Even at first glance the dramatic Indian relay races staged across the American west are a fantastic and awe-inducing sight. Mounted riders thunder across the track on painted horses. The riders stay close and connected to their horses through every stride, and the distinct shadows they cast are indiscernible as they race by at breakneck speed. Aunties, grandmas, and children cheer heartily from the grandstands and happily chat amongst each other, and when the races are done for the day they share laughter and good humor and tell tales until long after the sun goes down. It’s an amazing spectacle, but its beauty only grows stronger when you realize that horses introduced by settlers to this continent were intended to destroy the Indigenous people.

Having imported horses as weapons of war, the Spanish conquistadors had reaped great rewards with their strong cavalry in previous conquests. After all, horseback riders could quickly decimate their opponents on the ground using encirclement tactics. What the Spanish and subsequent European military powers didn’t anticipate was how rapidly Native Americans would adopt horse culture as their own. The spread of horse culture can be attributed to the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When the Natives rebelled against Spanish control and ultimately decimated the invaders, the people weren’t sure what to do with the horses as they were an agrarian society with no need for such animals. So the horses were released and a new era had begun.

I-ah-to-tonah, or Little Woman Mountain, and son A-last-Sauked, or Looking-away-off, Nez Perce, ca. 1909 | Photo: Library of Congress

A tool of destruction

Horses fulfilled a need for nomadic tribes, enabling them to move and trade and provide food for their people while also dramatically increasing their warring capabilities. Before long the U.S. military came to fear the mounted Indian warriors, who could steer the animals with just their knees and shoot arrows and bullets with fierce accuracy. Horse nations quickly grew in power and influence across their regions. In 1854, the United States suffered a devastating military defeat after attempting to exact vengeance upon a Lakota man who had unknowingly seized a settler’s stray cow. The U.S. government quickly realized that it would be impossible to enforce American laws and norms around private property with the power of the nomadic Lakota people in the Plains. This was true in the South, as well, with the Comanche and their vast trading and raiding horse network.

Since using the horse as a military aid was no longer successful, the United States changed tactics by instead utilizing the horse to exacerbate intertribal conflicts and create a scarcity of resources. Horses increased the power of nomadic nations which, in turn, altered their relationships with more agrarian and sedentary societies. In the south, the Apache and Comanche began having small intertribal conflicts, and in the North, the Lakota’s ability to traverse the plains like never before put them into increasing contact with further nations. The conflicts didn’t really escalate until competition grew for increasingly scarce resources.

Realizing that the most efficient way to destroy a people is to destroy their food supply, the United States paid buffalo hunters to slaughter the animals to near extinction. Initially, nomadic societies were not overly burdened by the reduction in buffalo numbers because horses enabled them to travel further than before in pursuit of sustenance. However, they found themselves increasingly in conflict with surrounding nations as they entered new territory in search of food. The Lakota were fighting on multiple fronts with the Crows over the Powder River area in Wyoming and the Pawnees to the east. Once they were involved in multiple military engagements at the same time the Lakota became more vulnerable. The U.S. military took full advantage of the situation, launching the Great Sioux War against the Lakota. Following long, exhausting winter military campaigns, the conflict officially ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, forcing the Natives to accept a life confined to reservations. 

Apaches. Before the storm- Four Apache on horseback on horseback under storm clouds. photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1906 | Photo: Shutterstock

In the South, the Comanche/Apache conflict intensified because the scarcity of buffalo was exacerbated by the decreased forage available due to overgrazing of the land by horses. Indeed, the Southern Plains lost about two-thirds of its available forage. The fundamentally different needs of the Comanche and Apache eventually made their survival strategies ecologically incompatible, and the two societies were pitted against one another in an epic struggle.  

In 1867, the Comanche and Apache, as well as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho, signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge and agreed to reservation life in exchange for the government calling off the buffalo hunters. The presence of horses had ultimately led to the destruction of a way of life, but horse culture survived and remains strong today. In fact, horses have served as a positive force that is helping to restore tribal relations and reverse the course of ecological devastation that began 500 years ago. The Indian Relays are a big part of that.

While the introduction of horses was intended to destroy American Indians in the past, it serves today as a positive reminder of their resilience and ability to persevere against all odds. The horsemen may have brought fear and trauma in previous generations but today they symbolize the strength of Native communities. The laughter of the aunties, and the excitement that surrounds the Indian relays, remind us that the deep connection between Native people and their horses is a testament to the power and strength of indigenous people who are still here, living in harmony with the very tool that was meant to destroy them. 

“The horsemen… symbolize the strength of Native communities.”