Mustang Training Methods of the Blackfoot

Posted on July 29, 2018 by Jerrilee.
Categories: breed, equipment, handicap, health, history, riding.

by Steve Lock

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“Na notoas inik wa akana inewa”  or translated: “My horse has killed many buffalo.”
The Blackfoot hunter who could speak such words had both wealth and power because a good buffalo horse was highly valued by the Native Americans of the Great Plains. The buffalo horse helped a man provide his family with more than just food. It also carried him into battle and bore him in honor during tribal parades. A well-trained buffalo horse was just as appreciated as a well-trained event, dressage, roping, or cutting horse of today.Initially, the tribesmen had to be taught the skills required to train their horses. Their teachers were usually the people they received the horses from, and it was mostly in this way that training methods were passed from tribe to tribe. Little has been written about actual horse training among the plains tribes, but the methods of the Blackfoot are well documented by John C. Ewers in his book The Horse In Blackfoot Culture. Even though, for our purposes, we are looking at the training methods used by the Blackfoot, other plains tribes are known to have used similar methods.

To begin, the Blackfoot started training the horses turning two to three years old. Young men trained their own horses, but elderly people often used the teenage boys within the family to train their horses. Blackfoot boys and girls rode well by the time they were six or seven years of age, but an actual training career for a boy could begin between twelve and sixteen years old, depending on how quickly he obtained his skills.  Mustangs were halter trained at first, then riding training commenced using a few different methods. Before beginning actual training, the trainer and his assistants caught and restrained the horse prior to placing a bridle in its mouth. The bridle the Blackfoot used was made from rawhide, or from hair taken from the forehead and forelegs of the buffalo. The material used was braided into a light rope sixteen to thirty feet long. The bridle was formed from this length of rope by tying a loop in one end of the rope, creating the end of one rein. From the loop, the rope ran along the neck of the horse to the mouth. Once at the mouth, the rope was tied in two or three half hitches depending on the severity required, placed around the horse’s lower jaw, and tightened. From there, the rope continued along the opposite side of the neck making a second rein, which then passed through the loop at the beginning of the first rein. The excess rope was folded, tucked under the rider’s belt, and used to keep possession of the animal if the rider was unseated. This type of bridle could also be quickly transformed into a halter.

Training Methods

One training method used required a surcingle. Once the bridle was in place the rider mounted, passing a long band of rawhide under the horse’s belly as he did. Bringing the ends of the band up along the sides of the horse, he enclosed his knees and lower legs within the band and tied the ends in front of him. By exerting an outward pressure with his knees, the rider was able to make his seat more secure. The assistants released the horse, which was ridden until it tired. This procedure was repeated daily until no longer necessary.
Another training method was to use the pad saddle. As in any horse culture, saddle making was a specialized craft. Among the Blackfoot, women made the saddles. Saddles were considered valuable pieces of equipment, and women who were skilled saddle makers could use these saddles for trading purposes. The pad saddle was made from two pieces of soft skin cut in an hourglass type of shape, and placed on top of the other. Two rawhide lines were stitched down the center, spaced so they formed a gullet between them. The edges were sewn with sinew and then it was stuffed with deer of buffalo hair. There were D-shaped tabs on the sides for a rawhide girth and stirrup leathers.

For training purposes the pad saddle was placed forward, probably as far as the withers. The rider sat behind the saddle and held on to it for security while the horse tried to unseat him. Both the surcingle and the pad saddle method of training required an experienced rider, and were usually used when more preferred methods were not available.
The oldest and most common ways of training were the water and boggy ground methods. Using the water method, two people rode double on a trained horse and lead an untrained one into a stream, or pond, until it was up to its shoulders in water. The rider of the trained horse then held the untrained one steady while the person riding behind him jumped onto its back. One session of thrashing about in deep water was usually enough for most horses. They tired quickly, and could then be ridden to shore. After this, the horse was ridden bareback until ready for a saddle. Swampy or muddy ground was used in the same manner as water – the object being to bog the horse down. These latter two methods were especially good for people inexperienced in horse training. They were easier, and the rider was less likely to be injured if thrown. Once a horse was trained to be ridden, it may then be selected for further training as a hunting and warhorse, racehorse, or draft horse.

The choosing of a horse to be trained for hunting and war was not taken lightly. This would be a man’s best and most valuable mount. Since it helped him obtain food and raw materials for clothing and utensils, it was also an important animal to his family. Not just any animal could be trained for hunting and warfare. A buffalo can run nearly as fast as a horse, so a desirable mount had to be able to run at speed for some distance. Buffalo can also wheel about and turn very quickly, so a horse had to be agile and respond immediately to its rider’s direction. The uneven ground it sped across made it important that a horse be sure of foot. One other important quality was courage, because the horse had to be able to run among animals it naturally feared.

