RANCH TALES: The legacy of the horse

“Cowboys is noisy fellers with.” bow legs and brass stomachs that rides hosses and hates any kind of work they can’t do on one."

An old-time cowhand once said, “Cowboys is noisy fellers with.” bow legs and brass stomachs that rides hosses and hates any kind of work they can’t do on one

The cowboy and the horse have been inseparable since the beginning of the cattle trade in North America. British Columbia, where the open ranges stretched unfenced from the United States border to the Cariboo Chilcotin in the early days, was no different.

Cattle roamed free and spent much of their time in a half-wild state. The only way to handle these wild range cattle was on horseback, for a man on foot was at the mercy of their sharp horns and pounding feet.

The working cow horses of the early years were small, seldom over 14 hands high and no more than 600 pounds in weight, but powerful. They could run all day and then kick off the hat of their rider at night. They were descended from the Barb horse of North Africa that the Moors had brought to fight in Spain in 711.

Unlike the bulky powerful horses of northern Europe, these horses, bred in the hot dry countryside of North Africa and Andalusia, were lean, sinewy and active.

The Spanish then brought horses to North America in the 1500s and here they found an environment similar to that of their native North Africa. The hot dry climate of Mexico and the southern United States and the short grasses of the hot plains made the small lean horses even more wiry.

The hundreds of horses that escaped into the wild thrived in the plains and mountains of the south and, in their wild state, grew as fleet as deer and strong as oxen. Generation after generation of horses lost flesh and gained “wind.”

What they lost in beauty they made up for in utility. They were made for running and quick turns with their lungs built from generations of clean air, hearts of centuries of freedom and stomachs of years of dry feed.

These superbly conditioned horses moved northward from Texas onto the plains and from California into the mountains and wet climate of the northwest.

In Oregon and the Great Basin area the horses changed subtly, becoming stockier and heavier, perhaps due to the influence of the French-Norman horses brought to the area by the French-Canadian fur traders. On the ranges of the northwest, the wild horses generally became known as a “cayuses,” a term unknown in the south or east of the Rockies.

It derived from the Native Cayuse people in eastern Washington and Oregon who were noted for their expert horsemanship and careful breeding of these small, strong horses.

The term came north with the early drovers and miners and came to refer to any wild horse that could be broken for ranch work. Over time, the use spread east of the Rocky Mountains but in the early days it appears to have been unique to the northwest.

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch.