It’s impossible to imagine the Old West without horses. Impossible to imagine cowboys, outlaws or lawmen making their way across the plains without them.
I recently volunteered to help with a 30- and 50-mile endurance riding event to learn more about the sport, and in the process, I learned a lot about horses, which naturally got me thinking about their role in the Old West.
Both rides were broken up into multiple loops of 10-plus miles, and after every loop, the rider had to let the horse recover for 45 minutes. A vet checked the horse’s pulse and a number of other indicators, and if the horse failed any of them, the rider was not allowed to continue.
I had a long conversation with a woman who had decades of experience with horses and competitive trail rides of up to 100 miles. She told me Arabians are the best horses for endurance and competitive trail riding. They are slim and have less muscle mass, which means they stay cool, and their resting pulse is lower to begin with. In other words, Arabians are radiators.
Appaloosas are good, too — a fine western horse. But mustangs and quarter horses — two popular breeds in the Old West — are furnaces. They generate a lot of heat but have trouble shedding it.
Knowing that and seeing the long checklist the vet used to assess whether a horse was fit to continue after a couple of hours on the trail made me understand a little better how horses could drop dead from hard riding, which was not uncommon in the Old West. That had always puzzled me. Horses seem hardy — they’re so BIG — but that’s not necessarily the case.
I saw horses that were well fed and in excellent condition come back from 12-mile runs lathered with sweat and not inclined to go back out, and that was on a cool, rainy New England day. Imagine a summer’s day in the Southwest.
As a sign of their relative fragility, horses cost less than mules in the Old West, according to Candy Moulton’s “Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West” — which is a fantastic resource for writerly details such as how long it took to get from Atchison, Kansas, to Denver (6 days by stagecoach, 5 weeks by wagon) or how much Doc Holliday charged to extract teeth at his dental practice in Dallas ($3). Mules have more endurance and stamina than horses, though mules are notoriously trickier to handle.
In the slice of Western history I’m particularly interested in, the disappearance of Wyatt Earp’s prized race horse Dick Naylor played a part in the growing friction between the Earps and the Clantons in Tombstone. On a tip, Wyatt found the horse in the possession of Billy Clanton, who seems to have danced a fine line between being apologetic and menacing.
When outlaws held up a stagecoach near Tombstone in March 1881, they killed two men and set off a chain of events that led in a more or less straight line to the shootout near the O.K. Corral. A posse took off after the outlaws and, three days later, caught an accomplice and sent him back to Tombstone with a couple of posse members. Gary L. Roberts in his excellent book “Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend” wrote:
[Bob] Paul, the Earp brothers, and [Bat] Masterson continued the hunt for six more days before their horses were so worn out that Paul’s mount died and Wyatt and Masterson were forced to walk back to Tombstone from a distance of eighteen miles.
Fresh horses could have made a difference in the men’s ability to bring the perpetrators to justice — and might have changed history.
And FYI: Vigilantes, not judges, hung horse thieves in the Old West. Hanging was not a legal punishment for that particular crime.