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Researching the history of the Choctaw horse (pronounced CHOCK-taw)—also known as the Choctaw Indian Pony—is like tracing the delicate lines of a once colorful thread woven throughout a time-worn and fading tapestry. I was transfixed, awed, enchanted and, at times, deeply saddened as the fabric of this endangered breed’s story unraveled before me, most of it left out of our school history curriculums…
The Choctaw horse is a Colonial Spanish horse, though you will rarely hear them referred to by this name. Easily confused with the wild horses the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees, they are often called “mustangs,” a term frequently and indiscriminately conferred on any feral horse of any genetic background. Today, only a very small number of feral horses (mustangs) bear the true Spanish type and breeding. Overall, Colonial Spanish horses of all bloodlines number about 3,000, while the total number of pure Choctaw horses is only about 250 animals. The surviving Colonial Spanish Choctaw horses, however, are proven to be direct descendants of horses brought to the New World in the 1500s by the Spanish Conquistadors.
Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, Professor of Pathology and Genetics at Virginia Tech University has devoted much of the last thirty years to ensuring the genetic integrity of the breed’s survival. “Colonial Spanish Horses are of great historic importance and are one of only a very few genetically unique horse breeds worldwide. Choctaw horses are one of a handful of distinct Native American tribal strains of Colonial Spanish Horse that are surviving by a thin thread,” he explains.
The mythology of the Choctaw horse is complex, romantic and heart-rending.
While it may seem strange to envision Native Americans without horses, it wasn’t until the 1600s that indigenous Americans living in the deep South first encountered the animals. Hernando de soto and his invading Spaniards, searching for the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola (rumored to be overflowing with gold and riches) were the first to ride horses into Mississippi. The local Choctaw people dubbed the mysterious animals “spirit dogs.” The seemingly friendly Spaniards soon proved otherwise. In the ensuing struggles, the brave and noble Choctaw managed to retain their rightful land and avoid enslavement—and they acquired a few of the Spaniards “spirit dogs,” as well.
In addition to horses, the Spanish also introduced cattle, goats, sheep and hogs to the native population. The Choctaw soon became adept at raising livestock, and the “spirit dogs” quickly became an integral part of the Choctaw culture. The characteristics and traits of the small and sturdy horses facilitated their deep integration into tribal life. They were athletic and possessed great endurance, with sound legs and tough hooves. Despite their smaller stature of 13.2-14.3 hands, the horses were able to carry a 200 plus pound man in 50 and 100 mile races. The equines quiet, people-oriented dispositions endeared them to the Choctaw and the animals soon became indispensable in hunting and farming.
Interestingly, the Choctaw women were considered “keepers of the horse,” according to screenwriter John Fusco whose movie Hidalgo was the story of Frank Hopkins and his Indian pinto pony.
“The men did the hunting and it was their wives’ task to track and locate the kill on horseback, with little more than a broken twig here and there to mark the trail. On her sunset-and cornsilk-colored pony the Choctaw Woman would ride into a tangled maze of indigo bush and brambles, follow the trail without breaking gait, and locate the gift deer. Even five moons pregnant it didn’t matter; her Choctaw pony was born gaited, like riding a cloud. With her knife she’d dress the deer and sling the heavy meat up across the packsaddle. Laying some tobacco in gratitude, she’d remount and start for home.”
For three hundred years the Choctaw lived peaceably as accomplished agriculturalists and by the 1800s had developed a lucrative trade network with the areas that would later become Texas and Oklahoma, a feat which traveling on horseback had made possible. The high quality of their livestock, horses in particular, had become legendary, written about in travels journals of the era, including those of Lewis and Clark.
The Choctaw continued to prosper as a nation until Andrew Jackson signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in September of 1830, proclaimed in February 1831, designating Oklahoma “Indian Territory.” Thousands of Choctaw were forced at gunpoint to leave their beloved homeland in what was termed the “Relocation.”
Leaving their ancestral farms and forests to make way for Anglo plantation owners, they marched on foot (often barefoot) along what would come to be known as the Trail of Tears. Their loyal horses, with small bells tinkling like wind chimes fastened to their manes, carried children, the old and infirm through extremely cold weather and blizzards.
It is thought that as many as 4,000-5,000 of the 16,000 native people forced to relocate perished along the route. The tribe would prove resilient in the new territory until the Civil War and then, finally, Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907, when their nation would cease to exist as a separate entity. Tragically, their beloved horses did not fare as well.
The US Government sanctioned the extermination of the Indian horses in an effort to more easily force the Indians onto reservations. Because the Native American’s horses were of spiritual significance in the tribal culture (as was the land), confiscating them was a strategy to break the tribe’s spirit. But the fleet-footed ponies proved hard to catch. And unbeknownst to the cavalry, a handful of families in isolated pockets on the reservations sought to preserve the ancestral bloodlines, guarding and breeding their prized horses.
By the turn of the century, the handful of Choctaw horses remaining sported long Spanish manes and came in a variety of colors: line-backed dun, varnish roan, blacks and bays and leopards among them. They were intelligent and possessed uncanny cow sense, a constitution that could survive on scrub grass, and a “butter smooth” ride. But by 1950 most of the Choctaw elders had passed on—and along with them the esoteric wisdom and zeal for preserving the rare pedigreed ponies that had accompanied them through times both good and bad.
Then another challenge arose: the US. Government imposed the Tick Eradication Program, ordering every wild pony in Oklahoma to be shot. A twist of fate in the form of a young cowboy named Gilbert H. Jones would turn the tables in the breed’s favor. G. H. Jones had a life-long passion for pure Spanish mustangs (now called Spanish Colonial Horses). He left New Mexico because his horses were being slaughtered by neighbors for their meat, and he had only one remaining stallion.
Moving into the Kiamichi Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma, he obtained grazing permits from a local timber company and with the help of a friend, Robert Brislawn, began the process of rebuilding a pure Colonial Spanish Horse herd.
Jones happened upon some Choctaw elders who respected the young white man’s dedication and helped him acquire several Choctaw mares and an additional stallion—an impressive buckskin and white pinto named “Rooster.” Rooster’s ancestry could be traced directly back to the Trail of Tears. Jones’ restoration of a small herd of Choctaw horses had begun.
Savvy and industrious, Jones had become aware of Frank T. Hopkins. Hopkins and his Indian pony Hidalgo (the inspiration for the 2004 motion picture) had demonstrated the breed’s merits through long endurance races, and Jones aimed to do the same. Between long trail rides and brutal endurance events, Rooster’s bloodlines eventually became legendary.
By the 1980’s, Jones’s herd numbered close to one hundred pure horses. Jones continued to work tirelessly to preserve the Choctaw Indian Pony well into his elderly years. He died in 2000 at the age of 93, passing down his research and conservation work to Bryant and Darlene Rickman, who still breed and preserve Jones’ horses on his original land.
Dr. Phillip Sponenberg works closely with the Rickmans, contributing his advanced genetic research, as well as serving as Technical Advisor for the ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). Dr. Sponenberg also serves as an Advisor to Red Road Farm and the Choctaw Indian Conservation Program, founded by the writer and filmmaker who made the Disney movie Hidalgo: John Fusco.