A Horse’s Tale
brown horse


True or not, it was too good a tale to overlook.  I heard it from a fellow who was running a rock shop in Marin County.  You never know where you’re going to hear a good story, or who will tell it to you, or when. 

I happened to be in town because of a meeting I had to go to that weekend.  Having some time to spare, I spent it wandering around the Old Town section, alert as always for Odd Stuff or Strange Things.  The rock shop looked promising.  It was quite large, and crammed full of rare and unusual items – crystals, minerals, fossils, artifacts, folk art.  I didn’t have a lot of cash, nor was I sincerely in need of any of the stuff there (some Philistines would have called it junk!), but I hated to leave without buying something.  After considerable deliberation I selected an odd-looking fossil.  It was labeled “horse tooth.”

The man running the place  - either the manager or an employee, I wasn’t sure – was tall, lean, in his forties.  He looked like someone who spent time outdoors and took care of himself.  I wondered how many of the rocks and fossils he had collected himself. 

He polished my selection with a chamois and began wrapping it in tissue paper. 

“This horse tooth is from the State of Nevada,” he explained.  “Most people don’t know that horses originally evolved in the United States.”

I hadn’t known that either.  In fact I was surprised to hear it. 

“I was raised in Nevada myself,” he told me.  “Lovelock.  I saw some things happen there that made me sick.  Things hardly anyone has ever heard about.”

It was then he told me his story – after I had assured him that I have seen some strange things myself, and so am not quick to scoff or disbelieve.  But before I relate what he told me, I must provide some other information.  Without this additional background, I fear the Reader will think our story ridiculous, and be quick to dismiss it.  I can’t swear the story is true, but after some research I found it at least possible.

Now, at the time, I knew practically nothing about horses.  I have been on the back of a horse exactly twice in my life.   The first time was when I was six years old, to have my picture taken.  The horse reared and tried to throw me off.  The second time was when I was nineteen.  Suffice it to say, I concluded I would be safer riding motorcycles.  Horses have minds of their own. 

Having grown up in the City, I knew nothing about these animals.  But this story was too interesting to forget, so I did some research.  I learned things about horses that even most horse owners don’t know.

I wondered about the claim that horses evolved in North America.  I had always assumed most animals evolved either in Africa or Asia.  That was the first item I had to look up.  As it turns out, equines did come from here.  Horses have one of the most complete fossil records, so there’s not much dispute about that.  The earliest known horse was Eohippus, the Dawn Horse, which lived and played in the Eocene.  It was about the size of a dog. 

After that, the history of horses becomes complicated.  In fact, not only did horses evolve in North America, several different kinds evolved.  Some were tiny, some were big.  The direct ancestor of the modern horse was called “Hipparion.”  Around 10 to 15K years ago, they all supposedly became extinct.  This was about the same time people appeared on the continent, according to most archeological theories.  Meanwhile, horses had wandered across the land bridge into Asia and Europe.  About the time they were becoming extinct in America, highly talented artists were painting them in caves in Southern France.  Apparently they were being hunted for food in both places.  Most likely, humans never had much success in catching them, until throwing spears and atlatls were invented.  But Homo Sapiens nearly wiped them out.

cave horse

Around 7K years ago, the only horses left in the world were in central Asia, around what is now Ukraine.  About a thousand years after that, a few people in Asia began keeping horses domestically, both for food and riding.  Horses began to make a comeback.

So far, there’s not much controversy, at least not among most authorities.  But there are two questions which continue to nag at the minds of a few skeptics: 

1.       Did horses really become totally extinct in America?

 2.       When, precisely, did the Indians start riding horses?

Nearly all text books claim that the answer to the first question is “Yes.”  The same books say the answer to the second is “some time after 1500, when the first European explorers arrived.”

Here is where we begin to question authority.  The Indians themselves claim they had horses long before the Spaniards got here.  Not, of course, all  Indians.  Cortez saw no Indian horses in Cuba or Mexico.  In fact, Cortez brought the first Spanish horses to America in 1519.  (He was careful not to let the natives get hold of any.)  The Quechua (Inca) were dismounted when Pizarro arrived.  Cabeza de Vaca walked from Florida to Mexico in 1535 and saw no horses among the Zuni or other Southwestern tribes. 

But what of the so-called Plains tribes, the Lakota, Blackfoot, and others?  One clear fact was that Indians did not  have horses, say two thousand years ago.  If they had them, they would have left records.  There would be pictures of them on rocks.  The only pictographs depicting horses date from much later.  I wondered when the first Europeans had contacted the Plains tribes, and if they had seen horses.  So I looked it up.  Here’s what one researcher (Roe) reports:

We should in any event be compelled to date the Snake [Shoshoni]  horses not later, and very probably much earlier, than 1700. (p. 128)

As it turns out, the earliest French fur trappers reached the Western Plains around 1660.  Not only were the Plains tribes already using horses, they had a highly developed horse technology and were riding horse breeds, such as the Apaloosa, not known anywhere else on Earth.

The more I learned about this subject, the more amazed I became.  Amazed, that is, that all the text books still claim that Indians got horses from the Spanish.  This is impossible, unless they were somehow able to breed an entirely new and unique horse strain in less than two hundred years, as well as developing an entire equestrian cultural tradition. 

There are three or four other possibilities for derivation of the American horse.  One option, highly plausible, is that they got horses from the Vikings.  After all, Columbus was not  the first European to discover America.  It’s more accurate to say he was the last.  There is ample evidence that the Norse penetrated as far as the Midwest by the Thirteenth Century.  The early Norse sagas mention their transport of cattle to Vinland.  If they brought cows, why not horses?  Horses would have made excellent trade items, as well enabling scouting expeditions.  Vikings used a small horse known as the Iceland Pony. 

Iceland Pony 

The typical “Indian pony” was smaller than Spanish horses.  In fact, the Spanish despised horses with more than one color in their coat.  A Spaniard would never have ridden a dapple or paint.  Indian mounts were nearly always multicolored.  Contemporary paintings from the early Nineteenth Century showing Indians riding horses make it clear that these were small animals – one can tell by comparing the size of the riders with their mounts. [3]  

Indian Pony

Therefore, the Iceland Pony would be one good candidate for an ancestor to Native American horses.  It matches the same general description.  Also, the time frame for its introduction to North America would be about right.  However, it’s not the only candidate.  Another possible is an Asian horse. 

The Chinese have historical records of expeditions to America; there’s plenty of evidence of pre-Columbian contact with Asia, starting with Jomon pottery found in Peru, New World plants such as corn and peanuts found in India, etc, etc.  Przewalski’s horse is another possible match for Indian Ponies.  Not that it’s identical, but the physical description is much closer than the typical Spanish horse.