The Bicentennial originally appeared in Turf & Sport Digest, July 1976
“Look at our struggle for freedom,
Trace our present day’s strength to its source:
And you’ll find that man’s pathway to glory
Is strewn with the bones of a horse!”
When I first heard that America’s official Bicentennial animal was the horse, I considered it both an appropriate selection as well as an excellent topic for a Bicentennial column.
For awhile I contemplated a stirring historical treatise on the role of racing in America, from colonial days to the present. After all, some of the most notable Thoroughbred owners in history were people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
Washington was additionally well known as a breeder and bettor. Once, taken with the gray mounts of a troop of Connecticut rangers during his New York campaign, he sent ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee, off to procure the sire, a white oriental stallion named Ranger, who had been recovered from a shipwreck. Renamed Lindsey’s Arabian, his bloodline persists in Thoroughbreds to this day.
Jackson spent considerable time and money trying to come up with a horse that could beat a filly named Haynie’s Maria, one of the last offspring of inaugural Epsom Derby winner Diomed. After a succession of Jackson horses fell to Haynie’s Maria, her owner sent her to Virginia, offering to match her for $5,000 on the side against all comers. Jackson told the owner to “make it $50,000 and consider me in with you. She can beat anything in God’s whole creation!”
In later life, Jackson conceded that the only thing in his entire life that he had failed at was in beating Haynie’s Maria.
Obviously, our founding fathers were heavily involved in racing, and possibly places like Hollywood Park and Aqueduct owe a great deal of their existence to this interest. But, of course, that’s not the only reason the horse was selected as the Bicentennial animal. He is, without question, the dominant creature in the history of man’s evolvement in the world.
How could the Roman Legions have conquered the known world without horses?
Where would Cecil B. DeMille be if Yul Brynner didn’t have horses to chase Charlton Heston across Egypt with?
Without horses, Republic Pictures would never have existed. Imagine Roy Rogers on a camel, would you? Tom Mix on a giraffe? The Lone Ranger riding off with a cry of ‘Hiyo, Bambi?”
Directing my thoughts to the 200 years of American independence, I began to wonder about the possible effect on significant historical events if the horse had never existed. Could the West have been won solely with Borax 20-mule teams? Mail carried in pouches by the Kangaroo Express? General Washington on an ostrich?
Then my mind wandered back some years to a television program, “You Are There,” in which Walter Cronkite took us weekly to the site of some historical event, not only re-enacting the situation, but managing to get in his own two cents worth as well. (“Mr. Key, what is it that you’re writing there?” “Oh, just a little tune that keeps running through my head, Walter. I thought about calling it ‘O’er The Ramparts We Watched’, but I’m not sure it’ll sell.”)
What, I began to think, would some of the stories of America’s past, in which the horse was an integral part, be like without horses, with Mr. Cronkite taking us there for a first-hand glimpse?
With that in mind let’s take a look at some of the more critical, or at least intriguing, moments of American history, as they might have happened without horses.
“Walter Cronkite speaking. I’m standing here next to Paul Revere, the famous Boston silversmith, who has spent the past several hours staring out the window looking at the Old North Church tower. Tell me, Mr. Revere, what are you looking for?”
“Well, Walter, I’m waiting for a signal lamp that will tell me that the British are coming. Y’know, one if by land, two if by sea.”
“I see. And what happens when you see the signal?”
“I’m supposed to visit every Middlesex village and farm, to spread the alarm to be up and to arm. Nice and poetic, but nobody bothered to tell me just how I’m supposed to do that!”
“I noticed a couple of fine looking mules outside.”
“Yeah, but they’re so slow, provided you can even get ‘em to move in the first place.”
“Aren’t there any alternative methods of transportation?”
“Well, I considered telegrams, but that’s out since Sammy Morse won’t be born until 1791.”
“Yes, I can see that’s a problem. How about a Yellow cab?”
“Well, Walter, even if we had any, it’d take me too long to get one, plus I can’t afford to ride around all night with the meter running. Besides, they’d probably be out on strike anyway.”
“I have an idea, Paul. Some cultures communicate by smoke signals, wouldn’t that work?”
“We thought about that, but who’s going to see a smoke signal at midnight?”
“Then I guess you’re stuck with the mules.”
“Yeah, I…excuse me, Walter, but there’s a light in the tower. I guess that means…whoops, there’s another light. That means they’re coming by sea. Tell you what, Walter, you ride the other mule and maybe between the two of us we can warn enough people to save the nation.”
(Outside, on mules). “Paul, these mules don’t seem to want to budge.”
“Yeah, I was afraid that would happen. If I told the council once, I’ve told ‘em a thousand times, ‘get a horse’. But nobody seems to know what a horse is.”
“Does this mean that we won’t be able to warn every Middlesex village and farm, that everyone will be asleep and helpless when the British attack, and the republic will be lost?”
“Something like that, Walter.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do?”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but personally I’m going to start running and get the hell out of here. Besides, you just have to be philosophical about these things. Y’know, win some, lose some. See you around.”
“Thank you, Mr. Paul Revere. And that’s the way it was in Boston the night of April 18, 1775. And you were there!”
“Walter Cronkite here. I’m in St. Louis, Gateway to the New Frontier, talking to a Typical Pioneer.
“Tell me, Typical Pioneer, why are you here in St. Louis?”
