Oklahoma’s Choctaw horses connect to Mississippi

Six foals sired by a cream-colored stallion called DeSoto scamper across a pasture in southwest Mississippi — the first new blood in a century for a line of horses brought to America by Spanish conquistadors and bred by Choctaw Indians who were later forced out of their ancestral homelands.

Choctaw horses were thought to be long gone from this region, disappearing when their Native American owners were expelled from the U.S. Southeast by the government. But the surprise discovery of DeSoto on a farm in Poplarville 13 years ago led to a plan to help the dwindling strain survive.

In this July 17, 2018, photo, Choctaw mare, right, and her 3-month-old filly, center, run with other Choctaw horses on Bill Frank Brown's farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“That really gives us a shot in the arm,” said Bryant Rickman, who has been working since 1980 near Antlers, Oklahoma, to restore the line. He estimates he has bred more than 300 of the horses from nine mares and three stallions. But having so few stallions led to a bottleneck, because the gene pool was so small.

Choctaws saw great power in horses. Ian Thompson, tribal historic preservation officer for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said their word for horse, issoba, means “like a deer” — and the deer was the tribe’s most important animal, both economically and spiritually.

 This around 1910 photo provided by Francine Locke Bray shows Victor M. Locke, Sr., center, with unknown cowboys on Choctaw horses in Pushmataha County, Okla. (Francine Locke Bray via AP)

This around 1910 photo provided by Francine Locke Bray shows Victor M. Locke, Sr., center, with unknown cowboys on Choctaw horses in Pushmataha County, Okla. (Francine Locke Bray via AP)

“So naming the horse after the deer was really saying something,” Thompson said.

Choctaw horses are descended from those brought to the United States in the 1500s and later by Spanish explorers and colonists, said Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

It’s one strain in a breed called Colonial Spanish horses, often referred to by the misleading term “Spanish mustang.” Colonial Spanish horses are among the world’s few genetically unique horse breeds, and are of great historic importance to this country, Sponenberg said.

In this July 17, 2018, photo, Bill Frank Brown walks to feed his horses on his farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Choctaw nation lived in much of what are now Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Choctaws owned tens of thousands of horses by 1830, when Congress gave President Andrew Jackson the power to force Indians out of lands east of the Mississippi, Thompson said.

The relocation of Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Seminole Indians to Oklahoma, which has come to be known as the “Trail of Tears,” took decades. Thompson said more than 12,000 Choctaw people made the journey but an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 died along the way. In Oklahoma, the Choctaw and their horses were part of the cattle-ranching economy.

The horses are small but tough and durable.

In this July 17, 2018, photo, Bill Frank Brown points out an ancestral photo from a trade magazine on his farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“They’re very people-oriented. They’re just as docile as your favorite dog,” said Rickman.

DeSoto was discovered in 2005 when Sponenberg visited Poplarville to check out 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,” he said, referring to a smooth gait between walking and galloping, rather than the bouncing trot common to most horses.

In this July 17, 2018, photo, a Pine Tacky Choctaw cross stud colt is seen on Bill Frank Brown's farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Bill Frank Brown was 14 when he inherited the Poplarville farm that Sponenberg visited in 2005. The farm had been in Brown’s family since 1881 and the livestock there, even longer. Brown had three stallions back then, including DeSoto. He called them pine tacky horses. The Texas A&M veterinary school tested samples of the stallions’ DNA, and they matched those of Rickman’s Choctaws.

Two of the stallions have since died, leaving only DeSoto. Sponenberg picked the mares that would be the best genetic matches for DeSoto, and they were brought to Mississippi last year. The Browns say some of the offspring will remain in Mississippi while others will go back to Oklahoma, along with pregnant mares.

In this July 17, 2018, photo, heritage sheep, descendants of Spanish colonial sheep, leap from their pen on Brown's farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In this July 17, 2018, photo, a Choctaw mare with a filly are seen on Bill Frank Brown's farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In this July 17, 2018, photo, Bill Frank Brown feeds DeSoto, a 19-year-old Pine Tacky Stallion on his farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In this July 17, 2018, photo, Bill Frank Brown feeds horses including Choctaw mares on his farm in Poplarville, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


Text from the AP news story, Oklahoma's Choctaw horses connect to Mississippi, by Janet McConnaughey.

Photos by Gerald Herbert