Choctaw Horses, A Strain of Colonial Spanish Horse
by: D.P. Sponenberg and D. Bixby, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Colonial Spanish Horses are also known as Spanish Mustangs in the United States, and are a unique type of horses not only in North America but also worldwide. Their uniqueness stems from divergent selection breeding practices in Iberia and the New World in the 500 years since the Colonial Spanish horses were first introduced to the Americas. As a result the American branch of this genetic resource is a holdover of an earlier type now extinct or nearly so in Iberia.
Colonial Spanish horses have a long and rich heritage of use throughout North America, but have become increasingly rare in the 1900s to the point that now nearly all strains are rare or near extinction. Colonial Spanish Horses have largely been ignored by the horse-owning public despite their many important contributions both to North American horse breeds and horse breeding. The current ignorance concerning the Colonial Spanish Horse not only surrounds its history and contributions, but also extends to its athletic prowess and ability at a variety of tasks.
Colonial Spanish Horses are rarely referred to by this name. The usual term that is used in North America is Spanish Mustang. The term Mustang generally carries with it the connotation of feral horse, and this is somewhat unfortunate since many Colonial Spanish horses have never had a feral background. The important part of the background of these horses is that they are Spanish. These are descendants of the horses that were brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, and include some feral, some rancher, some mission, and some native American strains. Colonial Spanish type is very rare among modern feral mustangs, and the modern Bureau of Land Management mustangs should not be confused with Colonial Spanish horses, as the two are very distinct with only a few exceptions to this rule.
The Spanish Colonial Horse is the remnant of the once vast population of horses in the USA. The ancestors of these horses were brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadors and were instrumental in their ability to conquer the native civilizations. The source of the original horses was Spain, and this was ata time when the Spanish horse was being widely used for improvement of horse breeding throughout Europe. The Spanish horse of the time of the conquest had a major impact on most European light horse types (this was before breeds were developed, so type is a more accurate word). The Spanish horse itself then became rare, and was supplanted as the commonly used improver of indigenous types by the Throughbred and Arabian. These three (Spanish, Thoroughbred and Arabian) are responsible for the general worldwide erosion of genetic variability in horse breeds. The Spanish type subsequently became rare and is now itself in need of conservation. The horse currently in Spain is distinct through centuries of divergent selection, from the Colonial Spanish Horse. The result is that the New World remnants are very important to overall conservation since the New World varieties are closer in type to the historic horse of the Golden Age of Spain than are the current horses in Iberia.
The original horses brought to America from Spain were relatively unselected. These first came to the Caribbean islands, where population were increased before export to the mainland. In the case of North America the most common source of horses was Mexico as even the populations in the southeastern USA were imported from Mexico rather than the Caribbean. The North American horses came ultimately from this somewhat non-selected base. South American horses, in contrast, tended to originally derive about half from the Caribbean horses and half from direct imports changed the average type of the horses in South America. This difference in founder strains is one reason for the current differences in the North American and South American horses today. Other differences were fostered by different selection goals in South America. Both factors resulted in related but different types of horses.
At one time (about 1700) the purely Spanish horse occurred in an arc from the Carolinas to Florida, west through Tennessee, and then throughout all of the western mountains and great plains. In the northeast and central east the colonists were from northwest Europe, and horses from those areas were more common than the Colonial Spanish type. Even in these non-Spanish areas the Colonial Spanish Horse was highly valued and did contribute to the overall mix of American horses. Due to their wide geographic distribution as pure populations as well as their contribution to other crossbred types the Colonial Spanish Horses were the most common of all horses throughout North America at that time, and were widely used for riding as well as draft. In addition to being the common mount of the native tribes (some of whom measured wealth by the number of horses owned) and the white colonists, there were also immense herds of feral animals that descended from escaped or strayed animals of the owned herds.
The Colonial Spanish horse became to be generally considered as too small for cavalry use by the whites, and was slowly supplanted by taller and heavier types from the northeast as an integral part of white expansion in North America. In the final stages this process was fairly rapid, and was made even more so by the extermination of the horse herds of the native Americans during the final stages of their subjection in the late 1800's. The close association of the Spanish Horse with both native American and Mexican cultures and peoples also caused the popularity of these horses to diminish in contrast to the more highly favored larger horses of the dominant Anglo derived culture, whose horses tended to have breeding predominantly of Northern European types. The decline of the Colonial Spanish horse resulted in only a handful of animals left of the once vast herds.
