The Buffalo Horse

The Buffalo Horse

The Buffalo Horse cir1910

One good horse was usually considered worth twenty buffalo skins.

What Was a Horse Worth? (

In the early 1800s, on Native trade routes, the going rates for horses were:
1 ordinary riding horse is worth 8 buffalo robes
1 fine racing horse is worth 10 guns
1 fine hunting horse = Options- several pack animals,  1 gun and 100 loads of ammunition,  3 pounds of tobacco,  15 eagle feathers, 10 weasel skins,  5 tipi poles,  1 buffalo-hide tipi cover,  1 skin shirt and leggings decorated with human hair and quills. 

Hunting traits (Blackfoot): The buffalo horse, is a well-trained animal and is used only for hunting, war, and dress parade. Many Blackfoot men regarded their buffalo horses as priceless possessions. –The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture by John Canfield Ewers · 1955

Perhaps the best example of private ownership was the horse, which was acquired by Plains Indians in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The horse revolutionized transportation and hunting. A good horse could be ridden into a stampeding buffalo herd so that arrows could be shot at close range. By following the buffalo, the Plains Indians could live a life of abundance.

The horse became one of the Indian’s most important sources of wealth. “A buffalo runner of known ability was worth several common riding horses or pack animals” (Ewers 1958, 78). In Canada in the early 1800s, a buffalo horse could not be purchased with ten guns–a price far greater than any other tribal possession (Barsness 1985, 61).

Given their value, horses were well-cared for and closely guarded. “No system of branding was used, but each person knew the individualities of his horses so that he could recognize them,” writes Clark Wissler (1910, 97). Apparently, disputes over ownership were few, but if a horse was stolen, the offense was punishable by death. Perhaps more than any other asset, the horse reflects the extent to which Indian culture utilized the institution of private ownership. – PERC



1832-“The bow, “says Mr. Catlin,” with which they are armed is small, and apparently, an insignificant weapon, though one of great and almost incredible power in the hands of its owner, whose sinews haveThe Buffalo Horse been from childhood habituated to its use. Its length is generally about three feet, and sometimes not more than two feet six inches. The greatest number are made of ash, or of bois-d’arc, lined with sinews, which give them great elasticity. One of these little weapons in the hands of an Indian is a most effective and powerful one on the open plains. The horse is trained to approach on the right side, enabling the rider to throw his arrow to the left. It brings the rider within three or four paces from the animal when the arrow is thrown with great ease and certainty to the heart “and instances sometimes occur” where the arrow passes entirely through the animal’s body. An Indian therefore, on a fleet, well-trained horse, with his bow and quiver containing a hundred arrows of which he can throw (discharge) fifteen or twenty a minute, is a formidable and dangerous enemy. No one can easily credit the force with which the missiles are thrown and the sanguinary effects produced by them until he has ridden with a party of Indians in chase of a herd of buffalo, and witnessed the apparent ease and grace with which their supple arms have drawn the bow, and seen the huge animals tumbling down and gushing out their heart’s blood from their mouths and nostrils.”

“The hunters drew around the herd a mile or more from them, and the circle gradually closed in at a signal given. The herd at length got wind and fled. When they tried to escape the Indians galloped in brandishing their weapons and yelling in a frightful manner; the buffalo were thus turned back in an opposite direction, where they were again met in a similar manner, by which time the horsemen had closed in from all directions, forming a continuous line. The massacre now began with arrow and lance. In this great turmoil a cloud of dust was soon raised which in parts obscured the throng. In this way the hunt soon resolved itself into a desperate battle, and in the space of twenty-five minutes resulted in the total destruction of the whole herd. I could not distinctly estimate the whole number that were slain, yet I am sure some hundreds fell in this grand mêlée.”


The first horses seen by the mainland Indians were those of the Spanish invaders of Mexico. A few years later De Soto brought the horse into Florida and westward to the Mississippi, while Coronado, on his march to Quivira in 1541, introduced it to the Indians of the great plains. When the Aztec saw the mounted men of Cortés they supposed horse and man to be one and were greatly alarmed at the strange animal. The classical Centaur owed its origin to a like misconception. A tradition existed among the Pawnee that their ancestors mistook a mule ridden by a man for a single animal and shot at it from concealment, capturing the mule when the man fell.

The horse was a marvel to the Indians and came to be regarded as sacred. For a long time it was worshiped by the Aztecs, and by most of the tribes was considered to have a mysterious or sacred character. Its origin was explained by a number of myths representing horses to have come out of the earth through lakes and springs or from the sun.

When Antonio de Espejo visited the Hopi of Arizona in 1583, the Indians spread cotton scarfs or kilts on the ground for the horses to walk on, believing the latter to be sacred. This sacred character is sometimes shown in the names given to the horse, as the Dakota stinka wakan, ‘mysterious dog.’ Its use in transportation accounts for the term ‘dog’ often applied to it, as the Siksika ponokdmita, ‘elk dog’; Cree mistafim, ‘big dog’; Shawnee mishiiwi, ‘elk.’ (See Chamberlain in Am Ur-Quell, 1894.)

