Spring 2009

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Field Notes: Spring 2009

Natural Livestock crowd

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Ride Like the Wind

Half a millennium ago, men from Spain came ashore in a new, vast, strange land. These men in steel armor brought with them guns and germs.

And horses.

The Spanish horses were the best in the world at the time, a mix of Barb, Arabian and Andalusian blood. They were sure-footed and tough, able to carry heavy loads across mountains and deserts. They could run if given the chance. They were loyal and big-hearted, gentle and smart.
On these horses, Cortés, Coronado, DeSoto and others explored the new world and conquered the native peoples they encountered.

Since horses had been extinct in North America for 10,000 years, Native Americans had never encountered them. The sight was both awe inspiring and terrifying. People on foot were no match for these men on horses. After the Spanish established colonies, they prohibited native peoples from owning, even riding, horses.

The story might have ended there, but for the horses.

Many escaped into the wild where Indians found them and tamed them. When the Southwest Pueblo tribes revolted in 1680 they seized the Spaniards’ horses, sheep and cattle and began trading them to other tribes.

Before long, the Spanish horse became the Indians’ greatest ally and friend.

As tribes adopted what is now known as the Spanish Colonial horse, they made it their own, developing unique “strains” of the basic breed.

On their fast “ponies,” the buffalo-hunting tribes became Lords of the Plains. The ecology and economy of the Great Plains was transformed. Even agrarian tribes far to the east, like Choctaws and Cherokees, acquired horses and began to use them for transportation and as pack animals.

The long journey of the Spanish Colonial horse into the heart of Native America had begun.

That journey has taken this horse into battle against Custer and down the Trail of Tears into Oklahoma, with its 40 recognized tribes and almost half a million people who identify themselves as Native Americans. In this state that was once Indian Territory, this historic horse is facing a new challenge: surviving in the modern world.

Genes from a Golden Age
According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), for centuries Spanish horses were the most common type of horse throughout the Southeast and regions west of the Mississippi.

But in the mid-late 1800s, almost all Spanish stocks were crossbred with or replaced by horses of larger size including thoroughbreds, other riding horse breeds and draft horses. Ubiquitous in 1750 and 1850, the pure Spanish Colonial horse in North American was almost extinct by 1950.

A few herds of pure blood remained in the Southeast and the Southwest owned by traditional ranchers or Native American tribes, and a few were found in isolated feral herds. The remaining population of these horses included many distinct strains.

Today, the horses are known by a number of names including Spanish Mustang, Spanish Barb or by their strain name, such as Choctaw or Comanche. All together, the breed population numbers over 2000, and each year various associations register more than 200 horses.

This is a small number, and the ALBC considers the Spanish Colonial horse a threatened species. Some strains of the horse are in even greater jeopardy, the group says. Fewer than 200 horses of the Choctaw and Cherokee strains remain.

Why does this matter? They are a direct remnant of the horses of the Golden Age of Spanish horse breeding, a type that is largely gone from Spain as well as America. Besides being an important part of American history, says the ALBC, their genes are “irreplaceable.”

The Spanish Colonial horse has many positive characteristics, say those who own them. They can be used for ranch work, pleasure riding and endurance competitions. They are surefooted, have an unusually long stride, and many of them are gaited. They are known for being people oriented with gentle natures and calm temperaments.
Above all, they are tough—survivors.

All in the Family

Monique Sheaffer is a horsewoman and a Choctaw. So it is fitting that this great granddaughter of Principal Chief Gilbert Wesley (G.W.) Dukes is part of the small group that is working to save the Choctaw strain of the Spanish Colonial horse from disappearing.

Quite a lot is known about the history of the Choctaw horse. ALBC technical advisor Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, has researched and written extensively about both the Choctaw and Cherokee strains of the Spanish Colonial horse. According to Sponenberg,
Both the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes were avid horse breeders in their original territories within the southeastern United States. The horses they bred were Spanish and were obtained at first from the chain of missions across the Deep South and west of the Mississippi in early Spanish colonial days.
As the tribes became adept in horse breeding, the quality of the tribal horses gained a good reputation and was specifically mentioned as being excellent in various historic travel journals.

Following the government removal in the mid-1800’s of the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes from the southeast to what is now Oklahoma, the tribes continued to breed their horses. The basis for the Oklahoma herds was horses brought from the southeast on the “Trail of Tears,” but no doubt some western horses were added as well.
Individual families, he says, played an important role in preserving the tribal horses. Among the Cherokee, horses belonging to the Whitmire and Corntassle families can be traced back to at least to 1835, and perhaps as far back as 1775. He writes:

The major families that preserved the Choctaw horses until recently were the Brame, Crisp, Locke, Self, Helms, Thurman, and Carter families. Their horses were run on the open range in areas where other types of horses were not kept.

