We know for a fact that the humans in California still have wild burrow barbecues annually in the hills above Los Angeles, but apparently man also ate horses in Missouri many years ago.

In 1932, during excavations for a building in St. Louis, the tooth of a horse was discovered imbedded in a rock, 30 feet below the surface. Scientists estimated the tooth to be as much as 50 million years old. So, apparently the horse has been around Missouri much longer than man has, and scientists believe the early inhabitants probably hunted them for food. Many fossil skeletons of horses have been unearthed across the heartland and reconstructed from stage to stage in their evolution.

For reasons unknown, though, the horse left the Americas and became extinct here sometime during the Ice Age (8,000 to 10,000 years ago). Maybe they migrated back toward Asia, Europe and Africa. Of course, men continued to hunt the horse for food over there. Pretty soon they figured out they could tie up a few with grape vines for food during colder weather.

About 7,000 years ago, while they had them tied up, was probably when they discovered they could also use them for pack animals and soon began to ride them. I’ve always assumed the rodeo-crazy humans of Oklahoma were the first bronco busters, but the Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies says the Russians in the steppes east of the Ural Mountains were the first ones to ride the wild broncos.

From the end of the Ice Age until the 1500s, horses were virtually absent from North America. So, during this time, the Native American ancestors of Oklahomans actually knew nothing about horses. The Spanish reintroduced the horse to them when explorers such as Coronado, Cortez and Desoto brought along horses for their expeditions. Without fences though, many of those horses escaped and wandered away, forming the first of the wild mustang herds that still roam parts of the western United States.

The 1600s ushered in the breeding of horses for specific purposes. Large horses with a soft, easy gait that made riding more comfortable were the norm for most of Europe. The Moors from North Africa introduced the lighter, faster Arabians. Rhode Island was the first major horse-breeding region in America, followed by Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The combined efforts of these areas gave rise to several distinctive American horse breeds such as thoroughbreds, Morgans, American saddlebreds, and Tennessee walking horses.

As settlers moved westward across the Mississippi into the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, they brought along some very excellent horses. However, the hills and rocky forests of the Ozarks presented a challenge for the settlers and their fancy horses. Most horses have a lateral gait, that is, they move both feet on one side at the same time. The settlers discovered that horses that were diagonally gaited (left front and right rear – right front and left rear) were more sure-footed in the hills.

This diagonal gait is the movement referred to as the fox trot, and gave rise to Missouri’s very own breed, the Missouri Fox Trotter. The back feet of these horses shuffle in a sliding manner and make for a very smooth ride. As the fox trotter’s popularity grew, selective breeding increased their number. Today, not only do the Ozark ranchers utilize the fox trotter for trail rides and working cattle, but so does the U.S. Forest Service. In 2002, the Fox Trotter became the official Missouri State Horse.

Reference: “Catfish, Fiddles, Mules, and More – Missouri’s State Symbols,” by John C. Fisher.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.