That’s Gene Autry in the 1935 science fiction western serial entitled, “The Phantom Empire.” He was one of the first actors in movie serials to play himself. You see, Autry wasn’t a trained actor. And he couldn’t ride very well either. But director William Witney could. And he taught Autry how to handle a horse. The great horsemanship demonstrated in the film was accomplished by that extraordinary rider and stuntman who doubled for Autry, Yakima Canute.
The western serials of the 1930s and 1940s show fabulous horses and riders. They are worth watching for that reason alone. And there is where I learned how they were able to collapse their horses and throw their riders. It is called the “Running W” for the appearance of the horses’ forelegs when they were yanked up by a trip wire. That maneuver was later banned in the movies.
And who were the cowboys chasing? Indians, of course. And these Native Americans were far better horsemen, riding without stirrups on the plains of the American West. Perhaps the best were the Comanche, ruling a horse empire called Comancheria in the southwest prior to the mid 1800s.
But were the ancestors of the Comanche also masters of the horse? No.
THE SPANISH CONQUISTADOR
It is thought that three hundred years earlier, Native Americans from the north were wandering down the front range of the Rocky Mountains in bands of hunter-gatherers, discovering the civilizations of the Pueblo Culture located in the Four Corners area of the Colorado Plateau, including the cities of the Hopi and Zuni peoples.
These wanderers had no horses, and neither did the Pueblo People. Prior to the arrival of Columbus, in fact, there were no horses in the Americas. No beasts of burden, no warrior cavalry. In the west, just the wandering hunters and the amazing cities of the Pueblo People.
The Spanish heard rumors and were told lies about those cities. So, in 1540, Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, with 400 soldiers and 1,200 horses and pack mules, set out north from Mexico seeking the mythical Cibola and the Seven Cities of Gold. He attacked the Pueblo of Zuni and quickly overcame its 300 defenders. He found no gold within the ancient mud brick walls.
Coronado went from Pueblo to Pueblo, eventually searching as far as Quivira in Kansas. He knew the power of his horses, and Native Americans were prohibited from owning either a horse or a gun. But the Spanish lost many horses to the wild on their marches. These abandoned horses were to be tamed by those hunter-gatherers living along the front range of the Rockies. They would give rise to the great horse cultures of the western plains.
Now, this wonderful story of the horse doesn’t end here. It begins here. For the horse originally evolved in North America. Right here. And there are plenty of fossils to prove it.
The ancestor of the modern horse, Equus, lived in North America during the entire Pleistocene Epoch lasting 2.5 million years. But, after spreading across land bridges to Europe and Asia, the horse vanished from North America 12,000 years ago. Why?
Maybe they have something to tell us upon their return. Something stored in their epigenetic memory. Maybe something about the climate. Maybe about ourselves. Maybe they remember the phosphate-rich soils of the Inner Bluegrass of Kentucky. They seem to do particularly well here.
The horses are back. Welcome home.