Page images
[graphic][ocr errors]


High Adirondack slopes are often covered with valuable areas of spruce which the state seeks to preserve. On the ground, the snow protects sleeping mosses, ferns, and flowering plants from rapid changes of temperature, and its moisture slowly disintegrates the fallen dead leaves so that the chemical substances which they contain are absorbed back again into the earth, there nourishing new plant life in the endless cycle of growth


Wild Horses of the Plains


INTRODUCTORY NOTE.-Mr. James H. Cook was famous in his youth as an Indian scout and is now recording some of his early experiences on the frontier, of which this article is an excerpt. The American Museum and in fact American science are indebted to him and to his son Harold for the discovery of the Agate Spring Quarry, near the Cook Ranch, on the Niobrara River of western Nebraska, which has proved to be the most wonderful deposit of fossil mammals in the world, with the single exception of the Rancho-la-Brea. At Agate Spring Quarry were found the Moropus skeletons described in the February number of the JOURNAL (1918).

The following pen picture of the mustangs is the most perfect I have seen. The superb qualities of these animals were derived from their barb and from their much more remote Arab ancestors. The real mustang is now very rare. Mr. Cook has secured a very typical example for the American Museum's collection of horses.-HENRY FAIRFIELD OSBORN


O far as we have any knowledge, no evidence has as yet been obtained which would prove that horses were living on the North American continent at the time of its discovery by Europeans. That vast numbers of horses, however, in several stages of evolutionary development, existed here for millions of years prior to that discovery is proved by abundant evidence.

We may well ask in what manner the countless numbers of horses which once roamed our great plains could have been exterminated. Their passing is as mysterious as the sudden disappearance of the millions of "passenger pigeons," which inhabited some of our eastern states up to within the last half century and are now considered extinct.

the true mustangs of the Plains originated from the stock of "Moorish barb" horses which Cortez and other Spanish explorers brought to Mexico in the sixteenth century. During the numerous exploring expeditions of the early Spaniards, one of which extended as far north as the region now occupied by Kansas and Nebraska, no doubt some of the horses used by the explorers escaped from time to time. Stampedes might be caused by storms, or at sight of the herds of bison likely to come thundering by. Probably at times, tired, thirsty horses strayed away from their owners and became lost in their efforts to find water or grass. In this way horses doubtless were scattered over the Plains between three and four hundred years ago and they multiplied.

At the time of which I write, 1870 to 1880, there were thousands of these inbred beautiful little horses living on the ranges of the West, in the vast country that lies between the valley of the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountain region. They were true mustangs, named by the inhabitants of Mexico. Their average weight was about eight hundred pounds, I think. The colors that predominated among them were cream, buckskin, or mouse-color. A few black stripes about the legs above the knees, or hocks, and a black stripe along the middle of the back, extending from the mane to the tail, were common markings. The stallions, although they usually had rather heavy manes, did not have a shaggy appearance. They were clean-limbed and their hoofs were black and perfect, as a rule. Never having known the taste of grain, and deriving their food entirely from the native grasses and forage plants, they certainly were hardy.

Recently, while on a visit to the Grand Cañon, I met an old resident who told me that during the last few years he had seen several small flocks of passenger pigeons in the timber of the mesa lands along the Colorado River. He said he had seen and killed many "back East" when he was a boy, and that he knew well the difference between the "banded tailed" or "wood pigeon" of the West, and the passenger pigeon.

Each year as time goes on we obtain new evidence relative to the days of the "long ago." Possibly we may find, a little later on, some evidence showing that scattered herds of horses were still in existence upon this continent at the time of its discovery. Only two years ago (1916) the fossil remains of a horse which connects the prehistoric horse with the horse of today, were discovered in the state of Nebraska.

Our greatest scholars have thought that
1Of Agate. Nebraska


They could stand more hard riding with no other food than that which they could "rustle" when turned loose, than any breed of horses with which I have ever had experience, either on the Plains or in the mountains. As blacksmiths or "hoofshapers" never had tinkered with their feet or forced them to wear iron shoes, their hoofs were strong and would stand wear over the roughest kind of mountain trails.

I have seen many bands of mustangs on the Plains as far north as the head of the Loup River, Nebraska. North of that point I have never seen any, neither have I heard from any of the old white trappers or the Indians, who lived in that country, that they ever saw any. When the wagon roads were made across the Plains to California, and to the various army posts that were established in the West, horses and mules escaped from the wagon trains occasionally and joined the bands of mustangs. Strange as it may seem, the well-broken, gentle horses and mules which joined the bands of mustangs and lived with them for a few months or years, became, if such a thing could be, more wild and watchful than the mustangs. I am quite sure that a few old, long-headed army mules I have noted ranging with bands of mustangs were about the most wisely wild creatures it has ever been my good fortune to see. Back in Missouri, or some other state, or under the gentle care of some expert governrient "mule skinner," they had acquired a knowledge of men and their ways. Their extremely delicate sense of smell enabled them to scent a man at long range, especially one who carried about with him a large halo from an old pipe or "chawing plug."

