Hooves in History: How the Horse Changed the West

This post continues our look at the work of Alberta’s Archaeological Survey. Previously, we explored “10, 000 years of hunting in Alberta“, as shown in the archaeological record. While RETROactive will continue to be your source for news and information about Alberta’s historic places, we are branching out to provide insights into other aspects of our work to understand, protect and conserve historic resources.

The chronological spread of the domestic horse into Alberta over the last 500 years.

The chronological spread of the domestic horse into Alberta over the last 500 years.

When horses galloped across what would become the US border onto Alberta’s rolling prairies in the 1720s, it was a bit of an overdue homecoming. It had been roughly 10,000 years since the province’s expansive grasslands shuddered under hard equestrian hooves. Fossils indicate that North America is the original home of the horse where it first appeared millions of years ago.

Ancient spear from Alberta that was coated in blood of the now-extinct Mexican horse.

Ancient spear from Alberta that was coated in blood of the now-extinct Mexican horse.

The now-extinct Mexican horse (Equus conversidens) ventured well north into Alberta’s tundra meadows and onto the menu of Alberta’s first humans. Ancient residues of horse blood were found on stone spear tips used over 10,000 years ago in southern Alberta. Fossil horse bones have also been found near Grande Prairie, Taber, Cochrane, and in the Edmonton area. Around 10 millennia ago, the horse mysteriously disappeared. When the horse returned with the Spanish 500 years ago it assumed a central role among Indigenous and European cultures in the West. The story of the horse in Alberta is a fascinating ride through the province’s heritage.

Once groups like the Blackfoot and Assiniboine mastered horseback riding, the horse occupied just about every dimension of life on the Plains. The new hooved pets created new hunting strategies, they changed the way people moved across the prairies, and they altered the dynamics of Plains warfare but reconstructing when and how the domestic horse spread into Alberta has been tricky. Historic records offer only a handful of references to horse adoption by Indigenous people but a unique piece of heritage offers fleeting and beautiful glimpses of how the horse changed the West. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta houses one of the largest collections of rock art in North America. For over a thousand years Indigenous people carved and painted their stories on the sandstone hoodoos and canyon walls and the horse looms large in those depictions.

This carving (‘petroglyph’) from Writing-on-Stone depicts a domestic horse in a buffalo hunt.

This carving (‘petroglyph’) from Writing-on-Stone depicts a domestic horse in a buffalo hunt.

Horse carvings depict a wide variety of events and beliefs including battle scenes, hunting expeditions, and tallies of horses acquired through trading or raiding. In everyday life, some horses replaced the dog as beasts of burden while other horses were highly revered as ‘buffalo runners’, prized for being long-winded and intelligent while overcoming an 800 pound buffalo. For buffalo hunters who needed both hands free for their weapons, a well trained horse was a matter of survival.

A painting by George Catlin from the 1800s of life on the Canadian Plains (reproduced with permission from the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta).

A painting by George Catlin from the 1800s of life on the Canadian Plains (reproduced with permission from the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta).

The horse also quickly galloped into peoples’ social lives. Families that acquired many horses gained prestige and respect. Horse raiding became a mark of courage for many groups and horses were traded for a multitude of things including European goods, food, membership into societies, and spiritual power. During the fur trade while slick beaver furs were motivating European economic interests in northern Alberta, horses, guns, and buffalo meat were becoming entwined in complex trade networks that would shape the history of the prairies. When the buffalo eventually vanished, the hooves of the horse pounded on.

This combat scene from Writing-on-Stone shows an early horse draped with body armour (photograph reproduced with permission from Michal Klassen).

This combat scene from Writing-on-Stone shows an early horse draped with body armour (photograph reproduced with permission from Michal Klassen).

The unique collection of rock art at Writing-on-Stone is a provincial treasure that captures pivotal centuries of modern Plains cultures. For this reason, the area is both a Provincial Historic Resource and a National Historic Site. Writing-on-Stone is still a sacred place to the Blackfoot people; a place where spirits dwell among the sculpted bedrock. Visitors are encouraged to learn the story of this powerful place. One of the many benefits of the stony archive of art on the Milk River is that it can be enjoyed and appreciated under blue skies.

Morning light on the beautiful hoodoos at Writing-on-Stone (photograph reproduced with permission from Robert Berdan).

Morning light on the beautiful hoodoos at Writing-on-Stone (photograph reproduced with permission from Robert Berdan).

What better way to learn how the horse changed the west than from reading the walls of Writing-on-Stone while cool breezes blow in hints of sage and a red-tailed hawk reads over your shoulder? Site protection combined with a healthy respect for Blackfoot traditions and the archaeological record will ensure that the history of the old West will endure and the story of the horse will ride on.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist & Jack Brink, Curator of Archaeology, Royal Alberta Museum.

4 comments

  1. I have a question regarding the rock carvings of hunting scenes. Is there any way to tell how old the carvings of the buffalo hunt the mounted war are? It would be interesting to know how long they have been such an intrinsic part of native life.

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