Photos by Tee
The Choctaw Indian Pony: An Endangered Treasure written by screenwriter John Fusco for Women & Horses magazine, March/April 2006
Reprinted by permission.
The women were the Keepers of the Horse.
It was the way of the Mississippi Choctaws: the men did the hunting, their wives later tracked the catch--on horseback, with little more than a broken twig here and there to mark the trail. On her sunset-and-cornsilk-colored pony the Choctaw Woman would ride into a tangled maze of indigo bush and brambles, follow the trail without breaking gait, and locate the gift deer. Even five moons pregnant it didn’t matter; her Choctaw Pony was born gaited, like riding a cloud. With her knife she’d dress the deer and sling the heavy meat up across the packsaddle. Laying some tobacco in gratitude, she’d remount and start for home.
This was life on the Good Red Road. Apookta—a place of happiness.
In the dusk, while cooking for her children and the elders, her horse would fatten on grass nearby, small bells fastened to his outsized mane keeping him in earshot. Before dawn she would travel to the bean fields for harvest, walking alongside her horse while her small children—all three of them—would sit up in the packsaddle which was also bundled with supplies. She needed no rope to lead her partner; he just followed where she walked, sometimes snatching a bite of foliage or wayside grass.
The dun pony came from a line that her grandmother passed down to her, a line that the Choctaws could trace back three-hundred years to when they first acquired some of the strange “spirit dogs” from De Soto. It was in October of 1540 when the Spaniards arrived, riding their large and magnificent dogs, and seeking the rumored Seven Cities of Cibola. De Soto introduced himself to the people as a civilized Christian. But when the Choctaws refused to surrender their chief as his slave, he attacked. The native people suffered devastating loss of life that October, but so did De Soto; the Choctaws were not easily pushed around by invaders. Holding onto their rightful lands, the Choctaw took a few of the Spanish spirit dogs into their lives, absorbed them into their culture. As one Native elder would recall, “Because the white man brought the horse…we can almost forgive him for bringing whiskey.”
To the Choctaw Woman in the 1800’s it seemed that the “ponies” had always been a part of her people’s hunting and farming culture in Apookta, the place of happiness.
Then came the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek:
At gun point she and her family were forced to leave their home and start marching. Women, children, old people--many of them barefoot. From their ancestral farms and forests toward a place called Oklahoma, they were escorted by white men with paperwork and rifles. The Choctaw Woman, now with an infant in her blanket, walked the entire way so that her horse could carry her other children and an old woman who could no longer keep the pace. She recalled hearing the many bells tied into manes, like wind chimes. In a blizzard she spotted one of the small Choctaw ponies carrying five children on his back at once. He had been a partner in the good hunting days and he was with them now, in times of hardship on a long strange road. From green Mississippi to bone-dry Oklahoma they walked the road.
Of the 12,000 Choctaw people forced to relocate, 2,500 would die along the way. The dead-- many fallen to cholera or diseased meat rations-- were allowed burial only at designated stops along the trail. President Andrew Jackson called this forced march Relocation. The Choctaw Chief, Nitikechi, called it “a trail of tears and death.” As tragic as this crime against humanity was, the people would survive in the new lands and some would even return to Mississippi to thrive.
But the tough little Choctaw horse who shared the journey with them would not be so fortunate.
Just as the U.S. government ordered the removal of all Indian peoples west of the Mississippi River, so, too, would they later sanction the extermination of Indian horses. The motivation was a simple one: remove the Indian from his horse and they’d be easier to force onto reservations.
“If you don’t catch an Indian Pony in the first two miles,” General Crook is reputed to have said, “then give up the chase, because they’ll run a hundred miles in a day and be fresh to do it again come morning.”
Indeed, the military knew that Native warriors on their small horses comprised perhaps the finest light cavalry in the world. But this equicide wasn’t simply designed to clip the warrior’s wings; military men like Custer knew that the horse was as much a spiritual part of Native culture as the land itself. Taking away the horse was an attempt to break a people’s spirit.
All across the West, Native American horses were rounded up and either slaughtered—as Custer orchestrated at a Cheyenne camp on the Washita River--or had their herd stallions exterminated and replaced with studs from larger breeds. This practice would allow the cavalry to cull and use larger horses with “upgraded” blood. West Point men like Custer—although knowledgeable equestrians--were blinded to the fact that the “squaw ponies” carried the pure bloodlines of Spain’s most regal horses.
By the turn of the century, most people believed that the authentic Indian Pony only survived in the bronzed imaginations of Remington and Russell. Little did they know that, in remote pockets on reservations, a few Native families were secretly preserving the bloodlines of their ancestral herds. Such was the case with the Choctaws. Individual Oklahoma families such as Brame, Crisp, Thurman, Carter and Locke jealously guarded and bred their tribal horses
Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, a rare breeds expert with a particular passion for the Choctaw horses is heartened by recent conservation efforts, but still considers the strain “perilously close to extinction.” Along with his interest in preserving “a fascinating strain that has contributed so heavily to several registries while remaining a pure strain entity,” is his dedication to restoring rare coloration that could be lost if the 100% Choctaw horses fade into history. Toward this goal, Dr. Sponenberg is serving as advisor to the new Red Road Farm: Choctaw Indian Pony Conservation Program, a non-profit organization associated with the Return to Freedom Sanctuary. His own Choctaw horse, Icktinike’, a 14-hand varnish roan/tobiano/sabino is the foundation stallion for this 100% pure band. The first foals in the program are due this April.
By no means is the Choctaw Pony safe yet—he remains critical-- but there is growing hope for his future. Perhaps a society that has finally come to value sacred sites along with national landmarks will someday come to recognize this big-hearted little horse as a historical and cultural treasure. Perhaps the Choctaw Nation, now experiencing a cultural revival in both Mississippi and Oklahoma, will one day regain an interest in the horse that was a partner with their people in the good times and bad.
But crucial to the preservation of the Choctaw horses is sharing their unique history and utilitarian abilities with the horse-owning public. “They have largely been ignored,” says Sponenberg. “Not only its history and contributions, but also its athletic prowess and ability at a variety of tasks.”
Maybe one day, the legendary Indian Pony who walked the Trail of Tears will find his way back to the Good Red Road. That place they called Apookta.
John Fusco is the screenwriter of the motion-pictures “Thunderheart,” “Dreamkeeper,” the Academy Award-nominated “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” “Hidalgo,” and others. A Colonial Spanish Horse preservationist with a focus on tribal strains, he has recently founded the Choctaw Indian Pony Conservation Program at his Red Road Farm in Vermont.