History of Horses in America

History of Horses in America

Dear Reader,

History of Horses in AmericaBefore America was the industrial powerhouse it is today, it was an agricultural powerhouse.  In fact, success in American agriculture nearly bankrupted England at one point.  Downton Abbey fans will recognize the back story where Lord Grantham needed to marry an American heiress to save his family’s estate.  But that is another story, told by someone else for another time.

Crop yields improve substantially with greater labor power and mechanization.  A farmer who had only his own power to farm would yield far less per acre than a farmer with oxen or horses. Farmers with oxen and horses could grow a lot more per acre and invest less time.  If mother nature cooperated, they could grow enough to feed their family and sell the excess on the open market.


Technology impacted farming in more fields than mechanization.  Farming also benefited greatly from advances in metallurgy.  Farm equipment used to be made of hardened wood (fragile), cast iron (heavy), or steel (expensive).

On an interesting historical side note, Damascus steel was an exception to metal smithing prior to the Industrial Revolution.  It was light and extremely strong, which made it highly prized.  Sadly the secret of Damascus steel has been lost; the strength and weight of true Damascus steel is unparalleled.  The name actually comes from the metal smiths of Damascus although the actual metal is thought to be possibly mined from somewhere in what is now South India.  But I digress, dear Reader.

Oxen are slow, and their very strength combined with their temperament sometimes made driving teams of oxen unsuitable for children and women.  Note: I am not being sexist.  I am making an observation that due to gender dimorphism, human women are generally less physically strong than human men.  Interestingly in nature, there are creatures where females are the stronger and bigger of the two genders (peregrine falcons are an excellent example).

The third and most expensive option were horses.  Pa Ingalls decided to take on the expenditure to buy a team of horses (Sam and David) when the oxen almost took Ma Ingalls over a cliff.  Ma Ingalls could not stop the oxen when they ran away, Pa Ingalls was luckily able to turn the oxen before they all went over a river bluff.  However Pa Ingalls decided rather than to risk a repeat episode, they were better off buying more tractable and faster horses.

For example there is an enterprising man in the Upper Midwest who has shunned using destructive, modern machines in forestry and gone back to using two horses to work in a more sustainable and responsible manner.  I.e. he can selectively thin out a forest rather than the indiscriminate clearing often found with solely mechanized forestry,  This raises an interesting ethical and environmental point.  Which method mimics the life cycle of the forest more?  Which has a more beneficial impact for the forest ecosystem?  But I digress again, dear Reader.

Important Livestock

Horses were (and arguably still are) important livestock on working farms.  Not only were they beasts of burden but they also were the swiftest means of transportation in the days before automobiles.  Humans had only a few means of transportation before trains and automobiles.  You had boats and ships (only if water ways were navigable), you could walk (very slow), or you could use horse transportation by either riding the horse or driving a horse in a wagon, buggy, carriage, or other wheeled means.

Horses today and in the past are classed by temperament and usage.  There are hot bloods, primarily Arabians and Thoroughbreds, which are not generally suitable for farm work.  They are fast but not meant for farm work and thus have generally been the preserve of the wealthy and leisured.  Cold bloods are typically large, heavily muscled horses meant for hard labor, aka the typical draft horse.  Warm bloods are in-between the hot bloods and cold bloods and encompass a wide variety of uses, including saddle horses, hunters, and light draft work.  Most farmers generally sought draft horses or heavier warm bloods for use on the farm. A farm horse often found itself working just as tirelessly and as hard as their owners, if not harder.

So dear Reader, we have not only the early American farmers to thank for building a great country, but also their livestock.  Especially the many horses of all sizes, breeds, and age.  This is for you, Sam, David, Bess, Beauty, Starlight, and every other working horse in America.

Yours Sincerely,

I. Reidhistory-of-horses-in-America