A  Horse's Tale - 2
Another theoretical possibility is that horses never actually became extinct in North America.  This, in fact, is what many Native Americans believe.  Perhaps a few enclaves of wild horses continued to exist in remote areas until some unidentified tribe began raising them. 

Which brings me back to the story I heard at the Rock Shop.

“When I was a teenager, up in Nevada,” the manager told me, ‘I saw some terrible things happen.  Things would make you sick. 

“There was this rancher, see.  Not far from Lovelock.  This would have been back in 1970, I think.  This rancher owned some good grazing land.  Maybe two hundred acres or so.  Now, you’re not supposed to slaughter wild horses in Nevada.  It’s against the law.  But this guy wanted to get rid of a certain small herd that he said was eating up his best hay and forage.  So he applied to the State for special permission. 

“He had to give a good reason, other than his losing hay.  So he said this herd was a degenerate strain, useless for anything except dog food.  He claimed they might cross breed with other mustangs and bring down the quality of the herds.  They were small and malformed, with strange looking hooves.  This rancher’s explanation for their being degenerate was that they were half-starved and badly nourished. 

“That was a clear contradiction, you see.  Those horses couldn’t be eating the guy’s best hay and be malnourished at the same time.   But the State bought it.  He got permission, went out there with two or three ranch hands, and shot every last horse in that herd. 

“Thing is, there were some other witnesses who saw those horses.  Someone must have been paid off, because this was a major crime.  You see, those horses were not malnourished or degenerate.  They were native horses.  That rancher killed the last remaining herd of native American horses.  Now they’re gone, and there’ll never be another.  It was a crime, and it made me sick.”

And that’s the extent of what I learned in the Rock Shop.  My informant could not remember names or exact dates, after all those years.  He assured me the story was never reported in any newspaper, but that everyone in his community had known about it at the time. 

When I got home, I immediately set about trying to check out his story.  If true, it was an amazing tale.  Of course I was aware that such atrocities are always possible.  The only question was one of fact.  Was there indeed a strain of native American horse which had survived until the Twentieth Century, contrary to what all text books said?  Could it be an ancestor of the famous Apaloosa and other Indian Ponies?  I wanted to find out. 

I wrote a letter to the Nevada Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses, in Carson City.  I inquired about records of any legally permitted horse slaughters near Lovelock, around 1970.  Shortly thereafter I received a helpful letter personally written and signed by the Administrator herself, Catherine Barcomb.  I quote:

In the early years prior to the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, wild horses were rounded up and slaughtered by the thousands.  Since the passage of the Act there have technically been no “legally permitted slaughters.”  What happens illegally is another question. 

It appeared, therefore, that the event could not have happened exactly as my informant described.  If the slaughter had occurred, there would be no record of a legal permit. 

In addition to her letter, Ms Barcomb also sent me a volume published by the State of Nevada, entitled “Nevada Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses – Plan of Goals, Strategies and Recommendations for the Preservation & Protection of the Wild Horses for the State of Nevada.”  (January 1999) 

I found a lot of fascinating information in this volume.  It attempts to illuminate the history of horses in Nevada.  One claim I view with some skepticism is the statement that horses became extinct around 11,000 years ago, because the climate changed and became drier.  Other extinct species include sloths, elephants, camels and saber tooth tigers.  If horses became extinct because the climate became drier, then how do wild horses survive there today?  I find it more plausible that these beasts were hunted to death by humans. 

The first recorded sighting of a wild horse in modern times was by one John Bidwell, leader of an emigrant wagon train.  He reported a single horse in 1831.  Earlier, in 1826, Jedediah Smith had traded horses with Indians in northern Nevada.  Still, the Paiute and Shoshone were not using horses.  Other explorers between 1826 and 1841 were in the area.  They reported Indians stealing and killing horses for food, but did not see any wild herds.  It wasn’t till after 1860 that mustangs began to appear in any numbers, or that local Indians began using them as mounts.


After all, it’s not surprising that natives of southern Nevada were slow to become equestrians.  Tribes further north and east used horses for warfare and to hunt buffalo.  Horses were less useful in the desert, with its vast tracts of land which can not be crossed without bringing extra water and food.  

I find this fact significant, in that it contradicts the generally held theory that northern tribes got their first horses from the Spanish.  Spanish horses would have had to move from Mexico northward through the Great Basin in order to reach the Nez Perce in Oregon, or the Lakota and Blackfoot in the Midwest.  And yet there were no horses in southern Nevada, nor anywhere else in the Basin. 

Therefore, we have a couple of historical facts to consider:  (1.)  Wild horses can survive in Nevada’s climate.  (2.)  There were no wild horses in any numbers until people in the area ceased hunting them for food. 

I would thus conclude that native horses became extinct because of humans, not because of climate change.  On the other hand, is it conceivable that a small number of native horses survived into modern times, in remote areas?  The fact that no white man reported seeing them doesn’t mean they never existed. 


Horses that lived there 11K years ago were equipped with three toes.  They were about the size of ponies.  Today, the average rancher, not knowing any better, would take one look and conclude they were either a degenerate breed or somehow diseased.  Were some of these animals, or their descendants, still running the hills until the 20th Century?  There have been other cases of animals previously believed extinct turning up unexpectedly.  What I believe about this story is that it’s not impossible.  Is it true?  I don’t know. 

I have decided, finally, to put this story out on the Internet in faint hope there may be some reader out there who might provide more facts, either to support or deny.  Perhaps someone remembers Lovelock, Nevada, around 1970.  Perhaps someone else has heard this tale and can testify to its truth or falsehood. 

In the meantime, I sometimes take out my fossilized horse tooth, study it, and continue to wonder. 



cave horse


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[1] Most info above is from Encarta 2002.

{2 ]THE INDIAN AND THE HORSE, 1955, by Frank Gilbert Roe, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

[3] Some excellent discussions of pre-Columbian horses can be found at: http://www.trends.net/~yuku/tran/thor.htm


Footnote:  Recently I ran across the following item, from "Tribes of California," by Stephen Powers, originally published in 1877.  (University of California Press)  Powers is here referring to the Shasta, or Shastika tribe:

Many hundreds of years ago, according to the old Indians, there existed on earth a horse and a mare which were extremely small.  The Indians called them by a name (sa-to-wats), which they at once applied to the first horses brought by the Spaniards.  They perished long before white men ever saw California.  It is possible that these liliputian ponies of the Indian fable refer to an extinct species of horse, of which the remains have been discovered by Mr Condon, in Oregon.