Indians, Ropes, and Horses
Indians were given lots of titles, but ropers was not one of them. Not much history of how the Indians caught their horses. One story of the Indians roping was the story of the Kickapoos roping the horse herders off their horses at Ft. Lancaster and then stealing all the horses the herders were taking to Live Oak Creek to water them. The Kickapoos never fired a shot and herded all the horses from Fort Lancaster to Mexico where they shared them with the other Kickapoos and the Mexican Government who was supporting them in their farming ventures near Nacimiento Mexico.
I have listened to tales of horseman for 50 plus years. I have known and been exposed to many great horseman, always trying to learn and understand more about them and the horse. I am sure that I haven’t reached my limit of understanding or knowledge of the horse and horseman.
Just lately I have been introduced to another breed of horseman. These individuals were all before my time. They were masters at buffalo hunting, horse stealing, horse racing, horse roping, and managing a horse herd to meet their needs. They mastered the horse transportation and used the horse for traversing large pieces of the southwest. From Kansas to deep into Mexico. Nobody could keep up with them.
It was not uncommon for a Comanche warrior to have one hundred to two hundred mounts, of for a chief to have fifteen hundred. (A Sioux chief might have forty horses, by comparison).
All Comanche warriors were capable of dropping to the side of their galloping horse and hang with one heel over the back and the one arm looped in the braided sling on the mane while loosing twenty arrows during the length of time it took a soldier to load his musket; each of these arrows could kill a man at thirty yards. All of this while carrying a shield and lance that was 14 feet long. Other observers were amazed at the Comanche technique of breaking horses. A Comanche would lasso a wild horse, then tighten the noose, choking the horse and driving it to the ground. When it seemed as if the horse was nearly choked to death, the rope was slacked, given the horse his air back. During this time the Comanche horseman would be stroking the horse with a gentle convincing manner all over his head and neck, while breathing gently into his nostrils. As the horse was becoming settled to the Indian maneuvers he would tie a thong around the mustangs lower jaw and mount up and ride away. Giving the horse time to understand and become comfortable with his new partner. The Comanches were geniuses at anything to do with horses; breeding, breaking, selling, and riding.
I have know men through the years that broke and trained horse in great numbers by very similar methods. I am not sure of the origin of this train of thought, but it has been around for a very long time. I wouldn’t be surprised that the Comanches didn’t learn some of this from the early Spaniards and adopted from there. I know that I do some things very similar and have done so for many years and I certainly won’t take credit for inventing any of it. But time and experience is a great inventor and method maker.
No other tribe, except possibly the Kiowas, so completely lived on horseback. Children were given their own horses at four or five. Soon the boys were expected to learn tricks, which included picking up objects on the ground at a gallop. The young rider would start with light objects and move to progressively heavier objects until finally, without assistance and at a full gallop, he could pick up a man. Rescuing a fallen comrade was seen as one of the most basic obligations of a Comanche warrior.
When they were not stealing horses, or breeding them, they were capturing them in the wild. General Thomas James told a story of how he had witnessed this in 1823, when he had visited the Comanches as a horse buyer, He watched as many riders headed bands of wild horses into a deep ravine where a hundred men waited on horseback with coiled lariats. When the terrified wild horses reached the ambush, there was a good deal of dust and confusions as the riders lassoed them by the neck. But every rider got an animal. Only one horse got away. The Comanches pursued him and in two hours he came back “tamed and gentle”. Within twenty four hours one hundred or more wild horses had been captured and appeared to be “as subject to their masters as farm horses”.
These stories are taken from the book “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne. The whole book is a time stopper and I do recommend it as a great study and beautiful account of the Comanches.
Thoughts by Tim Morris
I've attached a copy of a George Catlin painting showing a Pawnee (I think) getting acquainted with his horse. The Indian has hold of a catch rope apparently tied to a hackamore. Then there is some sort of riata type rope around the horse's neck and stringing out across the ground for maybe 30 feet. This painting comes from the 1830's and is the only picture I have seen of an Indian working with a rope, a skill that probably came in tandem with the Indians' acquisition of horses from the Spanish.
Anyway, skip ahead about 40 years. Clinton L. Smith (11 yrs) and his brother Jeff (9 yrs) were captured by Comanches in 1871 from their home place near Dripping Springs, Texas. Eventually they were traded back to Anglo society in 1876. Jeff was Apache and Clint was Comanche (See "The Boy Captives", 1927, for details).
Jeff relates an anecdote wherein the Apaches trapped some antelope in a cove, roped one, and tied Jeff on it for a rodeo. Now I'm not a roper and not too familiar with antelope, but I suspect that roping a wild one even in a little box canyon is a pretty good trick.
When Clint was about 16, he had occasion to escape from some nefarious types and wandered the plains alone for a while. He came upon an old horse some Kickapoos had left behind. He said he spent half the night making a rope out of bear grass. I guess he needed the rope for a hackamore and rein. At least he knew how to make one.
After he got back home he decided sheep herding wasn't his style so he roamed out to Uvalde County where he hooked up with a trail driver named Pete Cline. Clint secured his job by helping the wrangler rope horses out of the remuda for the cowboys. He cinched his job by riding the outlaw all the other boys were afraid of. Roping and riding he had learned from the Comanches.
Now this is about all I've come across about Indian ropers, but it seems to me that an ordinary Indian horse wrangler had to be a pretty fair hand.