The southern plains proved yery favorable, and horses greatly multiplied. Stray and escaped horses formed wild herds, and, as they had few carnivorous enemies, their increase and spread were astonishingly rapid. The movement of the horse was from s. to N., at about an equal rate on both sides of the mountains. It moved northward in three ways:
(1) The increase of the wild horses and their dispersal into new regions was rapid.
(2) For 150 years before the first exploration of the W. by residents of the United States, Spaniards from the Mexican provinces had been making long journeys northward and eastward to trade with the Indians, even, it is said, as far N. as the camps of the Kiowa, when these were living on Tongue r.
(3) As soon as the Indians nearest to the Spanish settlements appreciated the uses of the horse, they began to make raiding expeditions to capture horses, and as knowledge of the animal extended, the tribes still farther to the north began to procure horses from those next south of them. So it was that tribes in the south had the first horses and always had the greatest number, while the tribes farthest north obtained them last and always had fewer of them. Some tribes declare that they possessed horses for some time before they learned the uses to which they could be put.

On the North Atlantic coast horses were imported early in the 17th century, and the Iroquois possessed them toward the end of that century and were regularly breeding them prior to 1736. The northern plains, they seem to have been first obtained from the region west of the Rocky Mountains, the Siksika having obtained their first horses from the Kutenai, Shoshoni, and other tribes across the mountains, in about the year 1800. W. T. Hamilton, who met the Nez Perce¢és, Cayuse, and other tribes of the Columbia region between 1840 and. 1850, tells of the tradition among them of the time when they had no horses; but having learned of their existence in the south, of the purposes for which they were used, and of their abundance, they made up a strong war party, went south, and captured horses. It is impossible to fix the dates at which any tribes procured their horses, and, since many of the Plains tribes wandered in small bodies which seldom met, it is likely that some bands acquired the horse a long time before other sections of the same tribe. The Cheyenne relate variously that they procured their first horses from the Arapaho, from the Kiowa, and from the Shoshoni, and all these statements may be true for different bodies. A very definite statement is made that they received their first horses from the Kiowa at the time when the Kiowa lived on Tongue. The Cheyenne did not cross the Missouri until toward the end of the 17th century. For some time they resided on that stream, and their progress in working westward and southwestward to the Black hills, Powder river, and Tongue, was slow. They probably did not encounter the Kiowa on the Tongue river long before the middle of the 18th century, and it is possible that the Kiowa did not then possess horses. Black Moccasin, reputed trustworthy in his knowledge and his dates, declared that the Cheyenne obtained horses about 1780. The Pawnee are known to have had horses and to have used them in hunting early in the 18th century. Carver makes no mention of seeing horses among the Sioux that he met in 1767 in west Minnesota; but in 1776 the elder Alexander Henry saw them among the Assiniboin, while Umfreville a few years later spoke of horses as common, some being branded, showing that they had been taken from Spanish settlements.

The possession of the horse had an important influence on the culture of the Indians and speedily changed the mode of life of many tribes. The dog had previously been the Indian’s only domestic animal, his companion in the hunt, and to some extent, his assistant as a burden bearer, yet not to a very great degree, since the power of the dog to carry or to haul loads was not great. Before they had horses the Indians were footmen, making short journeys and transporting their possessions mostly on their backs.

The Buffalo Horse -St Louis University Collection

Chonmonicase, or Shaumonekusse (c. 1785-1837), also known by the name Prairie Wolf, was a chief of the Otoe tribe. Among the first Natives to encounter the Lewis and Clark expedition, the joint tribe of Otoe-Missouria gradually ceded most of their lands along the Missouri River to the United States by way of various treaties. By 1855, the Otoe-Missouria were completely confined to a reservation along the Big Blue River in Nebraska, where they struggled to survive and maintain their traditional way of life.

Shaumonekusse was one of a number of Native dignitaries to meet with President James Monroe in Washington D.C. in 1821. Charles Bird King’s portrait depicts him wearing a headdress decorated with bison horns (see wall text panel in this gallery). His peace medal is a stark reminder of both this meeting and the treaties that led to the loss of his people’s land.

St Louis University Collection

This kind of hits home for me. My family moved there bef. 1858 Gma spoke of having breakfast with the Indians. Makes a person wonder.


The hunting Indians possessed an insignificant amount of property since the quantity that they could carry was small. Now all this was changed. An animal had been found which could carry burdens and drag loads. The Indians soon realized that the possession of such an animal would increase their freedom of movement and enable them to increase their property since one horse could carry the load of several men. Besides this, it insured a food supply and made the moving of camp easy and swift and long journeys possible. In addition to the use of the horse as a burden bearer and as a means of moving rapidly from place to place, it was used as a medium of exchange.

The introduction of the horse led to new intertribal relations; systematic war parties were sent forth, the purpose of which was the capture of horses. This at once became a recognized industry, followed by the bravest and most energetic young men. Many of the tribes, before they secured horses, obtained guns, which gave them new boldness, and horse and gun soon transformed those who, a generation before, had been timid foot wanderers, to daring and ferocious raiders.