These families had hundreds of horses of consistent Spanish type with widely varying colors including the “Spanish roan” sabino type, leopard and blanketed patterns, and other colors.
Choctaw horses are occasionally gaited and are notably quick. Choctaw breeder Hal Brame was well known for taking his favorite little paint horse to parties and dances and making wagers with other horse owners on races over 50 yards. In his lifetime Hal took a lot of money from the owners of quarter horses and thoroughbreds who subsequently went away with increased respect for small Indian horses!

Last summer, Monique and her family purchased a small herd of three pregnant mares (Angel, Goblin and Pearl) and two yearling fillies (Cricket and Kashi) from the Overstreet-Kerr Historical Farm and moved them to their new farm in Pennsylvania.

Monique first learned about Choctaw horses online after her brother sent her a web link to Red Road Farm in Vermont, where they have a Choctaw horse conservation program.

After much family consultation they decided to take on a breeding herd. Then they began “frantically” looking for a bigger farm to buy, with room to add horses.

“Knowing these horses carried my people from Mississippi/Alabama (traditional homeland of the Choctaw people) on the Trail of Tears to then Indian Territory is very special,” she says.

She views the relationship between the Choctaws and their horses as a “partnership,” one that helped the Choctaws survive and prosper.

Monique’s mother, Mozelle Henry and her uncle, Allen Dukes, came to the historical farm to meet the horses in June. The siblings grew up riding Indian ponies in the Choctaw nation in southeast Oklahoma.

Mozelle worked for the BIA until she retired and lives in Virginia, where Monique grew up. Her daughter loved to ride during summer trips back to Oklahoma, she recalls.

“I think it was the light in my mom’s voice/face when we would talk about the horses that really got the idea in my head to be part of the effort,” says Monique. “It was like some long ago light was turned back on for her.”

Saving the Horses
In the mid-90s the Overstreet-Kerr Historical Farm had first begun working with endangered livestock breeds. The Overstreet farm, located about ten miles south of present-day Sallisaw, Oklahoma, was established in 1871 in what was then Indian Territory, and within the Choctaw nation. Tom Overstreet was a Missourian, but his wife Margaret Victor was a Choctaw woman.

About twenty years ago, the Kerr Center stepped in to save the historic Overstreet home and farm. The center restored the house to its former elegance and opened the farm to the public for educational tours and events.
Jim Combs, longtime manager of the farm, wanted livestock that the Choctaw themselves had in the late 1800s. After consulting with Dr. Sponenberg, the center established a herd of Pinewoods cattle at the historical farm. The breed is native to Mississippi, and are typical of the livestock the Choctaws and others kept both before and after removal to Oklahoma.

In 2002 the farm acquired three Choctaw mares and a stud and began a conservation breeding program.
One goal of the program was to preserve the “nearly lost, survival of the fittest” genetics of this rare breed, says Combs. For about five years the farm sold breeding stock as well as pleasure mounts to people around the country.

Combs remains a big fan of this loyal little horse. “These horses have survived for over 500 years with little need for intervention by man to survive and reproduce,” he says.

Another goal of the program was to educate the public about rare breeds of livestock and poultry.

“We are rediscovering how they [rare breeds] might fit today, says Kerr Center president Jim Horne, who thinks that possible niches need to be explored. Both he and Combs have an active interest in rare breeds and have served on the ALBC Board of Directors. Currently, the center is focusing its breeding efforts on the Pineywoods cattle. Expanding the cattle herd left little room for the horses.

“The Choctaw horses are real versatile, manageable and excellent as family horses,” says Horne.
Sheaffer says her son Matt has claimed Joey, Angel’s foal, as his own. He will grow into a nice trail horse, she says.

The Sheaffers are building their preservation program at their Windrider Farm with the Kerr Center mares and a stud, Windrider’s Runner, that they got from the last remaining large herd of Choctaw and Cherokee horses in existence: the Blackjack Mountain horses.

Ride Like the Wind
In 1916, a boy fell in love with a mare that was as fast as the wind.

The wind seldom stops blowing on the high plains of Oklahoma and Texas. The boy’s little horse, Susie, an Indian Territory mustang, was descended from a Comanche Indian pony stallion that was “fast, and had stamina to hold it for miles.”

The boy’s name was Gilbert Jones. He grew up listening to his father tell of the days when the Comanche still rode their “fancy fleet pinto ponies on raids into Texas.” One story his father told “kindled my desire in later years to own a colorful mustang band.”

He told of seeing…about fifty Indian boys, eight to fourteen years old, riding their ponies of every color from the top of a hill to Cache Creek about half a mile away. They would ride single file at full speed up the creek bank and dive their ponies into a deep hole of water. Their ponies would run off a short distance and start grazing, waiting for their riders to return. No doubt these boys looked forward to someday being buffalo hunters and warriors.
But the times were changing.

The Comanche’s freedom, he writes, “was nearing an end, as their source of food, the buffalo was practically killed out. The government was turning the land over to the white man and determined that the Indians would become reservation farmers. The army had already slaughtered thousands of their ponies, which the Indians prized above everything else.”

