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How Well They Served, Suffered, and Survived

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In this classic book, historian Grant MacEwan celebrates teh contributions of teh magnificent Clydesdales, Percherons, Belgians, Shires, Suffolks, and Canadiens as well as the dedicated people who cherished these special animals and made them famous. Heavy Horses
Copyright 1986 Western Producer Prairie Books
165 pages,
ISBN 1-894004-74-4.

Horses of draft type and breeding were the engines that powered the wheels of agriculture and transportation for generations before being displaced by motorized machines. They were the obedient slaves, not always treated with gratitude and mercy. Emaciation, harness galls, overgrown hooves, and shortened lives too often betrayed neglect, abuse, and silent suffering when there should have been appreciation and compassion.

Frontier homesteaders and farmers in backward parts of the world might be grateful for oxen as sources of power because of their ability to live off the land. But they dreamed of having horses and probably realized that if agricultural people never owned and used anything more serviceable than the indifferent and uninspiring oxen, progress would have been seriously retarded. Farming practice would have been slow to graduate from flails and sickles and walking plows. All history would have been different and decidedly more dull.

The long and amazing story of ups and downs that can be told about the workhorse and his ancestors is often taken for granted. In some ways, the story is glorious, in others sad. With the possible exception of the turkey, the horse surpasses all members of the barnyard fraternity in length of residence on this continent. If horses were conscious of their history and could relate it they would, quite properly, be the proudest critters of them all. And if humans were more conscious of their ancient and current debts to their slaves and companions, there would be more expressions of concern and more acts of mercy.

For millions of years, wild horses were at home on these North American plains. The fossilized proof is there, "written in ageless terms on the pages of the rocks." It makes clear that much of the horse's evolutionary rise from a miniature ancestor no bigger than a wire-haired terrier, to varieties the size and shape of the modern draft horse, took place right here.

The wild horses must have been present in great numbers. Some scholars believe that horses were at one time more numerous than any other North American mammals. They were still here when the first humans entered the continent 20,000 or more years ago, coming, no doubt, by way of an Ice Age land connection between the land masses now known as Siberia and Alaska.

But the horses of the wild North American strains, once so abundant, fell upon bad times and died out completely in these parts. The exact reasons for the tragic loss will never be known, but scientists will not rule out the possibilities of disease, an increase in natural enemies, a major shift in climate, or a change in the balance of nature due to the presence of a new species such as man.

The doomed horses might have taken their race with them to extinction had it not been for earlier escapes to Asia. Some of the North American stock moved out over the same land bridge by which humans, mastodons, mammoths, and some other new forms entered.

Horses are believed to have been domesticated in China a few thousand years ago. After spreading widely in Asia and Europe, they were taken across the Mediterranean to Arabia and North Africa where type improvement took place and a branch of the refined strain appeared later as the highly regarded Arabian breed. Cavalry forces aided by the same superior Arabian and North African horses drove westward, victoriously, in the eighth century. Crossing into Europe, they triumphed in Spain but, weakened by the mounting distance from their home base, they suffered defeat in France. In their retreat, the Moor invaders lost or abandoned many of their superior horses which were taken joyously as prizes of war by the French and the Spaniards. The captured horses proved valuable for breed improvement in both countries and doubtlessly contributed greatly to the creation of new breeds, especially in France. There was instant enthusiasm for horse betterment in Spain and when Columbus was about to set sail, horses of the best lines were supplied from the Spanish royal stables.

As part of an expansion program in the New World, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez landed sixteen or seventeen of the good horses on the North American mainland in 1519, the first of the race to be returned to the native land after its long spell of horselessness.

After thousands of years without horses, the North American Indians forgot that there were such creatures and when they saw representatives of the equine family again, they were filled with fear as though the animals might be man-eating monsters. But in spite of their initial forebodings the native people were quick to forget fears and pursue the benefits of owning these animals that had become servants of man.

By capturing strays and stealing from the Spanish newcomers, the Indians very soon became proud possessors. Ownership of horses was to change completely the way of life of the Indian people, malting them more skillful in warfare, more effective in the hunt, and more dashing in courtship. It became instantly obvious, also, that with one tribe in possession of horses, neighboring tribesmen had to have them at any price. Hence, the new horse strain spread north and west, mainly through what became a leading pastime or game-stealing.

The Comanches were probably the first of the North American Indians to see the horses brought by the Spaniards and the first to acquire their own mounts. This would explain why these Indians became superior horsemen. Anybody about whom it was said that he could "ride like a Comanche" was being paid a high compliment. By 1715 these tribesmen were well mounted and the Kiowa and Missouri Indians were riding soon thereafter. The Crows, the Snakes, and Mandans followed in rapid succession. Horses of the new strain were moving ever closer to what is now Canada.

Horses from France were brought for the benefit of colonists in the St. Lawrence River Valley as early as 1665. The west of presentday Canada had to wait another sixty-five years for Indians to ride their first horses into the area. Understandably, the process of passing horses from one tribe to another through theft, took time. Noted historian Arthur Silver Morton maintained that the first representatives of the new race appeared in the valley of the Bow River in the possession of an invading war party of Snake Indians in 1730. The Blackfoot of the southwestern prairies were the first of the region's residents to obtain horses-also by stealing-and then it was only a matter of time until the Crees had them and then the Assiniboines. By that time all the aggressive Indians on the plains were mounted.

This Indian possession of horses held advantages for the first European settlers in the West. The Selkirk settlers who began arriving in 1812-the majority of whom were from Scotland-felt an urgent need for livestock, especially horses. Having known the specialized breeds of Scotland, England, and Ireland, they were unimpressed by the Indian horses they saw. Although they traced to the high grade Spanish stock, these seminative Indian horses had deteriorated greatly and were now small and scrubby in appearance. The settlers longed for the imposing breeds of their homelands and failed to recognize certain characteristics of great importance in the horses they were able to obtain from the tribesmen, characteristics such as hardiness, adaptation to climate, and sure-footedness.

The fact was that these cayuse horses were better than they were judged at first appearance and infinitely better than no horses at all. The settlers obtained them by barter and then discovered a problem they had not anticipated: it happened too often that the native from whom a horse was acquired during daylight, returned at night to recover the animal by theft. It took time to convince the native people that stealing horses was regarded as a crime; they preferred to think of horse stealing as a game or pastime and reasoned, almost convincingly, that if they steal your horse tonight, it is your privilege to steal it back tomorrow night, "if you're smart enough to play the game."

But not many of the settlers were ready to play and losses by theft were wholly discouraging, whether the thievery was perpetrated by Indians or non-Indians who liked to drive their ill-gotten gains north, or south to cross the international boundary. The Selkirk settlers in 1816 had twenty-one horses in the colony and then, suddenly, horse thieves came by night and lifted all of them.


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