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Tue09162014

Last update07:23:41 PM GMT

Custer’s Horses on the Battlefield

“Ride ’em hard, and put ’em up wet, Sergeant Major!”

No, this isn’t a legitimate quote from Civil War hero and Indian fighter George A. Custer.  But to those that knew him, the remark wouldn’t have been a surprise based on his propensity to ignore the condition of the animals in his charge.

During the days when a man’s steed was his primary mode of transportation, it was incumbent upon him to take extraordinary care of his mount.   For a cavalry leader, the animals’ condition, effectiveness, and well-being were always of paramount importance.  Only the most pressing military necessity would cause a cavalry commander to push his mounts to the point where their efficiency was seriously impaired.  Conserving the strength of his animals to the greatest possible extent so they reach the field of action in the most effective condition was a principal strategy.

Custer, an excellent horseman, called “one of the finest cavalry officers in the world” by his superiors, became one of the Union Army’s gallant champions.   Always in front, rallying his troops to charge, he had eleven horses shot from under him during his glorious Civil War career.  Promoted Brigadier General at the age of 23, he was one of the youngest to ever hold the rank in the U.S. Army.  Egotistical to many, some suspect he believed himself invincible, and losing numerous horses possibly toughened his attitude toward the cavalry horse as a means to an end (not true with his own, beloved well-bred Thoroughbreds).  

At the close of the Civil War, horse interbreeding was employed.  It was discovered a three-quarter American and one-quarter Spanish horse possessed remarkable endurance and stamina for Western cavalry service.  Other breeds and types represented everything conceivable in the equine world: the common little “broomtail” with ancestry tracing back to Arab and Barb, were small, tough, and ill-shaped, with the disposition of “Satan in Person”; the Thoroughbred-Bronco cross, fairly common throughout the West as early as 1870, was produced by allowing Thoroughbred stallions to run with range mares – coupling the Bronco’s cunning and endurance with the Thoroughbred’s speed and fire.  It became an excellent trooper’s mount.  Overall, the result was a cavalry troop in the mid-1870’s riding what one observer called a “variety of breeds and types of horse with cold-blooded very evident.”

During the Indian Wars, Custer was stationed out West, where the military horse suffered greatly with the harsh conditions.  In the late 1860s, Custer’s three-day march from Camp Supply in the Indian Territories to Fort Dodge in Kansas resulted in the deaths of 276 horses.  Col. William B. Hazen, Sixth Infantry, wrote on the endurance of the U.S. Cavalry horse during this time period: “After the fourth day’s march of a mixed command, the horse does not march faster than the foot soldier, and after the seventh day, the foot soldier begins to outmarch the horse, and from that time on, the foot soldier has to end his march earlier and earlier each day, to enable the cavalry to reach the camp the same day at all.”

Custer was far above the average in physical stamina and immunity to fatigue.  He favored riding in advance of his column and on the flank, continually scouting ahead.  To cover the extra miles, Custer didn’t rely upon the usual cold-blooded (that is, a less spirited horse) mount.  He rode Thoroughbreds and always had two available.  Consequently, he was accused of giving little thought to the poor trooper on his cold-blooded mount.  One officer described Custer thusly: “When he set out to reach a certain point at a certain time, you could be sure that he would be there if he killed every horse in the command.”

When the 7th Cavalry left Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17, 1876 Custer had color-coded his companies so as to instantly identify them in the field.  Each company rode the same colored horse: Company H rode sorrel-colored horses; Company M rode black horses; A Company rode multicolored horses; Companies C and I rode bay horses; E Company rode gray mounts, and so on, forcing troopers to trade horses to be on the correct colored horse (which may or may not have had an effect on their riding).

Well bred and usually well fed and cared for, their horses normally were more than a match for any Indian pony, which only grazed on prairie grass.  Unfortunately, the 36-day march would prove to exhaust both man and horse, possibly becoming a principal factor in the debacle at the Little Bighorn.

They marched 25 to 30 miles daily, making it difficult to care for their horses and mules.  On June 24th, the day before the attack, they marched from 5:00 AM to 7:30 PM ― a total of 28 miles across tough terrain.  Coming across and following thousands of Indian pony tracks meant every blade of grass had been eaten ahead of Custer’s troops.  With spring arriving late and the grass negligible, the animals suffered.  With no grazing, their horses were forced to exist on dwindling rations of oats, about two pounds per day, versus the normal ration of eight pounds.  With little rest and scant food, the animals grew fatigued.  Horses appeared gaunt and many broke down.

On their final day, the 25th, they moved out at 1:00 AM – none of the men having more than 3 hours of sleep.  By daylight they had traveled only 8 miles due to pack train delays.  The men made coffee, which the alkaline water made undrinkable. The horses went without water for the same reason.

From the morning of the 24th, at 5:00 AM, to approximately 2:00 PM on the 25th, Custer’s battalions marched over 60 miles with very little sleep or food, hardly any water, practically no grass and few oats for the animals, during a day when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees.  The scouts and their ponies covered from 10 to 25 miles more each day and were so fatigued that some were unable to keep up, dropping to the rear of the command.

During his final hours, Custer, riding his Thoroughbred named Vic, a bald-faced sorrel with four white feet, and his battalion traveled about seven miles in one hour (between 2:30 – 3:30 PM), which must have included extended trotting and galloping, not considering the wild dashes and charges to escape at the finale.  The condition of his horses may have prevented him from falling back or retreating from his final position.

Custer and the few troops encircling him on Last Stand Hill took their last desperate measure ― shooting their horses to form a breastwork.

Several months later, on November 25, 1876, General Philip Sheridan wrote: “Custer, with his tired men and horses, became, I am afraid, an easy prey to the enemy…”

- – -
(Note: A Santee Indian named Walks-Under-The-Ground reportedly captured Custer’s horse, Vic, and rode him for years.  Custer’s second thoroughbred, Dandy, a bay gelding, was left behind and was eventually returned to the Custer home in Monroe, Michigan where he lived out his life and was buried behind the family barn).
- – -
Many thanks to author Gary Paul Johnston and his book, “Custer’s Horses”

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