The Jones family moved often around the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico. “My father taught me very young to ride, swim, shoot guns and drive teams…These were the essentials of life for boys in that day and time,” he recalls.

Gilbert grew up and married, and until his death in 2001, he bred the best purebred Spanish mustangs he could find, searching far and wide for exceptional horses.

In his “History of Medicine Springs Mustangs,” he tells of the blizzards, drought, sand storms, bad water, killer lightening storms and poisonous loco weed that his horses had to contend with.

In 1958 Gilbert Jones moved with his family and 25 of his Spanish mustangs to a more hospitable environment, Medicine Springs, in Pushmataha County in southeast Oklahoma, “ten miles back in the Kiamichi Mountains with one and a half million acres of timber company open range to graze by permits.”

He quickly became acquainted with several very old men, who had at one time run several hundred Choctaw ponies on the open range. Realizing that the once numerous horses were quickly disappearing, Jones began the collection of as many Choctaw and Cherokee horses as he could find and assembled the largest known herd of these purebred animals.

He also crossbred the Choctaw and Cherokee horses with the Spanish mustangs he brought with him. The resulting herd was comprised of bloodlines that originated from Choctaw, Cherokee, Huasteca, Kiowa, Comanche, and other Native American tribes along with Colonial Spanish Horses from Utah and New Mexico (see sidebar). He established the Southwest Spanish Mustang Registry and kept extensive records of his work.
His horses became known for their ability in long endurance rides, such as the one pictured in the 2004 movie Hidalgo. In fact, a Jones’ horse, itself descended from the herd that produced Hidalgo, played the famous mustang.

The film is based on the story of a half-Lakota cowboy named Frank Hopkins who in 1890 rides his Spanish mustang in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000 mile survival race in the Arabian desert, besting the finest, purebred Arabian horses of the Arab sheiks.

Hopkins had complete faith in his horse, saying
“You can’t beat mustang intelligence in the entire equine race. These animals have had to shift for themselves for generations. They had to work out their own destiny or be destroyed. Those that survived were animals of superior intelligence.”

Honoring Our Heritage
Following Jones’ death, his herd of 300 Spanish mustangs was inherited by close friends Bryant and Darlene Rickman.

Rickman, an experienced horseman and trainer, with a real feel for these horses, continued to breed them in the same tradition that Gilbert followed. Many continued to run free in the Kiamichi Mountains.

But times changed, yet again. In 2007 the lease was terminated and the future of the horses was again in jeopardy.

Rickman, with help from family and friends, was faced with the daunting task of coaxing the horses into catch pens, and safely removing them to his ranch near Antlers. Once there, the horses had to be fed and cared for until they could be sold.

The whole situation was complicated by the fact that these were not just any horses—these were of exceedingly rare bloodlines— a treasure trove of genetics.

Enter the ALBC. In spring of 2008, the organization sent staff members Marjorie Bender and Jeannette Beranger to Oklahoma to participate in the “Blackjack Mountain Rescue.”

ALBC Board member Jamie McConnell and his wife, Mary, who are new Choctaw and Cherokee breeders, also participated.

The challenges were enormous: to identify each animal for its genetic importance to the herd; to feed and health test the entire herd; and to promote and sell more than 150 of these horses in such a way that valuable breeding animals were placed with stewards who were committed to their conservation.

ALBC’s technical advisor, Phil Sponenberg, who has been working on the conservation of this herd for about 30 years, identified the animals of greatest genetic importance and recommended a breeding plan that would ensure genetic diversity is not lost.

Since then, 200 horses have been placed, with the Rickmans keeping breeding herds of each the strains of Choctaw, Cherokee, Huasteca and Jones horses.

Breeding herds have also been placed with new “stewards,” individuals in Oklahoma and around the U.S., like Monique Sheaffer, who are committed to the long-term survival of the strains.

Despite this progress, these rare horses are not out of the proverbial woods yet. Rickman says he has 150 or more horses, including two-year-olds and 2008 foals in urgent need of homes.

More horses remain in the mountains and the Rickmans are continuing to capture and remove them as they are found. While he still has some purebred Choctaws for sale, many more are of the Jones strain (see sidebar).
And though he has breeding groups still available, he emphasizes that people do not have to commit to a being a conservation breeder to buy his horses. The rarest bloodlines have been placed in conservation breeding programs and according to the ALBC, are “secured.”

Rickman has sent horses all over the world. Recently a German woman, after watching the movie Hidalgo, was moved to find the Jones/Rickman horses. She eventually traveled to Oklahoma and bought a Choctaw horse. It cost her $4000 to get the horse over to Germany, says Rickman.

His horses continue to beat all-Arabians in endurance races, he says proudly.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the Sheaffers and their horses are settling into their new home. Their horses are “getting friendlier by the day,” says Monique Sheaffer.

She keeps in close contact with other breeders and is making plans to promote the virtues of the Choctaw horse by attending farm and horse events.

“We consider it a privilege to own and work with these unique horses,” she says, “and to honor our
heritage in so doing.”

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