After one of these mules had lived in the open with the mustangs for a few months, the slightest scent of a man at any minute, night or day, would cause it to snort in such a wildly terrifying manner that the entire band of mustangs would stampede, running perhaps forty miles at topmost speed, before they could get control enough of their courage to look back to see what had caused the excitement. I have observed that both mustangs and range horses have a keen sense of smell and are able to scent the trail made by horses with which they have been associated, following it rapidly, over ground where a man could see no sign that horses had passed.

One thing for which the mustangs had to


be on the lookout at all times was the big wolf, or "lobo." This cowardly pest was ever hungry for a taste of horse flesh. Animals weakened or crippled from any cause,

or very young colts, were easy prey if the wolf could but sneak up and cut their ham strings with his sharp teeth before the defenders in the band saw him. For the strong, active mare or stallion a wolf might show some respect: a thoroughly enraged horse, fighting with its teeth, striking lightning-like blows with its forefeet, and playing a "double tattoo" with its heels, is no plaything for even a pack of wolves to


Stallions and mares which escaped from emigrant and freighting wagon trains on their way across the Plains, and intermingled with the mustangs, caused the heretofore purebred mustangs to become gradually more and more scarce. By 1880 almost all had disappeared from the Plains; and the few mustangs remaining today are to be found only among the herds of Indian ponies on some reservation where the breeding-up process to get larger horses with which to haul freight or till the soil, has not been rigidly enforced. Now and then a pony having the conformation, coloring, and marking of the mustang may yet be obtained from the older Indians, who have long known the good qualities of the mustangs. In a few places so-called "wild horses" may be found, but they are not the original breed of mustangs. They are bands of range-bred horses gone wild or spoiled, usually by someone's bad management or luck-when trying to corral them. A sudden scare at the entrance to the corral will make horses turn and try to run back on to the range. Should they succeed in one attempt, they will be hard to corral afterward, and if they break back from the corral two or three times, they become a pretty badly spoiled lot of horses-but must not be confused with mustangs.

In the early seventies, while I was working with wild Spanish cattle down in the southwestern part of Texas, getting my early education as a cowboy, I had my first opportunity to learn something regarding mustangs. There were many living on the comparatively small prairies scattered about in the brush country of that region, and a number of men were making a business of catching bands of mustangs to sell in the states to the east and north.

The method employed in the capture was



In former years great herds of beautiful wild mustangs roamed the Western Plains of the United States. They were small, averaging about eight hundred pounds in weight, but clean-limbed and very hardy. Cream, buckskin, or mouse colors prevailed, with a few black stripes about the legs above the knees and a similar stripe along the middle of the back from mane to tail. By the year 1880 almost all had disappeared from the Plains, and only an occasional descendant may now be found among the herds of Indian ponies


as follows: In some thicket a little back from the edge of a prairie large circular corrals were built, high and strong, of heavy posts set in the ground and bound together with green rawhide thongs. The entrance led into a chute or passageway, wide at the outer end and narrowing toward the inner end, where not more than three horses abreast could pass through. This type of entrance prevented the horses from escaping in a rush for the gateway when they found themselves trapped, before the heavy bar poles could be put up and securely lashed. From the outside of the entrance to the corral on either side were built wings extending in the shape of a large V. For a short distance out from the corral these wings, which often extended a quarter of a mile or more, were made very strong, and so high that a horse could not jump over. Then wings and entrance were concealed by green brush.

When the corral and its wings were in readiness, a lot of riders, quite widely sepa


rated and moving in a half circle, rode out of the timber and chaparral on the side of the prairie where the wild horses ranged, and the horses, of course, fled before them. The riders at the ends of the half circle then made straight for the ends of the wings of the corral, while the rest of the riders kept the mustangs running toward the corral and prevented any from turning back. The riders drew nearer and nearer together as they approached the corral. As soon as the mustangs were well within the wings, their pursuers closed in on them, yelling, and firing their pistols, whereupon the leaders among the mustangs, on the lookout for any little opening in the green thicket through which they might escape, rushed through the narrow opening at the inner end of the chute, only to find themselves hopelessly trapped. The fright of these horses can be imagined. They rush frantically around and around the corral. Sometimes they all make for one side of the corral, piling up to such an extent that those farthest back when the rush


The following

This shows well the shoulder stripe which characterizes the full-blooded mustang. quotation from a letter from Mr. Harold J. Cook, son of the author, will explain that it is to him NATURAL HISTORY is indebted for the illustrations.

"I have not been able to find anywhere photographs of the real 'old time mustang,' so I have done the next best thing I could think of. I caught up a descendant of some of these old horses that we recently bought from the Indians, and took some snap shots of him. I have tried to get these for ten days, but it has snowed, rained, and blown wildcats. The pony has the characteristic back and shoulder stripes. I tried to get a view showing these. In size, build, and make-up he conforms quite well with He has very little if any of the hot blood of the white man's horses in his veins"

the type.

« PreviousContinue »