The relatively small handful of horses that persisted through the lean years has founded the present breed, and so is the horse of interest when considering the history of the current breed. The foundation that persisted through the period of low numbers will forever stamp the resulting breed in more important ways than will the millions of these horses that once roamed the continent.
The present Colonial Spanish Horse breed descends from a wide range of foundation horses, including feral, rancher, and also many from the horse herds of native Americans. The native herds were especially important early in this century. Most of these tribal horses have only influenced the present breed through individual horses and not through groups of horses that continue to be bred pure within the strain. Tribes contributing to this are Cheyenne, Lakota, Paiute, Navajo, Crow and a few others. Horses from the Northern tribes contributed heavily to various strains of the breed that are now relatively common. The search is always on for breeders or families that have kept the original type pure, but these become increasingly rare as the years go on.
Choctaw horses are one of a handful of distinct Native American Tribal strains of Colonial Spanish Horses that are surviving by a thin thread. The historical record for the Choctaw horses is extensive, and more details are known for this strain than for many other strains of Spanish Colonial horses. Part of the documentation of the Choctaw horses includes extensive oral pedigrees from old breeders, with man such pedigrees going back well into the 1800s.
Spanish horses were first introduced into the southeast by the Spanish during the 1600s. The Spanish had a chain of missions across the deep south, and they introduced horses, cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, and plantation based agriculture and had reasonably European-ized systems of government. The high quality of their livestock, especially the horses, was frequently mentioned in travel journals of that era. Of the Five Civilized Tribes the Choctaw Nation was one of the more westerly, and in the early 1800s they had an extensive trade network with the Texas and Oklahoma area. During this time the Choctaws acquired numerous Spanish type horses through these western trade contacts. The Choctaw Nation had a brisk trade in deer skins, and also in Osage and Caddo captives that were sold for slaves. Choctaw trade, in addition to agriculture, made this tribe one of the more economically successful of the Native American nations.
In the early 1800s the Choctaw nation was removed from its original Mississippi homeland to Oklahoma to make way for Anglo plantation owners. Many members of the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed in a migration similar to the more widely known Trail of Tears of the Cherokee Nation. Many Choctaws had already left Mississippi a few years earlier, and these managed to transport most of their livestock and wealth to Oklahoma. The Choctaws as well as the other tribes settled in eastern Oklahoma, where they frequently acted as intermediaries between the USA and non-settled tribes. No doubt exchanges of Spanish horses occurred by this means, since trading was popular among the Native Americans, and most of the available horses were Colonial Spanish. The Choctaws prospered as a nation until they were dragged into the Civil War in the 1860s, where they were pawns between the southern Confederacy and the northern Union. The final blow to the Choctaw Nation was Oklahoma statehood in 1907, when it ceased to exist as a separate entity and was absorbed into Oklahoma.
Throughout all of this complex history the Choctaws (and to a lesser extent the other Civilized Tribes) managed to maintain their Colonial Spanish horses. The extent to which other breed types or strains were introduced is always going to be a matter of conjecture, as it is with every strain of North American Colonial Spanish as well as South American Colonial Spanish Horses. Supporters of each strain or breed tend to accept the purity of their chosen group, and ascribe crossbreeding to others. The original Colonial Spanish horse was variable, and selection in different environments and for different types accounts for the wealth of breeds and strains today. The present Choctaw horses have an external type consistent with a Spanish origin. Blood types of the horses are also consistent with a Spanish origin.
Up until the 1970s it was possible to find up to 1500 of the original type Choctaw horses in southeast Oklahoma. Since that time their numbers have been drastically reduced, and they now number fewer than 100. As is typical of rare breed conservation, the Choctaw horse is closely associated with a few people who have saved it from extinction. The people most associated with the survival of the Choctaw horse are Bryant and Darlene Rickman, who have assembled remnants of the Choctaw strain from Gilbert Jones and a few other older breeders. Few if any of the Choctaws still breed the traditional Choctaw horses. This is a recent phenomenon, since older family strains were jealously guarded and had extensive, if oral, pedigrees that went back to the time of removal in the early 1800s. Such family strains were common up until the 1970s. At that time the value of horses for horsemeat export rose, and many horses were consigned to slaughter. Horses larger than the Choctaw horse also became the desired mounts in the region as horses shifted from an essential component of agriculture and transportation needs to a leisure time activity.
