimately played a pivotal role in the settlement and development of the frontier in a land where, just a few thousand years earlier, they were unable to survive.

By any measure, it has been a remarkable journey.

December 28, 2016     0 Comments

Together, Our Life Will Be

Your tears in my mane I forever hide
I listen to the silence your fears inside
Tell words you can not say anywhere else
For I know about you love for me
More than life, more than  self
Together our life will be


Now lay your head upon my shoulders
My love again consume your heart
Climb on my back, take me for a ride
As I  join the visions of your dreams
Together our life will be


As we ride and the wind flies by
Clean the day’s dust from our soul
Bonded together,  spirits refreshed
Listen to the sounds, of the breaths I take
The thunder of feet dance upon the ground
Together our life will be


Feel us moving, as one together
In this moment  nothing else matters.
Tell me your fears and tell me your dreams
I will keep them held tight, until you’re strong
Let your nights haunting, turn to daydreams with me.
Together our life will be


Rides over grass, prairie and snow covered ground
Hardened world left far behind
Lost in loneliness you will no longer feel
nor yearning for love of lost family n’friends
As  miracle of one life complete  we will make
Together our life will be
Together our life will be

December 27, 2016     0 Comments

Wild Horses are Native

(February 1, 1991)

Traditional Dakota/Lakota people firmly believe that the aboriginal North American horse did not become extinct after the last Ice Age, and that it was part of their pre-contact culture.

Scientists know from fossil remains that the horse originated and evolved in North America, and that these small 12 to 13 hand horses or ponys (sic) migrated to Asia across the Bering Strait, then spread throughout Asia and finally reached Europe. The drawings in the French Laseaux caves, dating about 10,000 B.C., are a testimony to their long westward migration. Scientists contend, however, that the aboriginal horse became extinct in North America during what is (known) as the “Pleistocene kill,” in other words, that they disappeared at the same time as the mammoth, the ground sloth, and other Ice Age mammals. This has led anthropologists to assume that Plains Indians only acquired horses after Spaniards accidentally lost some horses in Mexico, in the beginning of the XVIth (16th) century, that these few head multiplied and eventually reached the prairies.

Dakota/Lakota Elders as well as many other Indian nations contest this theory, and content that according to their oral history, the North American horse survived the Ice Age, and that they had developed a horse culture long before the arrival of Europeans, and, furthermore, that these same distinct ponys (sic) continued to thrive on the prairies until the latter part of the XIXth (19th) century, when the U.S. government ordered them rounded up and destroyed to prevent Indians from leaving the newly-created reservations. Although there is extensive evidence of this massive slaughter, no definitive evidence has yet been found to substantiate the Elders’ other claim, but there are a number of arguments in favour of the Indian position.

Post-glacial remains

Some biologists have pointed out that Elders could indeed be correct, for while the mammoth and other Pleistocene mammals died out during the last Ice Age in both continents, if the horse survived in Eurasia, there is no reason for it to have become extinct in North America, especially given similar environment and climate on the steppes and prairies.

In Eurasia, scientists have been able to trace the domestication of the horse through extensive archaeological work, fossil remains, burials, middens (garbage heaps) and artifacts. Such finds have, for instance, enabled them to determine that peoples there ate horses, buried them with notables, and helped them establish that men started riding about 3,500 B.C.

By comparison, very little archaeological work has been done on the prairies due in large part to budget constraints. There are also other problems. Whereas the Seythians, for instance, left magnificent gold jewelry which can be dated to 400 B.C., Indian petroglyphs are usually impossible to date accurately. Digs have also concentrated mainly on villages sites, but if prehistoric prairie Indians had the same aversions to eating horsemeat as Dakota/Lakota people have today, then middens (garbage heaps) would not contain the necessary evidence either. It is well known that Dakota/Lakota people have traditionally eaten dogs, and indeed they still do at certain times, but conversely they would no more eat horses than Europeans would eat dogs. So that if both these cultural traits, in regards to horses and dogs, are ancestral, it would be useless to seek horse remains in garbage heaps.

Dakota/Lakota burial customs are well documented: Bodies were placed on scaffolds on the prairies, and the bones were collected, cleaned and buried about one year later. As there is no tradition of ceremonial horse burials, with or without humans, one can assume that horses were simply left to die on the prairies where wolves and other scavengers would have efficiently dealt with their carcasses, thereby leaving scientists, once again, with few, if any, remains to discover.

So whereas the Eurasian cultural practices insured the survival of physical evidence of the presence and domestication of the horse thousands of years ago, it might well be that pre-contact Indian cultural practices and environmental factors are responsible for the absence of the same evidence on this continent.

