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Earth Notes: The Changing Narrative of the American Horse

Three brown-and-white horses stand together in shallow water, two drinking and one with his head turned toward the camera.
Bureau of Land Management
Wild horses in Wyoming.

Ancestors of present-day horses originated on North America and spread around the world from there. But according to the archaeological record they were absent from the continent since the end of the Pleistocene some ten thousand years ago, until Europeans re-introduced them.

Many believe the re-population of the horse occurred on the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Historians had once credited conquistadors Francisco Coronado and Hernando de Soto in the early 1540’s for the spread of Spanish horses. Yet closer examination of records reveal they brought nearly all stallions on their expedition, so their escaped herds couldn’t have been the source.

More likely, descendant herds fanned out from the 1598 Juan De Onate Expedition after he established Santa Fe as colonial headquarters for the Spanish Kingdom of New Mexico. United Pueblo forces overthrew the Spanish during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, in America’s first Revolution. As a result, hundreds of horses, possibly as many as 1,500, passed into tribal hands. Spanish herds in the Southwest were thereby traded by the Pueblo Tribes to the Plains Tribes, forever changing their lifeways and cultures.

It’s a narrative that’s still shifting as new evidence comes to light. Some scholars now wonder whether horses ever fully left the continent, or if they were perhaps reintroduced at an earlier point in history. Only time and new research will reveal the iconic history of the American horse.

This Earth Note was written by Carrie Calisay Cannon and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Carrie Calisay Cannon is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and also of Oglala Lakota and German ancestry. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Resource Management. If you wish to connect with Carrie you will need a fast horse; by weekday she fills her days as a full-time Ethnobotanist with the Hualapai Indian Tribe of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, by weekend she is a lapidary and silversmith artist who enjoys chasing the beautiful as she creates Native southwestern turquoise jewelry.
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