The Choctaw horses that remain are from different families within the general Choctaw strain. These come from different counties within the old Choctaw nation, and many of these had regional ranges over which the horses roamed as feral animals. The major families that preserved the Choctaw horses until recently were the Brame, Crisp, Locke, Self, Helms, Thurman, and Carter families. Horses were run on the open range in areas where other types of horses were not kept, and horses were captured and trained as needed. Many of these families had hundreds of horses of consistent Spanish type and widely varying colors including the "Spanish roan" sabino type, leopard and blanketed, and others such as overo paints. The Choctaw horses are occassionally gaited. They are also quick. Hal Brame was noted for taking his little overo horse to parties and dances and would wager on races over 50 yards. He won a lot of money from cowboys with Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds who went away with increased respect for small, spotted Indian horses!
In addition to purely Choctaw strains are some horses that have Cherokee or Huasteca breeding in them. These horses are similar to the Choctaw strain, and for years were used back and forth in breeding programs. Since these horses are rare, and similar to the Choctaw horses, they are included in teh conservation effort. Within the Cherokee strain, the Whitmire line, also including horses from the Corntassle family, is the sole remnant. This Cherokee line that can be traced back to the removal from Etocha, Georgia in 1835. It probably goes back even further as court records from 1775 indicate that these families had herds of horses at that time. These horses were always kept within the line on the female side, although outside stallions were occasionally introduced. The stallions were of Mexican, Choctaw or Comanche breeding, were selected to be of teh same type as teh family strain, and were therefore also Spanish. Some of the Comanche stallions came form the Black Moon Comanches of Oklahoma, and were of leopard type color patterns. At least one Mexican stallion was a buckskin leopard. The outside stallions were carefully and specifically selected to be as similar to the Cherokee strain as could be had. Many of the Cherokee horses that remain today are gaited, and many are unusual color patterns including several medicine hat paints. The Cherokee- and Huasteca-influenced horses tend to have contributions from the Choctaw horses otherwise not represented among the few horses that are purely Choctaw, which greatly increases the value of these to the conservation effort.
The size of Choctaw horses vary form 13.2 to 14.2 hands high. They have typical Spanish conformation, with broad heads and narrow faces. Small hooked ears are typical. Chests are deep but narrow, making them strong and durable. The croup is sloped an the tail is set on low. Colors include nearly the full range available in horses: black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, linebacked duns, palominos and buckskins, tobiano, frame overo, sabino, blankets, varnish roans, and leopards. A few other colors may still exist as well, including the elusive champagne group of colors. A very few Choctaw horses are curly, although this trait is nearly extinct in the strain. Many of the horses do a running walk in addition to, or instead of, the usual trot of horses. As a result they are comfortable to ride.
One trait of the Choctaw horses that helps their conservation is their tough feet. A handful of Oklahoma ranchers prefer these horses to the more widely available Quarter Horses since the Choctaw horses can work all day without being shod. The ranchers therefore save on horseshoeing costs. An additional savings comes from teh endurance of the Choctaw horses which can tolerate a whole day's work, while the competing breeds can usually only tolerate a half day of hard use.
The present status of the Choctaw horses is tenuous, and the strain needs to enlist more breeders. The Rickmans have assembled a good number of the horses from a variety of strains, and young animals are now available. In addition to the Rickmans' horses are a few other small herds in Oklahoma, as well as a few in Texas and New Mexico. The goal of the Choctaw conservation program is to assure that the pure Choctaw horses go into conservation programs - especially the mares but also many of the colts. A group of dedicated breeders is slowly developing around these horses, with their top priority the assurance that the strain will persist.
The Choctaw, Cherokee, and Huasteca horses are unique among Spanish Mustangs by virtue of history and geography, and warrant conservation as a seperate strain within the Spanish Mustang breed. They have contributed both as an independent strain and also as an important component to the blend of Spanish Colonial strains that is now registered as the Spanish Mustang. The past use of the Choctaw strain has usually been to use Choctaw horses on other strains, resulting in very little persistence of the isolated Choctaw strain in its purity.
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D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD Professor, Pathology and Genetics Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061 USA