Tony Vagneur: Horse history run deep and should continue in Aspen
Spring is here, and as the weather warms up, our horses start giving us the evil eyeball, daring us to climb aboard and try them out in that first big ride of spring. Nerves on both sides make for excitement. It’s horse season.
Kemo Sabe, the famous Aspen cowboy store, is leaning on the city to provide some caballo parking out front. Proprietor Tom Yoder and his staff sell more fancy cowboy boots and accessories than the Denver Western Stock Show has vendors. After a winter of heavy snow, my horses are champing at the bit to try out the new hitchin’ rail.
Speaking of Aspen parking, think about our predecessors in this huge land; Utes, Native Americans who first arrived in the Great Basin around 500 A.D., who either absorbed or displaced the pre-existing Fremont Culture. They were the dominant group in the region by 1,000 A.D.
According to tribal historians, Utes first acquired the horse in 1580 from the Spaniards. Corresponding white man historic sources say the Utes first big battle with the Spanish in 1637 introduced the Utes to two things: horses and slavery. About 80 Utes were captured and put to work in various Santa Fe workshops. Sometime later, some of these Ute slaves escaped, taking a number of horses with them, which made Utes the first Native Americans to introduce horses into their culture. Either date, they’ve had horses for a very long time.
For a people who had found it difficult to move around freely, the horse provided an entire cultural shift for the Utes. They could now live in buffalo (or elk) hide teepees rather than semi-permanent willow wickiups, and they could travel throughout their vast holdings, which included 225,000 square miles covering most of Utah, western Colorado, southern Wyoming and northern Arizona and New Mexico. That’s a lot to cover when a nomad on the go takes to the trail. A horse pulling a travois piled high, loaded with Ute family possessions, also could carry passengers on its back.
It didn’t take long for the Utes to figure out horses — they selectively bred them to make them stronger in the mountains and how to be a skilled aid in the hunt or battle. They also made them fleet-footed to escape war parties when necessary and surely to make them faster for one of their favorite forms of recreation — horse racing. To other tribes, the Utes soon became known as fierce mountain warriors. So respected were they that wilderness guides, Army scouts and explorers in the know cautioned travelers to beware of confronting Utes in the mountains.
Early on, the Utes learned how to braid arm and legholds into the manes of their horses, allowing them to ride, at a full gallop, on one side of the horse, protected by the horse’s body while they shot at the enemy from underneath or in front of the horse.
This is a reliable maneuver that we continually practiced as kids, making the targets more complicated as our skills grew. Marlon Brando made it famous in “The Missouri Breaks” as a hired killer, riding into the ranch, seemingly out of sight on the opposite side of his horse. A bit overdone for the movie, perhaps, but it made for good watching.
The problem was a clash of cultures between the whites and the Utes. White men couldn’t understand why these American Indians needed so many thousands of acres to survive, and today we still have that lack of perception. In the Roaring Fork Valley, we keep horses penned in small paddocks or pastures, 1 to 10 acres in size, and call them ranches.
Not only did the Utes need all that acreage to feed the elk, buffalo and deer they relied on for their livelihood, they also needed it for their horses. The wealth of a Ute was measured not in gold, wives or blankets — it was measured in the number of horses a man might own, which varied from a few to a couple of hundred for a few of the wealthiest.
The seed of tragedy was planted when Nathan Meeker, agent for the White River agency, told the Utes they must kill a majority of their horses to make more pasture land available for farming. That, and he plowed up their race track in an attempt to convince them that horses weren’t needed, except to pull plows.
That ignorance, that very slap in the face of a people who, for hundreds of years, had looked upon horses as their partners in life, brought about the death of Meeker and the expulsion of the Utes from Colorado, their ancestral home for many centuries. It was an ultimate tragedy on both sides, more so for the Ute nation than the Indian agency.
Bring on the horses, Kemo Sabe and Yoder, in honor both of our predecessors and the cowboy ways that still live within us.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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