It’s hard to imagine there was a time when there were no horses in America. It is well documented that Spanish explorers first brought horses to America in the mid-16th century and left them here when their expeditions were completed. Some historians pinpoint the arrival of the horse to an expedition by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in the year 1540 in what is now the Southwestern United States.
Coronado, and no doubt others who followed him, found it easier to just leave their horses than to transport them all the way back to Europe where horses were plentiful. The gift of the horse was perhaps the one good thing European explorers and settlers did for Native Americans.
The abandoned horses ran wild and multiplied quickly. By the early 1700s the use of horses had revolutionized life for the Indian tribes of America, and as the American West was settled a man was as likely to have 2 or 3 horses as a family is to have 2 or 3 cars today.
Stories of cowboys catching and taming wild Mustangs are legendary. During my and Yvonne’s recent road trip out west we visited a place where one of those stories began. Dead Horse Point near Canyonlands National Park is the narrow point of a dessert plateau with cliff walls that descend 2,000 feet or more on each side. Cowboys would drive wild Mustangs to the point of the cliff, corral them, and then select the best horses to tame before releasing the others to return to the grassy plain nearby.
There are two stories about how Dead Horse Point got its name. Some say a cowboy once forgot and left some horses corralled at the point of the cliff and the horses died for lack of water. From then on the place was called Dead Horse Point.
The second story, although less dramatic, is more likely the truer of the two. As Mormon pioneers passed the area on their way to the Salt Lake valley they visited this point. Looking over the cliff they observed a rock formation at the bottom of the canyon that resembled a white horse lying on its side so they called the place Dead Horse Point. That rock formation is still visible today. One thing for sure, Dead Horse Point is an amazing and beautiful place to visit.
Visiting Dead Horse Point brought to mind my personal equestrian experiences, which amount to exactly two. The first was sitting on a pony for a picture when I was five years old. The second happened 18 years later.
My first job after college was in Northern Georgia. If the job had been as enjoyable as the weather we might still live there, and I might have become a real horseman. Anyway, one warm Sunday afternoon a friend invited us over to ride his horses, of which he had four or five. He selected a white mare named Cloud for me to ride, advising that she was blind in her right eye. He said she had been a circus horse and was use to running in circles to the left – the direction of her good eye – so I should be prepared to gently tug the reins to the right if she drifted to the left.
All went well for an hour or so as we made our way along some scenic bridle trails that wound through a nearby woods. We finally returned to the open field where we could see the barn in the distance, perhaps a half mile away. I had gotten pretty comfortable and confident in the saddle so I decided to spur Cloud to a full gallop across the field…bad idea.
What I failed to calculate is that Cloud had seen the barn too, and as soon as I dug in my heels she broke into a full stride gallop like Seabiscuit at the Derby. I was clinging to her mane like a pony express ride hanging on for dear life. I didn’t think of it at the time but an old saying of my Mother-in-law’s sure did fit the occasion – “Hold ‘er Newt, she’s headed for the barn.”
I still had hold of the reins but there was no holding Cloud back. It was an exciting ride and I began to think I might just survive riding all the way to the barn but it wasn’t to be. With her one good eye Cloud didn’t see the ditch that flanked in from the right a short distance from the barn. When Cloud reached the ditch instead of trying to jump over it she plunged headlong into it falling forward and throwing me in the air in front of her like a tumbleweed in a hurricane.
I wish I could say I gracefully rolled in a summersault and landed on my feet like a rodeo cowboy performing a daring horse trick, but my landing was more like a rodeo clown being thrown for a loop by a mad bull. Amazingly, and yes miraculously, I was able to spring to my feet like nothing serious had happened. I quickly dusted myself off and stumbled the remaining few feet to the barn where I found Cloud, already in her stall and enjoying a bucket of oats.
I haven’t been on a horse since that summer day in 1970, but not because I’m afraid to mount up again. The right opportunity just hasn’t come along, but I’ve put getting back in the saddle on my bucket list, and I sure hope I have better luck the next time around.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.