By Dr. Richard W. Slatta, The Cowboy Professor at North Carolina State
One simply cannot imagine a cowboy or a cowgirl without a horse. (By
the way, when a cowboy says "horse" he generally means a male animal,
not a mare).
The swift and powerful horse has long been domesticated by human beings for use as a draft animal, for transportation, and in warfare, and has figured notably in art and mythology. The riding of horses was not practical until suitable bits and other controlling devices were invented, and the horse did not supplant humans and oxen at heavy farm labor until the appearance of an efficient harness.
The Spanish reintroduced domesticated horses as they explored and conquered
the New World in the sixteenth century. This reintroduction profoundly
changed many American Indian cultures. The Spanish brought horses to
the New World in the early fifteenth century. Some animals escaped to
form the mustang or wild horse herds. Domesticated horses descended
from those of the conquistadors are termed Spanish horses. They are
often bays or sorrels.
Horses are commonly measured in terms of hands. One hand equals about four inches. If a horse is said to stand 10-2 hands, that means it is 40 + 2 in tall at the withers. (The withers is the highest point on the horse over the shoulders when the animal's head is bent down as when grazing). There are three major groups of and about 100 different breeds.
Small ponies, like the Shetland or Welsh, stand only 10 to 14-2 hands and weigh less than 850 pounds. A light horse, the type a cowboy would generally ride, stands 14-2 to 17 hands and weighs 800 to 1,300 pounds. Large draft horses, such as the Belgian or Percheron, tower 15-2 to 19 hands and weigh 1,500 to 2,600 pounds.
United States light horse breeds, especially the thoroughbred and quarter
horse, are widely used for pleasure riding. Saddle horses vary widely
in type, ability, and temperament. The Standard Bred is used mainly
for harness racing and trotting.
J. W. Grant MacEwan provided some excellent thumbnail sketches of various North American breeds in the Canadian Cattlemen (March 1949). Nez Perce Indians, excellent horse breeders, apparently developed the versatile Appaloosa, a distinctively spotted horse. "They possess vigor, hardiness, light tails and manes, and spotted coats, especially over the rumps." Fans can visit the Appaloosa Museum, 5070 Highway 8 West, PO Box 8403, Moscow, ID 83843; tel. 208-882-5578.
Morgans can trace their lineage to a single stallion, Justin Morgan, foaled in Massachusetts in 1793. "The horses are usually smaller than Standard Breds, but possess symmetry and great courage."
The Tennessee walking horse combines a comfortable gait with a gentle disposition. Their running walk "is a characteristic gain with long stride and one which possesses an unusual degree of utility, being easy on both horse and rider." The adaptable quarter horse likewise originated in the American South. Renowned for its cowsense and short-distance speed, the quarter horse remains a favorite of ranch, rodeo, and reining cowpersons.
saddle horse is light, strong, fast, and generally taller than the quarter
horse. It is comfortable to ride over long distances. "They are primarily
show horses, with long necks, high carriage of head, exaggerated flexion
when in action and superb grace."
Imported breeds have also played important roles in the Americas. Spaniards treasured the golden-colored palomino, and the breed has remained very popular. Hernán Cortés brought at least one with him on his invasion of the Mexican Mainland in 1519. The animals have a refined and lively manner.
breeds, the Arabian is one of the oldest. It is ancestor in part to
every modern riding, harness, or coach horse. Fast, compact, and beautiful,
Arabians make excellent mounts. A hot blood, it tends to be nervous,
but it has great endurance. By crossing the Arabian and the Thoroughbred,
breeders produce the strong, intelligent Anglo-Arabian.
Some breeds, like the palomino, have a standard color. Many breeds, however, include animals of varying colors from jet black to gray to white. Bays are brownish with some auburn or red shades. The mane, tail, and stockings are black. Chestnut are similar to bays, but mane, tail, and stockings are the same color as the coat or lighter. Duns are grayish-yellow to grayish-gold, with black mane and tail.
Rider and Mount:
In cowboy mythology, a horseman usually shows special affection for his mount. Famous horse and rider duos of the western movies, like Roy Rogers and Trigger, perpetuate this notion. But cowboys needed a fresh, strong mount for strenuous ranch work, so they rode a number of different animals. In fact, most cowboys didn't even own their own mounts. Ranchers generally supplied working horses for their hands. But American cowboys were unlikely to mistreat their mounts. Ranchers would not countenance destruction of valuable property.
Cowboys everywhere shared many superstitions concerning their horses. The color of a horse was important to a cowboy. Vaqueros, for instance, retained a Spanish prejudice, perhaps traceable to Arab roots, against spotted or yellow mounts. Vaqueros preferred dark-colored animals, chestnuts, blacks, and grays.
Vaqueros in turn passed their superstitions along to Anglo cowboys. Many cowboys in the United States believed that paints (also called pintos by old timers) did not make good cutting horses. They considered solid-colored mounts to be better work animals. Cowboys preferred darker horses and avoided pintos, palominos, and Appaloosas. Interestingly, the Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest bred Appaloosas and believed them superior as war-horses.
Jack Porter reported that these color preferences extended to the northern
ranges of the United States. He helped trail a herd from Oregon to Wyoming
in 1883. "A rangeman," recalled Porter, "would rarely ever buy a horse
for his cavvy [band of saddle horses, from the Spanish caballada] unless
it was a `straight-colored' one, so that was the reason our cavvy, like
most all others, was composed of bays, browns, grays, sorrels, blacks,
whites, and roans."
A great folklore and history surrounds the horse in the Western Hemisphere. North America's horse population peaked about 1910, when there were about 20 million domestic horses. Although the horse's use as a draft animal is now negligible, the animal remains very popular for ranch work and recreational riding. China, however, remains the leading horse-producing country in the world. The United States, Mexico, Brazil, and the former Soviet Union also produce many horses.
of this Page
Lazy S Headquarters