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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

For the Love of Horses (& Mules!)

Updated: May 11, 2023

For those of us who grew up with horses, who know the touch of horses, who love horses, we understand how much we owe to horses and mules throughout history, who toiled alongside humans, who helped build our civilizations, fought our wars, pulled our covered wagons, strained against the prairie plow, carried us to church and country school. That history is full of adoration and affection for our beautiful, hooved friends, and, yes—it breaks my heart to write it—abuse and cruelty too. One of my favorite tributes to horses is called “Name of Horses,” by poet Donald Hall. You don’t need to understand anything about poetry to appreciate this poem and feel how much Donald Hall loved horses. Here it is:

"All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding and steerhide over the ash hames to haul sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer, for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields, dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.

All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning; and after noon's heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres, gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack, and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn, three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns. Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze, one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond, and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin, and lay the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear, and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave, shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you, where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses, roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs, yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter frost heaved your bones in the ground - old toilers, soil makers: O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost."

As much as our ancestors knew hard work in building the frontier from ocean to ocean, their labor could hardly compare to the brute strength and patience of horses and mules who pulled stumps and rocks from virgin prairie, pulled covered wagons that could weigh several tons across rough untrod prairie, over rock and desert, up mountainsides and down, too, straining to hold the load back from crushing them.

They fought our wars. They settled our nation. They carried or pulled us everywhere on the face of the earth. In fact, if we could tally the numbers who gave their lives in these endeavors, the sacrificed lives of horses and mules might very well outnumber humans. More than one million horses and mules died in the Civil War, more than eight million in World War I.

Horses, mules and donkeys have been used as the primary beasts of burden around the world since they were first domesticated sometime between 4,000-10,000 B.C. They have been used to farm, to transport humans on horseback, by carriage, sled, trolley, boat and rail, to transport freight, to plod in the dark underground in mining. According to archeologists, domesticating horses was a major turning point in human history. Horses made transportation, exploration, communication, hunting, and trading possible to the most far-flung reaches of the globe and increased the power with which humans could build their civilizations.

Horses, of course, were integral to the frontier, to many Native cultures, to settling the West and our nation. The last five lines of Edwin Muir’s famous poem, “The Horses,” is a tribute to the magnificent equine beasts that built our nation:

Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world, Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden. Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads, But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

PHOTOS: (1) A black sharecropper plowing with a mule. “Worked harder than a rented mule,” was an old Southern saying, inferring that a rented mule could be overworked to exhaustion. (2) A Kansas woman homesteader and her son plow prairie sod. Circa 1880s. Kansas Historical Society. (3) Stump removal was one of the most arduous and exhausting tasks for pioneers and their draft animals clearing land for farming. This horse strains against it’s traces. About 1903. (4) Logging on skids in Taylors Falls, Minnesota in 1892. This load is piled sky-high and was estimated to weigh five tons, a lot even for four horses! Photographer S. C. Sargent. (5) Nebraska homesteaders going west in a horse-drawn covered wagon. 1866. Nebraska Historical Society. (6) Female homesteaders, the Chrisman sisters, stand on their claim at Lieban Creek in Nebraska’s Custer County. Shown from left are Hattie, Lizzie, Lutie and Jennie Ruth with their horses that most likely plowed up the prairie sod with which they built their sod house. Photographer Solomon Burcher. Library of Congress. (7) Two horses pulling an overloaded, double-decker trolley around 1900. Horses could work 12-hour days with little rest in cities. This trolley appears to have 55-60 people and weighs 5-6 tons for just two horses. (8) Children play in the street in 1903 New York City next to a dead horse at 527 West 125th Street. Trolley horses, carriage horses and horses used to pull freight and coal wagons were often overworked and poorly cared for. There were not animal protection laws until—shockingly—the 1966 Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act of 1970! Photographer: Joseph Byron. Library of Congress. (9) A starving horse, scourged with mange, is left in mud up to its knees, at an American Army remount depot, 1918. Many WWI horses died of overwork and exposure to the elements with no care, food or water. (10) Four dead horses lay still in their traces on the French front. Most European and American soldiers were from rural backgrounds and seeing the mass slaughter of horses and mules was emotionally wrenching. Bibliotheque Nationale de France image. (11) War Horse, a book by Michael Morpurgo, later made into award-winning play and a Steven Spielberg movie, is about a British boy and his farm horse, Joey, who go to war together. Many loved farm horses and mules were used in the war effort. Eight out of every ten horses used in the war were killed—more than eight million.

You may enjoy these related posts:

-The History of Appaloosas

-In Honor of a Magnificent War Horse

-The Comanche & The Horse

-Famous Hollywood Horses

-Hollywood's Greatest Trick Horse

Originally posted September 7, 2019 on Facebook & NotesfromtheFrontiercom

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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