RANCH TALES: The horse evolves

Horses introduced by the Spanish make their way across North America

On his second trip to North America in 1494, Christopher Columbus dropped anchor off the north coast of Hispaniola, Haiti, and unloaded 24 stallions and 10 mares.

They were the first of their kind in the western hemisphere and their descendants would dramatically change life in the new world. These horses were descended from the barb horses of North Africa that the Moors brought with them when they fought Spain in 711. They were unlike the heavy, powerful horses of northern Europe that had been bred to pull a plough or carry a knight in armour.

They were raised primarily for riding in the hot, dry climate of North Africa and Spain and were lean and quick, qualities that were especially favourable both for combat and for chasing the half-wild cattle of Andalusia.

The conquistadors brought horses to the mainland of Mexico in 1519 where the short grasses and unbounded plains and mountains made them even wirier. Over the next centuries, these small, wiry horses escaped from their owners and wandered northward into territory that would become the U.S.

In their wild state, they grew as fleet as deer and as strong as oxen. Generation after generation of horses lost size and gained “wind.” What they lost in beauty, they gained in utility.

They were made for running and making quick turns, and their lungs, expanded from generations of freedom, gave them the ability to run all day.

These superbly conditioned horses moved northward onto the Great Plains and through California into the mountainous and wet climate of the northwest. In Oregon and the Great Basin area, they encountered larger horses that had descended from the Norman and Breton breeds introduced into New France and used by the fur traders who moved into the area in the early 1800s.

The result was a stockier, heavier horse that still possessed the speed and stamina of the Spanish breeds. The Hudson’s Bay Company in Oregon Country (today’s Oregon, Washington and B.C.) used these horses to carry trade goods into and furs out of northern B.C.

By the 1840s, the HBC had established breeding programs at some of its forts in the Pacific Northwest, including Fort Kamloops. As the company needed large horses that could carry heavy packs, not riders, the horses were bred for size, something that the French Norman and Breton horses were known for. This gave them strength and endurance.

As the fur trade employees, mostly French Canadians, left the HBC and took up land in the Pacific Northwest, they brought these horses with them.

Their bloodlines were further enhanced by the introduction of new breeds, notably Morgans and thoroughbreds, by settlers arriving from the eastern U.S. on the Oregon Trail. Before long, the horses of the Pacific Northwest were acknowledged as among the finest on the continent.

With the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846 between Britain and the U.S., the territory south of the 49th parallel was lost to the HBC.

The company’s forts south of the border were instructed to move their cattle and horses north to Fort Kamloops where the bunchgrass ranges were plentiful.

As a result, the HBC moved a large number of horses, including 200 brood mares, to Kamloops, where they flourished. A large number of the horses escaped into the wild and added a genetic boost to the wild horses already in the area.

These horses were to find a ready market across the mountains on the prairies in the years to come.

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch.