Importance of Horses in American Indian Culture

The domestication of horses has been an important breakthrough in the history of humankind. Horses offered civilizations that had them significant advantages in agriculture, transportation, and warfare (Price, 2017). Some argue that the presence of horses was the locomotive for evolution from primitive hunter-gatherer nations to more advanced societies. It enabled faster movement, provided horse-power, and offered greater maneuverability in the field of battle. The introduction of horses to North America significantly changed Native Indian tribes, enriching their culture and expanding their capability to migrate, travel, and wage war.

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Native American Civilizations Before Discovering Horses

North America did not have horses before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s (Brookhouse, 2009). Lacking any other similar animals to domesticate, the natives never developed beyond the traditional hunter-gatherer societies. Their capabilities at movement, agriculture, hunting, and military affairs were significantly limited. Although migrations did occur, the range, speed, and carrying capacity of individual members prevented them from venturing too far. While different tribes waged war with one another, these conflicts were limited, as the hunter-gatherer nature of native American tribes and the availability of land reduced the necessity for conquest (Brookhouse, 2009). Thus, the primitive societies achieved a sort of status quo with one another, as geographical conditions and low population numbers ensured the relative stability of the tribes.

Native American Civilizations and Horses

When the early native American tribes first encountered the Spanish horse-riders, they were terrified of their speed, strength, and combat capabilities. Oblivious to the nature of these animals, they called them “Big Dogs” or “God Dogs,” with the rider and the horse viewed as a single creature (“A song,” 2013). The Spanish took advantage of these superstitions and issued orders to prevent the selling of horses to natives to retain a competitive advantage. However, such a measure could not be maintained for long, and eventually, the Natives obtained the horses and started growing their herds. The first tribes to use these animals in hunting and warfare were the Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache, who became famous for their horse-riding skills (Brookhouse, 2009). Eventually, however, many other tribes obtained the animals as well.

Horses in Traveling

The availability of horses significantly increased the capabilities of Native Americans to roam their lands in search of better places to live and hunt in. It enabled various tribes, such as the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, and the Crees to migrate from the North and into the Great Plains, fully embracing the new lifestyle (Price, 2017). Horses allowed hunters to travel many miles across the plains in search of potential game to hunt, and also helped with large movements of entire tribes, carrying food, water, and materials made for shelter, which previously had to be carried by the natives. Horses also encouraged trade, allowing various tribes to trade with the white colonists as well as each other, bringing in furs, tools, and other materials to sell.

Horses in Hunting

The mobility provided by horses was the primary reason for migration into the Great Plains. These plains were the home to bison – a large cow-like animal with horns that traveled in large herds for protection. Hunting these animals on foot was a dangerous and time-consuming task – the bison could easily outrun a human or trample him under their hooves. The horse gave native Americans the advantage of mobility, thus enabling them to shower their target with arrows from a safe distance while pursuing or herding the animals into a preferable location (Brookhouse, 2009). Also, horses allowed hauling the prey back to the tribe, to be later cut into pieces of meat and fur. These capabilities were exploited by the Shoshone, Mandan, Flatheads, and Nez Perce tribes, during their migration and establishment in the Great Plains (Price, 2017).

Horses in War

Just like horses enabled the hunter-gatherers of North America to pursue a larger game, they also enabled waging war on distances much longer than previously accessible. Raiding became an important part of the natives’ culture, attacking unprotected settlements and trade caravans. Tribes like the Cherokee and the Comanche were particularly famous for attacking white settlers and their trading routes, often provoking retribution and incursions deeper into the native-held territory (Price, 2017). Ultimately, the downfall of the Native American horse culture came at the hands of the colonists, who encouraged the Natives to kill buffalos, causing mass starvation issues and the eventual fall of the Indian tribes in the Great Plains.

Status and Art

Not every member of the tribe had a horse, as owning one required significant effort to grow and maintain. It also significantly improved the capacity of a family to sustain themselves through hunting (“A song,” 2013). Therefore, in the majority of cultures, a horse was a symbol of wealth and high status. Depending on the scarcity of the animals, horses were reserved for war chiefs and experienced warriors within the tribe. Horses were often depicted in Indian paintings and served as objects of art themselves. The Pawnee Indians were notorious for painting their horses for war to ward off evil spirits and invoke good fortune.

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Horses became a valuable part of the Indian culture and propelled them forward, significantly expanding their opportunities to hunt, travel, and wage war. However, the continuous rivalry with the technologically superior colonists and the dwindling of natural resources caused horses to become the downfall of the natural equilibrium sustained for centuries before the apparition of Europeans on the continent. Nevertheless, horses became an important part of their history and culture.


A song for the horse nation. (2013). Web.

Brookhouse, W. (2009). The age of horse culture: American Indian horsemanship. Web.

Price, S. (2017). America’s wild horses: The history of the western mustang. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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