The Choctaw Horse
Author, Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD
Submitted to Choctaw Nation of OK website by
Monique Sheaffer of Windrider Farm Choctaw Horse Conservation
Choctaw Horses are one of a handful of distinct Native American tribal strains of Colonial Spanish Horse that are surviving by a thin thread. The historical record for the Choctaw Horse is extensive, and more details are known for this strain than for nearly any other strain of Colonial Spanish Horse. Part of the documentation of the Choctaw Horse includes extensive oral pedigrees from old breeders, with many 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 to this region. The Choctaws quickly became expert in raising livestock. The high quality of their livestock, especially the horses, was frequently mentioned in travel journals of that era. In the early 1800s the Choctaw nation had an extensive trade network with the areas that are now Texas and Oklahoma. During this time the Choctaws acquired numerous Spanish type horses through these western trade contacts.
In the early 1800s the Choctaw nation was removed from its original Mississippi homeland to Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, to make way for Anglo plantation owners. Many members of the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed in a migration known as the Trail of Tears. Many Choctaws, seeing what the future would hold, had already left Mississippi a few years earlier, and these people managed to transport most of their livestock and wealth to then Indian Territory. The Choctaws as well as other tribes settled in the eastern part of the territory, 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 of Colonial Spanish type. 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 the Choctaw nation ceased to exist as a separate entity and was absorbed into Oklahoma.
Throughout all of this complex history the Choctaws managed to maintain their Colonial Spanish Horses. 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. The horses average about 14 to 14.2 hands high, with a characteristic athletic build that helps them perform over long distances and for long workdays. Many of the horses are gaited, and they come in nearly all colors known to horses.
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 in the late 1980s they may have been down to close to 50 horses. Numbers have rebounded to about 300 in 2011. 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 Choctaw tribal members still breed the traditional Choctaw Horses. This is a recent phenomenon, since older family strains were jealously guarded, and had extensive oral pedigrees that went back to the time of removal in the early 1800s. Such family strains were common up until the 1970s.
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 occasionally 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!
The size of Choctaw Horses varies from 13.2 to 15 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 and the tail is set on low. Colors include nearly the full range available in horses: black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, line-backed 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 the 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 horses from a variety of strains, and young animals are now available from their herds. In addition to the Rickmans’ horses, there are other major herds in Pennsylvania (Choctaw Nation of OK tribal members, the Sheaffers’ Windrider Farm), Texas, New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia (Jamie & Mary McConnell). 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.
D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD Professor, Pathology and Genetics
Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine
Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 24060 USA
Telephone: 1-540-231-4805 Facsimile: 1-540-231-6033
The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain:
The Story of the Choctaw Pony
By: Francine Locke-Bray
On April 30th, Bryant Rickman, President of the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association, and I gave a presentation at the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Annual Meeting in Durant. The title of the presentation was, “The Spirit of Blackjack Mountain: The Story of the Choctaw Pony.” This is a brief overview of what we discussed.
Over the past year, it has become evident that there is quite a bit of misunderstanding about how and why we call the horses that lived on Blackjack Mountain, Choctaw ponies. This strain of Colonial Spanish horse claimed the mountain as home in Pushmataha County for well over 120 years and was developed from horses purchased and collected from Native Americans in the region in the early 20th century. The discovery and documentation of their origin includes four important aspects: 1) oral & written history; 2) location; 3) phenotype evaluation; and 4) genetic testing. I will begin with the history of the horses.
Written history of the horses, of their use and value to the Choctaw people has been sketchy. However, one of the most important sources is the missionary journals. Henry C. Benson (1860) was a missionary at Fort Coffee between 1842 – 1845; and H.B. Cushman (1899) grew up amongst the Choctaw in pre-removal days. Both published their memoirs. In addition, James Taylor Carson (1995) has done extensive studies and writings on the Choctaw horse culture.
In the 1600s the Choctaw probably obtained their horses through raids on the Caddo and several other tribes living west of the Mississippi. Throughout the history of the Choctaw in Mississippi, the horse played a very integral part in the social, economic, and spiritual life of the people. While they at first used horses for food, their value as pack horses was quickly recognized. Before acquiring horses, the women would carry the food home from the hunt on their backs and were responsible for the movement of the household goods during their seasonal relocations. With the evolution of a horse culture these practices changed and the horse became important to not only these daily activities but also as a means for transporting trade goods, thus widening the range of trade.
When a Choctaw child was born, it was customary to give that child a pony, a cow, and a hog. Thus, when reaching adulthood, the young adult would now have herds of his own. Cushman (1899) tells of the use of the “famous little Choctaw pony” as a means of transportation for children. Once a child was too large for his/her mother’s back sling, he/she would be placed on the back of one of the ponies and secured to the saddle. At approximately the age of four or five he/she would be considered old enough and skilled enough to ride without any restraints. “They were all equestrians, men, women, and children; each had his pony and saddle, and to ride on horseback was the first lesson ever learned” (Benson 1860).
According to Carson (1995), the Choctaw horse played an important role in the funeral practices of the Nation. In the 18th century, when a man died and after his bones were placed in the “village bonehouse,” the horse(s) of the deceased were slaughtered and a feast held in honor of the deceased’s passage, reaffirming the bonds of community and kinship. By the late 18th century, the Choctaw were beginning to bury their dead men, including in the grave the deceased’s guns, tomahawks and favorite horse(s). The above practices ceased sometime in the early 19th century as both men and women began to depend on the horses for their transportation and livelihood.