Young boys between ten and fourteen years old were the first to expose young horses to hunting. After the adult hunters started a buffalo herd running, the calves would soon fall behind. When that happened the boys gave chase on their young horses, shooting arrows at the calves. In this manner, the horses started becoming accustomed to chasing buffalo. Whether a horse could overcome its fear, only time and the hunt would tell. The buffalo horse had no small bill to fill.
While some mares were used, most horses chosen for buffalo hunting were geldings. The horse had to have shown itself to be fast and intelligent. Usually a four-year-old was preferred. Hunting and war horses were trained to a high degree, responding to leg aids and shifting of the rider’s weight. This allowed the rider to keep his hands free to use his weapons. Once a horse responded well to its rider’s direction, it was taken on the hunt. Using his whip, and much patience, the hunter taught his horse to move in alongside a buffalo, hold steady while he fired an arrow, and then move away to avoid the animal falling or attacking. It commonly took three arrows to bring down a buffalo, so handling this maneuver at speed was important. A good buffalo horse would act with minimal direction from its rider.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition documented the skill of these buffalo horses. While driving horses they had obtained from a friendly tribe, the party encountered a herd of buffalo. Upon seeing the buffalo, the horses “immediately set off in pursuit of them, and surrounded the herd with almost as much skill as their riders could have done.”
The buffalo horse also served as a warhorse because the same qualities were needed. For its duties as a charger, the horse was trained to allow the rider to hang from its side while it ran, to carry two people at a time, and to stay close to its dismounted rider. To teach the horse to stay near its rider, the trainer placed a rope around the horse’s neck, mounted, urged it into a run, and then stopped quickly and jumped off. When the horse tried to move away, the rider forcefully jerked on the rope. Survival in battle made it essential that warhorses remain near their riders. The buffalo/warhorse was indeed a valuable animal. The only horse the Blackfoot held in more esteem was a winning racehorse. A winning racehorse brought pride to the entire tribe, and enriched those who were smart, or lucky enough, to bet on it.

To transport children and others who could not walk or ride, a sled was used. This sled is commonly referred to by its French name, the travois. For travois pulling, larger mares over four years old and of gentle disposition were preferred. The travois was made in an A-frame shape using two long poles with a platform for the cross piece, and was drug by the horse. It was not originally developed for the horse, but was adapted from its use on dogs. Tipi lodge poles were also drug by the travois horse. These were tied in bundles, and attached to both sides of a horse. Household goods were more commonly carried on a makeshift platform attached to the lodge pole bundles rather than on a travois.

One way horses were trained to pull the travois was to first place a rawhide rope around the base of the horse’s neck. Next, a length of rope was tied to each side of the piece around the neck, and extended behind the horse where they were attached to a dry buffalo hide. The hide had to be tied far enough behind that the horse could not kick it, or more importantly, the boys riding on it to provide weight. Another way to accustom a horse to pulling was to have it drag two wooden poles, which crossed near its head. Whichever method was used, it was repeated until the horse became used to the weight and pulled quietly. Then it was ready to pull the real travois, or lodge poles. An unloaded travois weighed around fifty pounds, and the average load a horse pulled was 250 to 300 pounds.
The European method of mounting horses from the left had a practical design at one time, related to when men carried swords. The Blackfoot method of mounting a horse, while differing from that of Europeans, had a practical design also. Their method related to whether a person was left or right handed. They claimed it felt more natural to mount from the side of the hand the rider used most. If a person was right-handed, that meant grabbing some mane in the right hand, placing the left hand on the horses back, and then swinging up onto the horse. If you should wish to try this at home and find it difficult – remember their horses’ height averaged around fourteen hands. A sixteen or seventeen-hand horse will present a bit of a challenge. You may end up with a face full of shoulder.

Women rode astride, wearing long, loose skirts that facilitated easy movement, and covered their legs while riding. They usually used a wooden saddle. The pommel and cantle were of equal height – about ten to twelve inches. They were set into two sideboards that served as the panels. The entire frame was covered with buffalo rawhide. Soft skin stuffed with grass was used under the panels to protect the horse’s back. When a woman mounted, she put one foot the stirrup and pushed the opposite leg between the pommel and cantle; they were too high to swing a leg over. Imagine mounting a western saddle with two horns about a foot high!

To start a horse moving, the Blackfoot made the sound “sh” several times, while leaving the reins loose. To slow or stop, the command “ka” was said while pulling back on the reins. This latter command was also used to quiet horses while dismounted, especially in dangerous situations. No voice commands were used in turning, which was accomplished by using an open rein in the desired direction of travel. The better trained horses would turn in response to knee pressure on the opposite side, or by the rider shifting his weight in the direction of the turn. The horse would continue to turn until the rider’s weight was centered again.

In training and using horses, Native Americans took some of the European’s methods and adapted them to their way of life. The use of a wood-frame saddle covered with hide, the use of stirrups, the whip, the lariat, and the practice of gelding were among the things borrowed from Europeans, mainly the Spaniards. The horse owning tribes did not generally adopt the use of spurs, a bridle with a metal bit, or the practice of branding as a means of identifying their horses.

Compared to the overall history of Native Americans, the horse era covered a relatively short period of time, but they quickly learned to use these animals. The generations that grew up with the horse produced excellent riders, and the horse became an inextricable part of their lives. They undoubtedly experienced the same joys and frustrations of horse training that we do. That they were successful can be seen from the colorful accounts of their expert horsemanship written by Europeans and others who encountered the horse owning tribes. Success to the trainer of a buffalo horse meant meat in people’s bellies, clothes on their backs, and shelter over their heads. That was why it was important for a hunter to be able to say, “Na notoas inikwa akana inewa.”

“My horse has killed many buffalo.”

photo from engraving by William Cary, 1874

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