Six foals sired by a cream-colored stallion called DeSoto scamper across a pasture in southwest Mississippi. They are the first new blood in a century for a line of horses bred by Choctaw Indians.
Choctaw horses are descended from those brought to America by Spanish explorers and colonists beginning in the 1500s, says Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg. He works with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
The Choctaw tribe lived in what’s now known as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Native Americans acquired their first horses from Spanish missions established across the Deep South. They became adept at horse breeding.
God gave this breed many desirable characteristics. Choctaw horses are small, sturdy, strong, and tough but docile and easy to train. The little horses are sometimes inaccurately called “Spanish mustangs.” “Mustang” refers to a feral horse. Choctaw horses all come from domesticated Spanish stock.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson ordered the Indians out of the lands east of the Mississippi River. Choctaw, Cherokee, and other tribes relocated on the tragic “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma. The Choctaw took the horses with them. The breed was thought to be gone from the Deep South.
Finding DeSoto on a farm in Poplarville, Mississippi, was a happy surprise that led to a plan to preserve the dwindling strain.
Bryant Rickman has worked in Oklahoma since 1980 to restore the breed. He estimates he has bred more than 300 of the horses. But with just nine mares and three stallions to work with, the gene pool was small.
Sponenberg visited Poplarville in 2005 to check out some small cattle descended from Spanish colonial stock. He was surprised to find Spanish colonial sheep there too. Then came the day’s biggest surprise.
“Out of the woods came this horse, single-footing,” Sponenberg recalls. He’s referring to a smooth, moderate gait common to the Choctaw. It’s not the bouncing trot of most horses.
Bill Frank Brown was 14 when he inherited the farm that Sponenberg visited. It had been in Brown’s family since 1881. The lineage of Brown’s livestock had existed even longer. Brown had three stallions in 2005, including DeSoto. He called them pine tacky horses. DNA tests confirmed that Brown’s “pine tackies” matched Rickman’s Choctaws.
Two of Brown’s stallions have since died. Sponenberg selected mares that would be the best genetic matches for DeSoto. They were brought to Mississippi last year for breeding. Some of the offspring will remain at the Mississippi farm. Others will go back to Oklahoma to grow the herd there.