On the plains and in the southwest, horses were frequently used as food, but not ordinarily when other flesh could be obtained, although it is said that the Chiricahua Apache preferred mule meat to any other. It frequently happened that war parties on horse-stealing expeditions killed and ate horses. When this was done the leader of the party was always careful to warn his men to wash themselves thoroughly with sand or mud and water before they went near the enemy’s camp. Horses greatly dread the smell of horse flesh or horse fat and will not suffer the approach of anyone smelling of it.

The horse had no uniform value, for obviously, no two horses were alike. A war pony or a buffalo horse had a high, and an old pack pony a low, value. A rich old man might send 15 or 20 horses to the tipi of a girl he wished to marry, while a poor young man might send but one. A doctor might charge of fee of one horse or five, according to the patient’s means. People paid as they could. Among the Sioux, and the Cheyenne, the plumage of two eagles used to be regarded as worth a good horse. 40 horses have been given for a medicine pipe.

Indians saddles, very greatly the old saddle of Moorish type, having a high peaked pommel and cancel made of wood or horn covered with raw buffalo hide, was common, and was the kind almost always used by women; but there was another type, low in front and behind, often having a horn, the prong of the deer’s antler, for rope. The Indians road with a short stirrup – the bareback seat. Today the young Indians ride the cowboy saddle, with the cowboy seat – the long leg. Cow skin pads stuffed with the hair of deer, elk, antelope, buffalo, or mountain sheep were commonly used instead of saddles by some of the tribes in running buffalo or in war, but among a number of tribes, the horse was stripped for chasing buffalo and for battle. Some tribes on their horse-stealing expeditions carried with them small empty pads to be stuffed with grass and used as saddles after the horses had been secured. The Indians of other tribes scorned such luxury and wrote the horse naked, reaching some chafed and scarred.

Horse racing, like foot racing, is a favorite amusement and much property is wagered on these races. The Indians were great jockeys and trained and handled their horses with skill. When visiting another tribe they sometimes took racehorses with them and won or lost large sums. The plains tribes were extremely good horseman, in war hiding themselves behind the bodies of their mounts so that only of foot and an arm showed, and on occasion giving exhibitions of wonderful daring and skill. During the campaign of 1865 on Powder River after General Connors drawn battle with a large force of Arapahoe and Cheyenne, and Arapahoe road up and down in front of the command within a few hundred yards, and while his horse was galloping was seen to swing himself down under his horse’s neck and come up on the other side, and resumed his seat repeating the feat many times.

The horse was usually killed at the grave of its owner, just as his arms were buried with him, in order that he might be equipped for the journey that he was about to take. A number of Plains tribes practice a horse dance. There were songs about horses, and prayers were made on their behalf. On the whole, however, the horse’s place in the ceremony was only incidental. On the occasion of great gatherings, horses were led into the circle of the dancers, and they were given away. The donor counting a coup (blow or strike) as he passed over the gift to the recipient. In modern times the marriage gift sent by a suitor to a girl’s family consisted in part of horses. Among some tribes a father gave away a horse when his son killed his first big game or on other important family occasions. In the dances of the soldier band societies of most tribes, two, four, or six chosen men ride horses during the dance. Their horses are painted, the tails are tied up as for war, Hawk or Owl feathers are tied to the forelock or tail, and frequently a scalp, or something representing it, hangs from the lower jaw. The painting represents wounds received by the rider’s horse, or often there is painted the print of a hand on either side of the neck to show that the enemy on foot has been ridden down. In preparing to go into a formal battle the horse as well as his rider received protective treatment. It was ceremonially painted and adorned, as described above, and certain herbs and medicines were rubbed or blown over it to give it endurance and strength.

Among some of the Plains tribes, there was a guild of horse doctors who devoted themselves especially to protecting and healing horses. They doctored horses before going into battle or to the Buffalo hunt, so that they should not fall, and doctored those wounded in battle or on the hunt, as well as the man hurt in the hunt. In intertribal horse races they ‘doctored” in behalf of the horses of their own tribe and against those of their rivals.


North American Indians

The development of intertribal commerce among the Plains Indians was much stimulated by the hunt of the buffalo and its material rewards. By including the natives to trap and hunt the wild animals of the northern part of the continent on a large scale for the sake of their valuable skins the fur companies stimulated the aboriginal talent in the production and use of snares and other devices, even if they did not improve the morals of the Indians.

The introduction of the horse and the gun led to the extermination of the buffalo by Plains Indians and whites. In certain parts of the continent skins were the basis of value – primitive money. A Kutenai, when he draws a beaver, produces a picture, not of the animal but of its cured skin. With the Eskimo of the Yukon, even before the advent of the Russians, the unit of value was “one skin”; that is, the skin of the full-grown land otter, and of late years this is been replaced by the skin of the beaver. Skins of the sea otters, beavers, and other animals were the basis of wealth, also, of many tribes of the North Pacific Coast, and till the practical extermination of some of the species made necessary a new currency, provided in the blankets of the Hudson’s Bay company.