The Choctaw Horse Author, Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD Respectfully submitted by tribal member, Monique Sheaffer of Windrider Farm Choctaw Horse Conservation
Choctaw Horses are one of a handful of distinct Native American tribal strains of Colonial Spanish Horse that are surviving by a thin thread. The historical record for the Choctaw Horse is extensive, and more details are known for this strain than for nearly any other strain of Colonial Spanish Horse. Part of the documentation of the Choctaw Horse includes extensive oral pedigrees from old breeders, with many such pedigrees going back well into the 1800s.
Spanish horses were first introduced into the southeast by the Spanish during the 1600s. The Spanish had a chain of missions across the deep south, and they introduced horses, cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, and plantation based agriculture to this region. The Choctaws quickly became expert in raising livestock. The high quality of their livestock, especially the horses, was frequently mentioned in travel journals of that era. In the early 1800s the Choctaw nation had an extensive trade network with the areas that are now Texas and Oklahoma. During this time the Choctaws acquired numerous Spanish type horses through these western trade contacts.
In the early 1800s the Choctaw nation was removed from its original Mississippi homeland to Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, to make way for Anglo plantation owners. Many members of the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed in a migration known as the Trail of Tears. Many Choctaws, seeing what the future would hold, had already left Mississippi a few years earlier, and these people managed to transport most of their livestock and wealth to then Indian Territory. The Choctaws as well as other tribes settled in the eastern part of the territory, where they frequently acted as intermediaries between the USA and non-settled tribes. No doubt exchanges of Spanish horses occurred by this means, since trading was popular among the Native Americans, and most of the available horses were of Colonial Spanish type. The Choctaws prospered as a nation until they were dragged into the Civil War in the 1860s, where they were pawns between the southern Confederacy and the northern Union. The final blow to the Choctaw nation was Oklahoma statehood in 1907, when the Choctaw nation ceased to exist as a separate entity and was absorbed into Oklahoma.
Throughout all of this complex history the Choctaws managed to maintain their Colonial Spanish Horses. The present Choctaw Horses have an external type consistent with a Spanish origin. Blood types of the horses are also consistent with a Spanish origin. The horses average about 14 to 14.2 hands high, with a characteristic athletic build that helps them perform over long distances and for long workdays. Many of the horses are gaited, and they come in nearly all colors known to horses.
Up until the 1970s it was possible to find up to 1500 of the original type Choctaw Horses in southeast Oklahoma. Since that time their numbers have been drastically reduced, and in the late 1980s they may have been down to close to 50 horses. Numbers have rebounded to about 300 in 2011. As is typical of rare breed conservation, the Choctaw Horse is closely associated with a few people who have saved it from extinction. The people most associated with the survival of the Choctaw horse are Bryant and Darlene Rickman, who have assembled remnants of the Choctaw strain from Gilbert Jones and a few other older breeders. Few if any of the Choctaw tribal members still breed the traditional Choctaw Horses. This is a recent phenomenon, since older family strains were jealously guarded, and had extensive oral pedigrees that went back to the time of removal in the early 1800s. Such family strains were common up until the 1970s.
The Choctaw Horses that remain are from different families within the general Choctaw strain. These come from different counties within the old Choctaw nation, and many of these had regional ranges over which the horses roamed as feral animals. The major families that preserved the Choctaw Horses until recently were the Brame, Crisp, Locke, Self, Helms, Thurman, and Carter families. Horses were run on the open range in areas where other types of horses were not kept, and horses were captured and trained as needed. Many of these families had hundreds of horses of consistent Spanish type and widely varying colors including the “Spanish roan” sabino type, leopard and blanketed, and others such as overo paints. The Choctaw Horses are occasionally gaited. They are also quick. Hal Brame was noted for taking his little overo horse to parties and dances and would wager on races over 50 yards. He won a lot of money from cowboys with Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds who went away with increased respect for small, spotted Indian horses!
The size of Choctaw Horses varies from 13.2 to 15 hands high. They have typical Spanish conformation, with broad heads and narrow faces. Small hooked ears are typical. Chests are deep but narrow, making them strong and durable. The croup is sloped and the tail is set on low. Colors include nearly the full range available in horses: black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, line-backed duns, palominos and buckskins, tobiano, frame overo, sabino, blankets, varnish roans, and leopards. A few other colors may still exist as well, including the elusive champagne group of colors. A very few Choctaw horses are curly, although this trait is nearly extinct in the strain. Many of the horses do a running walk in addition to, or instead of, the usual trot of horses. As a result they are comfortable to ride.
One trait of the Choctaw Horses that helps their conservation is their tough feet. A handful of Oklahoma ranchers prefer these horses to the more widely available Quarter Horses since the Choctaw Horses can work all day without being shod. The ranchers therefore save on horseshoeing costs. An additional savings comes from the endurance of the Choctaw Horses which can tolerate a whole day’s work, while the competing breeds can usually only tolerate a half day of hard use.
The present status of the Choctaw Horses is tenuous, and the strain needs to enlist more breeders. The Rickmans have assembled a good number of horses from a variety of strains, and young animals are now available from their herds. In addition to the Rickmans’ horses, there are a few other herds in California (Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary), Pennsylvania (Choctaw Nation of OK tribal members, the Sheaffers’ Windrider Farm), Texas, New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia (Jamie & Mary McConnell). The goal of the Choctaw conservation program is to assure that the pure Choctaw Horses go into conservation programs - especially the mares but also many of the colts. A group of dedicated breeders is slowly developing around these horses, with their top priority the assurance that the strain will persist.
– D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD Professor, Pathology and Genetics Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 24060 USA