By 1828 the Choctaw herd is said to have numbered 15,000, a ratio of 0.7 per capita, similar to Mississippi’s 1840 ratio of 0.8 per capita. The missionaries estimated the average horse’s worth at $60.00, putting the value of the Choctaw horse herd, in 1828, at $900,000 (Carson 1995).
There are numerous records on the removal of the Choctaw horse during the migrations to Oklahoma Territory in 1831, 1832, and 1834 in the National Archives Indian Emigration records. One of interest is a letter cited in Forman (1932). “Nine hundred Choctaw horses crossed the Mississippi river that winter; 500 passed Little Rock, 300 going to the Kiamichi river, and 200 to Fort Smith; 400 went to the Red river country by way of Ecor à Fabri (Brown to Gibson, April 30, 1832, ibid., 444, and OIA, “Choctaw Emigration”).”
We have been able to trace ownership of herds of Choctaw horses, since removal, through one Choctaw family, the McKenney - Locke family of Antlers, Oklahoma. John McKenney owned a stand on the Robinson Road in Mississippi and was Captain of a group that emigrated in the first removal in 1831. In 1836 he was elected Chief of the Mush District. The National Archives has a letter John wrote discussing the stock held by himself and his neighbors. In addition, in the 1835 claim filed by the Choctaws against the government for lost horses, John is listed as having lost several horses on that emigration. All told, over 2300 horses are listed in this document as “lost,” worth approximately $80,000.
John’s son, Thomson McKenney, attended the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky and went on to become a school trustee and delegate to Washington D.C. in 1854. In the mid 1840s he wrote a “History of my life” in a notebook which he also used as a ledger, recording the selling and trading of horses.
In 1871, Susan, Thomson’s daughter, married Victor M. Locke from Ten Mile Stand, TN. They raised a large family in the Pushmataha County area and founded Antlers, OK. We have traced their land holdings throughout the county, specifically in the Blackjack Mountain area. This was a very large family, including Victor’s two brothers who followed him to the Territory and married Choctaw women. Most family members had extensive land and stock holdings, many original allotments.
Victor and Susan’s children were prolific story-tellers and writers. Dollye Locke Archer, in the late 1940s, wrote her nieces of her mother, as a young “girl,” riding across Winding Stair Mountain from Skullyville to Fort Towson on her “pony.” She concluded the story, saying, “…after all, not a small feat, it was 100 miles and she rode side-saddle.” Dollye’s brother, Ben, wrote while a patient in the Muskogee VA Hospital stories of his childhood, most of which include the use and love of the horses. Ben’s grandson, in 1998 wrote a letter telling of going to the Antlers area in the late 1930s to see if he and his Dad could find some of his father’s horses. They had been branded “VL” and, much to their surprise, they did find one being used by an Indian family as the family pet. One family treasure is a photo album, predating 1913, which includes a number of pictures of the horses with riders.
Gilbert Jones came to the Antlers area in the early 1950s and subsequently owned and lived at Medicine Springs on Blackjack Mountain. He was an owner and breeder of Spanish Mustangs and began to search out the “elders” of the area and collect what he could of the oral history of the horses. Many of his findings are scattered throughout his large collection of books, including the statement that the Lo9cke family at one time owned a herd of over 700 horses. During this time and up until his death, Gilbert also collected and bred the best of the horses he found on Blackjack Mountain, preserving the strains that were owned by the Indian families of the area.
In the late 1970’s Gilbert began working with Phil Sponenberg of both Virginia Tech and the American Livestock Breeders Conservancy (ALBC) to conduct phenotypic evaluations and DNA testing on the herd. Sponenberg’s initial physical evaluations indicated that the herd had strong Spanish-type conformation across the board and, to his trained eye, were classic Colonial Spanish horses. To support these findings DNA testing was then conducted with the end results proving that the Choctaw horses on Blackjack Mountain were indeed direct decedents of the horses that first arrived with Spanish settlers in the 1500’s. The scientific findings combined with oral and written history and location prove that these horses are the animals Native American tribes would have kept and raised in the region.
Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the help of Jeannette Beranger, Research & Technical Programs Manager, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for her assistance with this article, especially for the comments on the phenotypic evaluations, DNA testing, and the scientific findings.
Contributed by Francine Locke Bray, Research Consultant and Great-Grand-daughter of Victor and Susan (McKenney) Locke. email@example.com
Archer, Dollye Locke (Unpublished Letters). To Susan and Her Sisters.
Benson, Henry C, A.M. (1860). Life Among The Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe, Cincinnati.
Carson, James Taylor (1995). “Horses and the Economy and Culture of the Choctaw Indians, 1960 – 1840. Ethnohistory, Vol 42, No. 3. (Summer, 1995), pp. 495-511. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0014-1801%28199522%2942%3A3%3C495%3AHATEAC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N
Cushman, H.B. History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. Edited, with a Foreword, by Angie Debo (1999). Originally published in 1899.
Foreman, Grant (1932). Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, Normal. P. 53: Brown to Gibson, April 30, 1832, ibid., 444, and OIA, “Choctaw Emigration”
Schedule of horses alleged to have been lost during removal, Horses and the Choctaw Indians 513
8 October 1837, United States, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Choctaw Agency West, 1825-1838, M234.
Yakoke to both Dr. Sponenberg and Francine for allowing us to share their articles here and for all their hard work to save the
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