The Indian pony and its characteristics

Dakota/Lakota people have an extensive “horse vocabulary,” and they distinguish between their “own” horses, which among other names they call “sunkdudan,” the small-legged horse, and the European imported horse which they call the long-legged horse, or the American Horse.

Between 1984 and 1987, this writer conducted extensive research on the prairies to retrace the itinerary of Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie who left a village site near Bismark, North Dakota, on 23 July, 1642, in an attempt to find the “People of the Horse.” He hoped they would take him to the “Western (China) Sea,” which Europeans had long sought in North America. He traveled 20 days, guided by two Mandans, and on 11 August (1642), he reached the “Mountain of the People of the Horse” where he waited 5 weeks for their arrival. In trying to locate this campsite, this writer used LaVerendrie’ s maps and diaries, as well as other documentation and interviewed numerous Elders and old ranchers. Eventually the site was located in Wyoming, and all of the people he met and traveled with were found to be Lakotas. But these interviews also lead to a wealth of information about the Indian pony.

According to Elders, the aboriginal pony had the following characteristics: It was small, about 13 hands, it had a “strait” back necessitating a different saddle from that used on European horses, wider nostrils, larger lungs so that its endurance was proverbial. One breed had a long mane, and shaggy (curly) hair, while another had a “singed mane.” This writer contacted a specialist in mammals and was told the Elders were describing the Tarpan and the Polish Przewalski horses, and that early, independent eyewitness accounts ought to be investigated to confirm the Dakota statements. This lead to further research for creditable European reports.

Frederick Wilhelm, Prince of Wurtemberg, a widely respected naturalist, traveled along the Mississippi and up the Missouri in 1823. Prince Wilhelm had studied zoology, botany and related sciences under Dr. Lebret, himself a student of Jussieux, Cavier and Gay-Lussac. An English translation of his diary, titled First Journey to North America in the years 1822 to 1823, was published in 1938 by the South Dakota Historical Society.

His memoirs show that he was a keen observer of the fauna and flora wherever he traveled, and it was interesting to note his remarks on the Indian pony’s characteristics:

“I interrupt my discourse, to say a few words concerning the horses of the Indians…At a cursory glance one might mistake them for horses from the steppes of eastern Europe. The long manes, long necks, strong bodies and strait back make them appear like the horses of Poland…On the whole the horses of the Indians are very enduring…” (So. Dak. Hist. Soc., XIX:378).

He explained this curious phenomena (sic) by postulating that the Indian pony had descended from the Spanish horses, but that it has “degenerated, ” so that “They now resemble the parent (Spanish) stock very little.”

If Elders are correct, and if the aboriginal pony did survive, it might well also explain why the ponies so closely resembled the Tarpan or the Polish horses, and perhaps systematic extermination of these ponies by the U.S. government has deprived science of very valuable information.

Early French manuscripts: Evidence of a Dakota horse culture prior to 1650

Other evidence exists which also militates in favor of the Indian position, that the aboriginal horse had already been tamed and ridden at the time of (white) contact.

The first mention of horses in French manuscripts dates from 1657, and led to an amusing misunderstanding. In August 1657, Pierre Esprit Radisson traveled from Quebec to Onondaga (Syracuse, N.Y.) and during this canoe trip, a 50y/o Iroquois told the explorer of a three-year trip he had taken as a young man to the “great river that divides itself in two” — the Mississippi. (Scull, Gideon G., Voyages, 1943:105). During that trip, he assured Radisson he had seen “a beast like a Dutch horse, that had a long & straight horne in the forehead,” and this horne was some 5 feet long. Following this story Radisson (Scull:107) comments:

“Now whether it was a unicorne, or a fibbe made by that wild man, yet (that) I cannot tell, but several others tould me the same, who have seene severall times the same beast, so that I firmly believe it.”

Similar stories had also reached the Atlantic Dutch colonies. O’Callaghan’ s Documentary History of New York (Vol. IV:77, 1851), has an engraving of this animal, with the title “Wild Animals of New Netherlands” which has been taken from a Dutch work published in Amsterdam in 1671. The description of this strange bea(st):

“On the borders of Canada animals are now and again seen somewhat resembling a horse; they have cloven hoofs, shaggy manes, a horn right out of the forehead, a tail like that of a wild hog, black eyes, a stag’s neck, and love the gloomiest wilderness, are shy of each other, so that the male never feeds with the female except when they associate for the purpose of increase, then they lay aside their ferocity. As soon as the rutting season is past, they again not only become wild but even attack their own.” (Soull, 1943:107, footnote 42.)

