It was Coronado who brought the first horses into the land of the Gran Apacheria. We have no record of what the Apache thought at first sight of this new animal. As Coronado traveled through the mountains and valleys of what is now Arizona, his caravan traveled for day after day, week after week, without seeing any local residents. In their journals, the Spaniards dismissed this lush landscape as deserted and unpopulated. It was the heart of the Apache country and the people hid behind the mountain boulders watching Coronado’s large calvacade. The Apache peoples must have been awed by the size of Coronado’s expedition, hundreds of conquistadors, settlers, and brides. Thousands of livestock including cattle, sheep, and horses, followed along, raising a cloud of dust behind the expedition which could be seen for miles.
When Coronado pulled up his troops and wagons to camp at the ancient abandoned ruins of Casa Malpais, Coronado’s herders used the kiva there (the largest kiva in Arizona) as a pen for their sheep. The Native Americans who occupied near by Raven Village were so disgusted by this disrespect that they left their village and scattered to places that had never heard of Spaniards.
The New Mexico Native Americans were greatly afraid of Coronado’s horses. They were afraid that the large beasts which the Spaniards loved to ride into battle were giant carnivores with a taste for human flesh. When the conquistadors had worn out their welcome in the pueblos, the expedition was tricked and sent out on the great plains in a search for the bogus mythical kingdom of Quivira. It was somewhere near Kansas that the exploring Spaniards finally ran into their first band of Apache. Among a band of buffalo hunters known as the Lipan Apache, the Spaniards reported that the people responded calmly to the horses, “approaching the horses and anointing themselves with their sweat.” Historian Alexander Hartley writes of the incident ,”Amazed with the unknown animal they smeared their bodies with the fluid, doubtless with the idea of transferring to themselves something of the magic of the Great Dog of the white men.”
The theme of the horse as a giant fierce dog appears again and again in first contact stories between the Spaniards and the Native Americans of the southwest. There is one story about a wandering conquistador who stopped for rest at a Pima village and asked the residents to please feed and water his steed. The next day the horse collapsed and died in the desert. When the conquistador returned he was furious but the Pima tried to explain. They had tried to feed the horse, they had offered it all sorts of meat; venison, javelina, rabbit, antelope, and quail but the Great Dog of the Spanish had refused to eat.
No one is certain of the exact dates which the Apache tribes acquired and domesticated horses but it changed the Apache culture like lightning. None of those Native Americans who saw Coronado bring the first horses to North America would ever ride one but their grandchildren saw an equine revolution which changed the Apache culture forever. Most historians agree that Spanish journals begin mounted raids by the 1630’s. These new beasts of burden made an already nomadic people, extremely mobile.
The United States Army officers who fought against them, described the Apache
soldiers as the best cavalry fighters in the world, over and over again. Soldiers who had been all around the world would make comparisons to see how Apache mounted warriors stacked up against the Sioux, Russian Cossacks, and even themselves. Always, the Apache were declared the best horse riders in the world.
It was the Apache cultural hero, Slayer of Enemies who legends say made the first horse. Slayer of Enemies wanted a steed to ride into battle. First he tried to ride a deer, but no matter how hard he tried the deer would not listen. So Slayer of Enemies rode an antelope next and while it was fast enough, the antelope was not strong enough to carry a full grown man. Next he rode an elk, and the creature was plenty strong enough but was far too slow to be effective in battle. Javelina… well let’s just say there is nothing dignified about riding a javelina into battle. This is why Slayer of Enemies decided it was necessary to make an animal.
Slayer of Enemies took cornstalks and bent them into shape to form the skeleton. That is why the skeleton of the horse is jointed like a cornstalk. The soapy substance which forms from agave after a good rain was used to make horse sweat, the same horse sweat the Lipan blessed themselves with. Hailstones were used to make the teeth. Slayer of Enemies took lightning to give the horse a fiery breath. The hooves were made of rainbows and an arrowhead was attached to the bottom of each one so that the horse would have a powerful kick. Slayer of Enemies took a pair of crescent moons and formed the ears. For the eyes he chipped off a piece of the Morning Star. All that remained was to bring his creation to life. To accomplish this, Slayer of Enemies took four whirlwinds, one from each of the four directions and threw them inside.
The four directions play an important part in Apache mythology. The Sun keeps a corral with four horses; one for each of the cardinal points of the compass. Each direction has a color and a stone associated with it. For instance, the Black Horse has long been favored by Apache riders. It is usually called Black Wind Horse and is said to be linked to the stone jet. A black horse with a white face is said to be extremely intelligent and is the type Slayer of Enemies rides into battle. The red horse of the south is made of carnelian stone and the blue horse from the west is composed of turquoise. The favorite horse of the sun however is the horse of the east — the white horse. The white horse is made of seashell and every morning arises to lift the sun, in all her burning glory, up to her spot atop the heavens, bringing with it the break of a new day. According to Apache legend, the colors of the sunrise come from the fires of the sun being reflected in the white iridescence of the seashell horse.
Even today, the horse still holds a special place in Apache culture. In the summer,
when I escape the desert summer heat by going trout fishing in the White Mountains, and my automobile drives through reservation towns like Whiteriver, Hon Da, and McNary, I always turn my radio dial to the reservation radio and it seems like I always hear at least an hour or two of the rodeo news. Imagine that — an hour or two a day of the rodeo news. That is a lot of talk about horses.