Anyone who has ever watched even five minutes of a Western movie knows that horses were an essential part of the life they represent. No-one was expected to walk; the distances between towns was too great and the climate made it dangerous even to attempt any journey on foot. If a horse wasn’t ridden, it might be used, singly or multiply, to pull a cart or a wagon. And horses weren’t just for getting around; they were such an intrinsic part of certain types of work that it’s inconceivable the job could have been done without them.
One such job was ranching. Horses were a cowboy’s legs as he checked fences, drove cattle into pens, rounded them up or conducted them on one of the marked trails to a railhead such as at Abilene. It wasn’t a case of one-man-and-his-horse, though, because cowboys used different horses at different times, swapping when a horse was tired or a different one was more appropriate. On a trail, cowhands would take half a dozen or more horses each. These were cared for by someone called the wrangler when they weren’t being ridden, and every morning each individual cowhand would choose his mount for the day. Like people, horses have their own temperaments and capabilities, and the cowhand would make his selection bearing in mind what he knew lay ahead – a river crossing, for example. It wasn’t just the characteristics of individual horses that were taken into account, though; breed also made a difference.
In the first part of the nineteenth century horse breeding was a fairly haphazard affair. Horses wandered loose over the open range, mating as the fancy took them, and were simply rounded up and broken in when needed. Their ancestors may or may not have included fully native American horses, but they certainly included some very fine Spanish horses from California which had been driven over and had subsequently gone wild. They were collectively known as mustangs, and their overriding characteristics were intelligence, stubbornness and above all hardiness.
Sometimes a farmer or breeder would turn a well-bred (blooded) stallion loose on the range to improve his stock. It might not even survive let alone be permitted access to the mares by the other stallions, but when it was successful, the result would be a foal that was ‘bred up’, that is, which had the best features of each parent.
A horse with three-quarters mustang and a quarter Spanish stallion blood was considered to have the very best characteristics for the purposes of ranching: endurance, strength, tractability and smooth ride. The term ‘cowponies’ was in general use for these well-adapted horses, and cowboys marvelled at their legendary ‘horse sense’ which allowed them to round up cattle on a moonless night with hardly any direction from their riders.
More carefully controlled breeding was also done. It started as early as the 1850’s but received a huge impetus in the 1880’s due to the expansion of the cattle market and therefore the need for a steady supply of good, reliable horses. Horses were, indeed, the engine which drove the economy.