A small, sturdy, brightly inquisitive, and highly intelligent pony walked with them, loyally and tirelessly carried them, in fact. Many of them died during the Trail of Tears alongside their people, too. To the Choctaw, this agile pony, ranging in height from 13.2 to 14.2 hands (54 to 58 inches) and patterned in all colors (though pintos are the most common), had great value to them; the pony was symbolic of wealth, glory, honor, and prestige. Naturally, the Choctaw Nation filed claims against the U.S. government for lost horses, some 2,300 all told, worth roughly $80,000 — but the compensation never materialized. The little “valuable” horse is known officially as the Choctaw pony and its history is forever embedded with the culture, spirituality, and heritage of the Choctaw Indian Nation, one of the first major non-European ethnic groups to become U.S. citizens. The pony, too, has been gathered, relocated, and nearly eradicated, but it continues to fight for its very existence in the United States.”
In common with most wild horses, Choctaw ponies had no specific place to call home, but given its natural affiliation for humans and its calm and gentle disposition, they followed the Choctaw tribe wherever it went — often without fences — for more than 500 years. The Choctaw were quite dependent on the little horse, having carefully bred them for hunting parties that could endure long distances. The horses had unusually strong, hard hooves that were able to withstand the unforgiving rock over which they ran, but it would not be enough to outrun the deadly threats the animals faced. The American government, in its effort to break the surviving native people’s spirits, relentlessly slaughtered wild horses and bison throughout the western United States — and the Choctaw pony wasn’t spared from this effort. Even as late as 1950, hundreds of Choctaw ponies were shot under the guise of the government’s Tick Eradication Program.
In 2005, The Choctaw Indian Horse Conservation Program was launched by John Fusco (Colonial Spanish Mustang conservationist and screenwriter for “Hildalgo,” “Thunderheart,” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”), in association with Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, of Virginia Tech, Bryant Rickman of Oklahoma, and Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary, as an immediate rescue effort to help preserve this historically, culturally, and scientifically important genetic resource before it is too late.
Along with insuring their survival, the Choctaw Indian Horse Conservation Program’s goals include:
- enhancing the genetic base of the strain
- conserving variability in horses that go back to all Choctaw breeding
- ensuring the preservation of rare colorations such as the “calico tobiano”
- maintaining enough diverse bloodlines to ensure their survival in the future
- supporting education and efforts to return the Choctaw horse to Choctaw tribal lands and programs
The timber companies decided to replace grazing animals with pesticides to remove unwanted grasses for their timber production. As the rains carried herbicides and pesticides down the mountain and into the Kiamitchi River, the earth wept. Lack of forage, due to the aerial sprays, decimated wildlife populations and caused many of these persecuted ponies to have fetal abortions. Bryant Rickman set corrals throughout the forest and waited — rescuing every horse off the mountain.
Today, Return to Freedom manages this special herd with a non-hormonal, reversible birth control. The goal of the program is to steward a diverse and healthy genetic group and collaborate with others to ensure these ancient bloodlines have a place in the future. We have also recently facilitated the establishment of a Choctaw band at The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota.
- The Choctaw Indian Pony: An Endangered Treasure by screenwriter John Fusco, March/April 2006, Women & Horses Magazine
- Notes on Rickman Horses by Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD
- The Choctaw Horse by Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD
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Other horses in the Choctaw Herd are in need of sponsorship, too. Please consider sponsoring a Choctaw Horse.