“Well, me and the missus, we come here from Ohio ‘cause we heard about the excitement and adventure to be found in the west. But after talkin’ with some of the fellers hereabouts that been there, we ain’t so sure no more.”
“What seems to be the problem?”
“First, seems to me ‘bout the only way to get there is to build a raft and go up the Missouri River. Now, that might be okay for Zeb Pike and the like, but I’ve always been skeered of water.”
“You mean there’s no way to travel overland?”
“Oh, there’s some conestoga wagons around alright, but those darn ox that pull ‘em are so darn slow. Seems like it’d take near forever to get there that way. Then there’s this here excitement and adventure bit. Way I hear tell it you gotta go over flat plains in the fiercest heat imaginable, cross raging rivers, then somehow get over a bunch of snow-covered mountains. That feller that said sumthin’ ‘bout purple mountain majesty probably had a bad case of frostbite. And if that weren’t bad enough, there’s savages all over the place. I don’t know ‘bout you, but I don’t much cotton to getting’ scalped or staked out on an anthill.
“Besides, even if you made it through all that, and mind you I said if, I hear tell you just end up in a desert with a lot of poisonous snakes and lizards crawlin’ all over the place. That’s excitement?”
“Does this mean you’re not going to try and win the west?”
“I suppose I’d still try if there was some sort of critter around that could stand the heat and the cold, was strong enough to pull the wagons and fast enough to get away from the savages, but obviously there ain’t no such animal.”
“Then what are your plans?”
“Reckon me and the missus will mosey on back to Ohio and tend the farm. Seems a darn sight safer to let them savages keep the whole kit and kaboodle. Fact is, if they had any brains, they’d be movin’ east!”
“Thank you, Mr. Typical Pioneer. That’s the way it was in St. Louis in 1822. And you were there””
“Walter Cronkite here, speaking from St. Joseph, Missouri. I’m here with former Quantrill raider Jesse James who, like many young men, is faced with the adjustment to civilian life now that the war is over. Mr. James, could you tell us your plans now that the nation is reunited?”
“Well, Walter, I really haven’t given it much thought. About the only thing I’m really good at is shooting Yankees, and there doesn’t seem to be much call for that these days.”
“Surely there must be some other part of your military experience that could be put to good use.”
“I got to be a pretty fair camel rider while I was with Quantrill, but the Yanks took ‘em all away from us. Fact is, that’s how we lost the war, not enough camels. But that’s okay, I was a little tired of that ‘Boots and saddles, ta ra, ta ra’ bit anyway.”
“How about your farm here in St. Joseph?”
“Never was much good at farming and, besides, the neighbors have all got me declared an outlaw, so I don’t figure it’d be a good idea for me to settle down in these parts. I thought about robbing trains and banks, but can’t find no animal fast enough to catch the trains or get away from the banks fast enough to keep from getting shot. So that’s out. Riverboat gambling interested me for awhile but, frankly, I’m a lousy card player.”
“Then what are you plans?”
“Well, since I can’t stay here, I figure I might go south, maybe get into politics. There’s a lot of sympathy down there for us retired raiders, maybe I could be a Governor or somethin’. Run for Congress on the confederate ticket. Heck, someday I might even run for president!”
“Do you think the nation would elect a confederate president?”
“If I can swing enough of the closet rebs in the north, I might be able to pull it off. In fact, I’ve already thought of a campaign slogan: ‘If you can’t outshoot ‘em, outvote ‘em.’ Pretty catchy, eh Walter?”
“Well, it’s certainly the democratic way, but there’s still the fact that many people consider you an outlaw.”
“But Walter, what could be more democratic than that?”
“Thank you, Mr. Jesse James. That’s the way it was in Sr. Joseph, 1866. And you were there!”
“Walter Cronkite speaking, and today I’m at the Little Big Horn in the Dakota territory, where I’m talking with Chief Tatanka Yotanka, which means Sitting Bull in our language. Tell me, Chief, why do they call you Sitting Bull?”
“Me no want to discuss that.”
“I see. I notice you have quite a few warriors gathered around. Could you explain what the occasion might be?”
“That be easy question. We waiting for blue soldiers who steal our land and break treaties. Going to give them, how you white men say, what for.”
“Have you been waiting long?”
“Wait almost two weeks. No see blue soldiers. Getting tired of waiting.”
“How would you account for the delay?”
“Blue soldiers many miles away. Heap long walk.”
“How is it that you were able to get here so soon?”
“Me ride buffalo, name of Neenah. Mean ‘hairy beast who fly like Gnu’. Course me no know what Gnu be, but sound like good name.”
“I understand General Custer is leading the soldiers. Do you think he’s on foot, too?”
“Him no got buffalo, him ride cow. Take him days to get here. Think me take warriors and go to California. Look for yellow rocks in streams. Make much wampum. Gettum fancy house in San Francisco, maybe buy land. Haveum heap big parties every night, much firewater.
“No see why want this barren land in fist place, lettum Custer have it. No good for growing crops. Heap cold in winter. You ever try to live in wigwam during snowstorm? Ever sleepum with smelly buffalo to keep warm?”
“Me tell you, no picnic. When Custer get here, you tellum me go to California. Maybe him come see me someday, haveum big feast, talk about old days.”
“Thank you, Chief. That’s the way it was at the Little Big Horn in 1876. And you were there!”
Well, it’s easy enough from that sampling to appreciate the role of the horse in American history. Mainly, because without him, we wouldn’t have any.