Horses,  Native Americans,  Western History

The Legacy of the Horse in the Lives of the Great Plains People

The Great Plains spread in a boundless swath of land across ten states running from Texas through North Dakota and into Canada.  The Northern Plains, including North Dakota, have vast open expanses dominated by short and tall grasses. The climate is one of extremes; cold harsh winters and hot humid summers.   The grasses change from a vibrant green in the spring to a sea of gold as the summer ends when land and animals prepare for the winter.  Sometimes as you look across the plains, those wide open spaces of flat and rolling grasslands can seem to go on forever.  The wind and sunlight will create waves in the ocean of grass past the big sky horizon.

These open plains were the perfect home to a wide range of herd animals. Up until the 19th century, millions of bison, pronghorn antelope and elk could be seen grazing on this seemingly endless prairie. At one time the bison numbered thirty to sixty million strong.  Entries in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition described herds “so numerous” that they “darkened the whole plains.”

Lewis and Clark Reach Shoshone Camp Led by Sacajawea the Bird Woman by Charles M. Russell

However, the history of the plains and the people who inhabited them could not be written without the presence of the horse. The modern single hoofed horse evolved from a small three toed animal over two million years ago. When the first humans crossed the Bering Strait land bridge about 20,000 years BC, they would have found the Great Plains already a haven for herds of horses. As the climate changed, the horse followed other large mammals into extinction. For many thousands of years the plains and its people were without the horse. The horse was reintroduced to the American continent in the seventeenth century by the Spaniards.  Horses spread across the southern plains quickly and then continued into the northern prairies. In a short amount of time the Plains Indians became expert horsemen. In the days before the horse the people would use dogs as their beasts of burden.  When the first horses arrived they seemed to have a magical quality and many Plains Indians referred to them as “sacred dogs”.

Prior to the renewed presence of the horse on the plains buffalo were hunted on foot; not an easy undertaking. With the horse everything was transformed. Riding on a horse, the hunter could keep up with the herd enabling them to get close enough to shoot them with arrows. They were now able to choose the most desirable prey. Not only did this make hunting easier and more efficient, it allowed the hunters and warriors to go further and arrive with less energy expended.  The first tribes that learned how to ride and use the horse had a great advantage over the others.  The Plains Indians were mostly nomads and with the horse it was easier to carry their belongings. They were then able to have more possessions and bigger teepees. The people could travel farther so trade opportunities increased.  The old and sick who previously might have been abandoned could now be carried and brought along with the rest of the tribe.  Some of the more agrarian communities were able to diversify and increase the role of hunting into their means of sustenance.  Horses also gave the Plains Indian wealth and status. They were used for barter and gift giving. The men became warriors and raids became a part of tribal life.  Horse stealing between the tribes was an amusement that was considered a noble way for a young warrior to gain skills and competence.

The native populations in what is now North Dakota consisted of the Arikara, Assiniboine, Chippewa, Hidatsa, Lakota and Dakota Sioux, and the Mandan tribes. These individual tribes all had distinct and different ancestries, histories and languages.  However, those diverse tribes were united by fundamental beliefs that sprang from their respect, dependence, and intricate relationship with nature.  The great artist of the old west, Charles M. Russell, called the Plains Indians “nature’s soldiers”.  Chief Sitting Bull said this of the people and nature, “Behold, the Spring has come; the earth has received the embraces of the sun and we shall soon see the results of that love! Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.”

The horse culture of the Plains Indians thrived and for many generations ruled the prairie, but as the number of European settlers grew and the herds decreased, life began to change. After 1850 the reservation became the way of life for most Native Americans and marked the end of the plains horse culture and its accompanying lifestyle. Nevertheless, the relationship between the horse and Native Americans did not end. Many turned to cattle and horse ranching, as well as the rodeo to preserve their connection with the horse.  Horses continue to roam the reservations and the horse remains in Native American art. Traditional cultures and the old way of life even today are symbolized by the Plains Indians and their horses. An iconic figure in American and western history will always be the brave warrior astride his reliable steed, poised and ready for the hunt or battle.

Published  in

The Cowboy Chronicle

North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

August 2016 Edition



  1. The Horse Indians of the High Plains
  2. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains
  3. WWF Global: Northern Great Plains
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica on line: Great Plains
  7. American Indian Horse History
  9. Horses and Plains Indians by R.E. Moore


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