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Photos:, etching by Jose Cisneros,

The "Holy Grail" for many horse paleontologists would be to prove that horses never fully became extinct in North America. So far, such evidence has eluded them. Current history indicates that the Spanish were the first to bring horses back to North America, after a multi-thousand year absence.

"The original horses brought to America from Spain were relatively unselected*. These first came to the Caribbean islands, where populations were increased before export to the mainland. In the case of North America the most common source of horses was Mexico as even the populations in the southeastern USA were imported from Mexico rather than the Caribbean. The North American horses ultimately came from this somewhat non-selected base."

- from NORTH AMERICAN COLONIAL SPANISH HORSE Part I, History and Type by D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, Ph.D
*(In other words, a wide cross-section of breed types, size, coloring, etc. that were available at the time.)

Within the next 100 years, other countries brought their own horses - France and England most notably. Early horse importations included 2 main types of Spanish horses  - the sturdy Barb type and the larger, more elegant Andalusian type - and France contributed larger "Norman" horses (precursors of the modern day Percheron), and from England came Thoroughbreds, ponies, and carriage horses. (With the exception of the Arabian, horses in those days were recognized by type and use, but organization and official registration of pedigrees came much later for most of today's breeds.)

map from University of Washington collection

Map Showing Spread of the Spanish horse (Mexican-bred and born) in North America
(As you can see, the Great Basin where wild horses live today was not part of this movement. That happened later, with ranching and settlement in the 1800's)

Are Wild Horses Native Wildlife?
Some people think they should be classified as such:

Dr. Jay Fitzpatrick & Dr. Patricia Fazio
Wild Horses as Native Wildlife

Another interesting (and short) article:
"Native Surviving Horse Hypothesis"

From "Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape"

Horses were essential for transportation during the European exploration, colonization, and ultimate conquest of American continent. When demand for horses exceeded European supplies, the Spanish set up breeding farms in the Carribbean and central Mexico, using conquered native people as slaves to care for the horses. In this way, the Indian people learned horsemanship and although they were initially forbidden to own a horse, they did eventually acquire them. By the mid 1700's, many native groups had developed their own breeding operations and actively traded horses with other native groups, and in this way horses spread throughout the continent. 

"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 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. (Note by Webmaster: This account also appears in the book Among Wild Horses: A Portrait of the Pryor Mountain Mustangs By Lynne Pomeranz, Rhonda Massingham, and Hope Ryden)
*"This writer" being Clare Henderson

Note: What is interesting is that this account occured almost 40 years before the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which most historians consider the beginning of Native American possession of horses, and it happened in a geographic region far removed from the Pueblos of the Southwest. Yet these Indians were already well-known in these Northern areas for having horses, and being skilled horsemen.

In trying to locate this campsite, Ms. Henderson 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.

According to the Lakota Elders, the aboriginal pony had the following characteristics: It was small, about 13 hands, it had a "strait" back necessitating a different type of saddle from European horses, and wider nostrils with larger lungs so that its endurance was proverbial. This account described two distinct types, or breeds: One had a long mane, and shaggy (curly) hair, while the other had a "singed (roached?) mane." This description is consistent with the Tarpan and the Polish Przewalski horses, as well as various breeds of modern equus caballus, such as the Icelandic Fjord, for the roached mane, and any other modern horse for the long mane. It also is possible the writer was describing American Curly horses.

France began sending horses to Quebec as early as 1665. These were large, heavily-muscled work horses related to today's Canadian and Percheron breeds. The French in Canada generally maintained good trade relations with the native people, and the Northern Indian tribes quickly acquired horses from the French.

Above (left): French horse            Above (right): Photo by Edward R Curtis of Apsaroke (Crow) woman and horse

Horses from England began arriving in New England in 1629. Until the Westward expansion of European-Americans during the mid-1800's, these tended to stay East of the Mississippi.

As early as 1620 there are records of Native Americans in the Southwest escaping from Spanish oppression - and taking horses with them. Most likely this is one such: Horse and burro bones dating from 1635 -1705 enearthed in Southern California.

Below are some examples of cave drawings found in the Rocky Mountain/Great Basin areas of the United States, depicting people on horseback. Because they depict horses, they are assumed to be post-Colombian.

Canyon de Cehlly, Arizona

Arches National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The picture above is a pictograph discovered in Anubis Cave Number Two in Colorado from the book In Plain Sight Old World Records in Ancient America, by Gloria Farley 1994

Lona Patton sent me these photos (left, with detail above) of a cave pictograph located in a remote area of Wyoming.


Beginning: Menu  Pre-History  Domestication  Return to America  Return to the Wild   Mid-1800's to 1970   The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program   Wild Horses & Burros in the 21st Century

Alternative Histories   Our Mustang Heritage