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  • Ian Thompson

Like A Deer

We'd like to introduce you to the newest members of our grazing team, Ninak Tomi and Habli, two Choctaw ponies. These horses come from a herd that Amy's grandfather once took care of for Chief Victor Locke, not many miles from where our farm is located today. It's a cool connection, and these animals have a pretty amazing story.

Horses developed on the American Great Plains and the Eurasian steppes over 50 million years. For a short time around 12,000 years ago, horses and humans coexisted in North America. Then, horses disappeared from the continent, either as a result of climate change, human hunting, or both. They thrived in Europe, where they was also hunted and later domesticated.

In the 1500s, the Spanish reintroduced the horse to the Americas. The Spanish mustangs were small in stature, extremely hardy, and they often had blue eyes and dark-colored stripes on their legs. Choctaw people soon encountered the horse on the battlefield, where the Spanish were able to use the horses' power and speed to defeat Choctaw foot soldiers.

In the 1690s, Choctaw people began to acquire horses of their own from the Caddo Tribe to the west. Choctaw people called these animals “isuba”, from “issi holba”, meaning “like a deer”. Economically, the deer was by far the most important animal for the Choctaw people, who also maintained spiritual connections with the animal. Calling the horse “like a deer”, was really saying something.

Choctaw society and culture adapted to incorporate these new animals. Hunting parties began bringing teams of horses on the fall hunt. When they were ready to break camp and head back home, they would load the horses with 50-pound packs of deer jerky on each side and one on top. A deer rawhide would be placed on top to protect the cargo from rain.

In the early 1800s, many Choctaw parents gifted their newborn children with a mare and a colt, a cow and a calf, a sow and pigs. When a child became old enough to leave home, he or she was already supplied with stock. Through such forward-looking practices, by the 1820s the Tribe had grown its mustang herd to15,000 head.

At the time of the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw horse herd was worth an estimated $500,000 in the day's currency. One government agent suggested that a barge be created for the sole purpose of transporting the Choctaw horse herd to Indian Territory. It was never done. Families were left to transport their horses as best they could. Through poor planning, exposure to the elements, and murder, an estimated 1,500 to 4,000 Choctaw people died on the Trail of Tears. An estimated 2,000 Choctaw horses were lost due to drowning and theft.

Once in Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation rebuilt its economy. An important part of this economy included cattle ranching, and the mustang horses continued to be an integral tool for these ranchers. They were also used as draft animals on some Choctaw homesteads. Over time, Choctaw mustangs began to be displaced by other horse breeds. The herd that Amy's grandfather once took care of eventually became a somewhat isolated, wild herd living on Blackjack Mountain in Pushmataha County. They survived by their intelligence and toughness. When the land was purchased by timber companies and the horses threatened with annihilation, Bryant Rickman and others stepped in to save this rare and special breed. Maintaining the bloodline of 300 years ago, the Choctaw ponies are today some of the purest Spanish mustangs in existence. In recent years, horses from this rescued herd have won a number of national endurance races against much larger quarter horses and thoroughbreds.

Recently, Bryant gave us a tremendous honor with the gift of two Choctaw ponies. Ninak Tomi's beautiful blue eyes hearken back to the mustang breed's ancestry. Both horses are pretty independent. Neither one of us have really been around horses before. The learning experience goes both ways. As we're getting to know them, they are becoming accustomed to us. Selectively grazing these animals will help us meet some of our land management goals. Far more than that, though, every time we see them or hear them vocalize, we're drawn back to Amy's connection with these special animals.

(Partially republished from the Biskinik)

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