The clue to the identity of this fabulous beast, whose habits so resembled that of the horse, was finally discovered in the account of the western journey of the explorer Juan Cavelier de la Salle. He reached the Illinois River, in January 1680, and began to construct Fort Crevecoeur, at Piorea, Illinois. On 17 February (1680), two western chiefs visited him, one of whom had a tobacco pouch made of “the foot of a horse with part of the skin of the leg.” Upon being questioned, the chief answered that 5 days west of where he lived “the inhabitants fought on horseback with lances…”

From this description, it became evident that the “unicorns” seen by the Iroquois, in his younger days, were simply horses whose riders, perhaps hunting buffalo at a gallop, held their long spears in front of them, between the horse’s ears. As for the “cloven hoofs,” these could well have been the seams of the hide horseshoes Indians sometimes used.

Concerning the identity of these expert riders, La Salle thought they were Spaniards:

“(These riders) had long hair. This circumstance made us believe that he was speaking of Spaniards from New Mexico because Indians here do not let their hair grow long.”

La Salle was at the time with Illinois Indians and had not yet reached the Mississippi, so he had no way of knowing the hairstyle of other Indian nations, but Radisson had gone to “the great river that divides itself in two,” in 1655 and again in 1659, and had met Dakotas. Radisson (Scull, 1943:151) stated:
“Those people have their haires long. They reape twice a yeare; they were called Tatanka, that is to say buff (buffalo).” Tatanka is of course the Dakota/Lakota name of the buffalo, and as Radisson states, it was, and still is, the sacred name of the entire “Sioux” nation: Tatanka Oyate, or Pte Oyate, The Buffalo Nation.

This passage is interesting because it contains the very first Dakota word ever written by a European, and at the same time gives the true name of the nation, mistakenly called “Sioux” by later Europeans.

Were these expert prairie horsemen indeed Dakota/Lakota people as Radisson’s quote states? A manuscript map dated 1673, but probably earlier still, and its lengthy accompanying text indicate that they undoubtedly were.

The text states, and the map shows the entire plains area, from Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains as “Manitounie, ” a French transcription of the old Dakota term for prairie, “Manitu,” and “oni,” to live. Hence Prairies Dwellers, a name which the Ojibwa translated into their own language as “Mascoutens Puane,” from “Mascoutens, ” prairie, and “Puane/Boine, ” the still current term for all “Sioux” people. Both names were also translated into French as “Sioux des Prairies,” Prairie Sioux. This same map, part of the Cedex Canadensis, at the Gilchrist Museum in Oklahoma, also shows that near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, where the Iroquois had seen his “unicorn,” there were indeed “Nations who have horses.”

Hence, French manuscripts indicate that the entire prairies, from the Mississippi to the Rockies, were occupied by the Dakota/Lakota people when the first French explorers went there, and that they were skilled horsemen. Prince Frederick of Wurtemberg, who witnessed the Indian technique for hunting buffalo, was dully impressed:

“The Indians are extremely bold and daring riders. This is shown especially in their hunting of the buffalo. In this dangerous work it is often hard to say which has the greater skill, the rider or the horse. Since the Indian who manipulates the bow and arrow can not make use of the reins, he must leave the horse entirely to its own discretion. The animal must be carefully trained to approach the bison within a few paces. It must run close to the powerful and often angry bull, and must be ready at all times to evade with the greatest swiftness the charges of the terrible oppoinent.” (S. Dak. Hist. Soc., XIX:379).

The interesting point here is that several years prior to 1657, these Prairie Indians were already expert horsemen, having developed remarquable riding and hunting skills. That such expertise was developed by 1650 is remarquable in many ways: It implies that the original 11 head had so multiplied that within a few short years after the horses appeared, these Prairies Dakotas had devised methods for catching them, had learned to tame them, had become expert riders, had devised the most efficient buffalo hunting techniques on horseback, and had also devised techniques for training their horses in these skills. These accomplishments, in so short a time, seem all the more extraordinary when examining the development of similar skills in other areas of the world.

