The historical record for the Choctaw Indian horses is extensive and more details are known for this strain than for many other strains of Colonial Spanish horse. But, they are surviving by a thin thread…perilously close to extinction.
Meet the Choctaw herd that calls Return to Freedom home...
To understand the spirit of the Choctaw pony, one must first appreciate the people of the Choctaw Nation, from which this hardy little horse gets its name. Call it a gathering, call it a relocation, call it a nearly successful eradication program, but, in the end, the Choctaw tribes from the deep south and Mississippi were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1831. After being allowed to roundup their crops and personal belongings, but to leave their livestock behind, thousands of Choctaws began their arduous and pain-filled journey to the promised lands of the “Choctaw Nation in the West,” an area now known as Oklahoma. More than 2,500 Choctaws would die along the way. Most were ferried, others were removed by steamboat and wagons, and yet more were forced to walk. One Choctaw chief referred to the removal as a ‘trail of tears and death,’ a notation that would forever describe the forced relocation of the Choctaw people as The Trail of Tears.
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 Indian 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 rounded up, 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.
Direct descendants of the Choctaw horses who arrived with Hernando DeSoto in the 1500s were integrated into tribal cultures and even after The Trail of Tears, those who remained continued to freely roam on Blackjack Mountain in Oklahoma until 2007. In 2007 they, too, were the subject of a forced removal after the lands on which they grazed were sold. Once numbering in the thousands, very much like the Choctaw Nation that laid claim to them, the pony now numbers just about 200 and is found mainly in isolated preservation programs, such as the one developed in part by Return to Freedom.
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
Also in 2005, a band of seven mares and a stallion travelled from Blackjack Mountain, Oklahoma, to Fusco’s Red Road Farm in Vermont. This band of 100% pure tribal-line Choctaw ponies carried diverse and unique color genetics at risk of being lost forever. In 2008, the ponies traveled to Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in California. The same year, we joined forces with the Rickman family and The American Livestock Breed Conservancy to salvage the horses who were now being forced off Blackjack Mountain by the timber companies that owned the lands.
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.
Picture Gallery: The Choctaw Herd
To sponsor a Choctaw horse, please view the pictures below and make your choice. Then simply click on the photo to fill out the sponsorship application. Thank you so much for your support and love of these beautiful animals.
News About the Choctaw Herd
Picture Gallery: Choctaw Ponies
Resources and More Information
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