Eurasia: A comparison

By comparison, in Eurasia the thought of catching and taming horses took thousands of years. An easily accessible Time-Life book, titled First Horseman, by Frank Trippet, describes the reasons why it took thousands of years for people first confronted with horses, to even think of riding them:

“The horse’s nature obviously had a lot to do with its initial failure to attract riders. Few men would have been tempted to mount so unpredictable a beast — and fewer still would have been able to stay aboard. (It) had evolved into the most temperamental of all domestic animals, able to elude predators by its sheer speed, the only possible defence on terrain (the Steppe) that offered no place to hide. In body and mind the horse is perfectly designed for flight, not fight. The horse relies on its uncommonly keen eyesight and marvelously acute sense of smell to send it galloping off at any hint of danger. Yet, once trapped, it kicks, bucks, slashes out with its forefeet and bites — often lethally. Also stallions protecting mares and foals will attack.”

“Perhaps most important, the untamed horse is naturally likely to go all but beserk when anything lands on its back, simply because it has learned through the millennia that anything is likely to be a predator. Thus, if man had dreamed of riding the horse much earlier than he did, he could hardly have expected a hospitable reception from the animal that one day would become his partner.” (Trippet, 1974:47).

Thus Trippet explains why inhabitants of the steppes only began riding about 3,500 B.C., thousands of years after they first appeared on that continent. The same reasons, however, would seem to preclude Prairie Dakotas from being so bold and so skillful, so quickly, not to mention adopting an entirely new horse culture in an exceedingly short time. Yet, another point is even more interesting.

It has been argued that Indians had seen Spanish riders, and thus had developed their astonishing equestrian skills, but an example from the Middle East, where a similar situation occurred, shows the time required from the arrival of this “strange beast” into culture, to when its people rode awkwardly for several generations after it first appeared among them, even when experts were there to teach them.

“More than a century passed before the Assyrians, learning from more skilled horsemen, like the Scythians, began to feel at home on horseback…For example, Assyrain cavalrymen of the Ninth Century B.C. required aides to ride beside them and manage their mounts so that they would be free to use their weapons.” (Trippet, 1974:51)

These examples from other cultures make it difficult to believe that the aboriginal horse had indeed disappeared during the last Ice Age.
First, the initial 11 head herd, released in the early XVIth (16th) century, would have had to multiply rapidly in a few years, and to such an extent that horses in sufficient numbers reached the prairies. Then, between that time and at the latest 1650, Dakota/Lakota people would have had to overcome their “mercurial disposition. ” Prince Frederick mentions repeatedly how wild these ponys (sic) were. Then, they would have had to learn to catch horses, tame them, learn to ride, become expert horsemen, devise the best techniques for training their horses in these skills. Compared to the time required by the Assyrians — with expert teachers — and indeed all other Eurasian horse cultures, to develop such accomplishments, the Indian feat seems unbelievable.

Trippet (1974:47-48) concluded that: “In light of the horse’s mercurial disposition, its eventual conquest by man seems in many ways a fantastic achievement. ” Even more fantastic, then, is the incredible speed with which a horse culture was developed by the Dakota people. It might, however, be explained if the aboriginal North America horse had survived the Pleistocene, and thus had been part of a long-standing horse culture before the arrival of Europeans, as Dakota/Lakota Elders contend. And, therefore, that they had acquired these skills over the millennia, like their Eurasian counterparts, rather than in the space of one or two generations.


Although there as yet (is) no conclusive physical evidence that the aboriginal horse survived the Pleistocene, and was part of the pre-contact civilization on the prairies, there is sufficient evidence — and indeed much more than is presented in this short paper — for experts to seriously reconsider that long-held theory that Prairies Dakotas had to wait for the arrival of the white man to give them horses.

According to the Dakota/Lakota oral tradition, the aboriginal horse never became extinct and was part of their pre-contact culture.

The horse is aboriginal to North America, and biologists can offer no scientific reasons for its extinction here and not in Eurasia.

The absence of post-glacial remains could well be explained by Indian/Dakota cultural traits and environmental factors.

The astounding horsemanship of Prairie Dakotas within a few years of the appearance of the “Spanish horse,” argues for this having been a traditional skill.

The government pony-extermination policy may well have deprived scientists of unique specimens.

Many theories have taken root because of preconceptions and bias. In this instance, no one can deny a long-standing prejudice against Indians, and the efforts which were made to minimize their accomplishments in many areas, and to discount oral history. In light of the above, one might well wonder if the long-held theory regarding the Indian pony is not a survival of these XIXth (19th) century prejudices.

Definite proof of the survival of the aboriginal North American horse, and of a pre-contact Indian horse culture, might yet be discovered. Whatever happens, the few remaining Indian ponies should be treasured as part of North Dakota’s unique heritage.

Horses definitely originated here, and whether the few remaining ponys (sic) are throwbacks, or are they actual descendants, they are a living testimony of the state’s contribution to the advancement of many civilizations throughout the world.