Search billions of records on

Horses In The Red River Valley


Kathryn Ohmann

Senior High Division


Horses have been one of man's most dependable friends andservants for thousands of years. No one knows who first domesticated thisnoble animal. They appear in the Bible. Beautiful images of horses are shownin ancient art and literature.

Horses had run in America before the Ice Age but for somereason they had vanished from this continent before man came. The firsthorses in civilized times were brought to this country in 1519 by the Spanishexplorer, Cortez.

From then on, horses appear on almost every page of Americanhistory. Indians hunted buffalo on sturdy mustangs--the descendants of horsesbrought by Cortez. Pioneers used horses to pull their wagons as they crossedthe plains to settle the West. Farmers used them to round up their herdsof cattle. Stagecoaches were drawn by horses and mail was carried by PonyExpress. Horses even fought in the cavalry of the United States.

Until the coming of the "iron horse" (train)and the "horseless carriage" (automobile), horses provided thefastest and surest transportation on land. In addition, they gave the ridera wonderful feeling of grace and pride. According to an old saying, "There'snothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse."

The first homesteaders to the Red River Valley in the early1800's were brought by horses and oxen. Here, the settlers were able tosecure treeless, stoneless, fertile prairie land at a very low cost. Thisland is what attracted them to the area.

Before 1856, the people in the Red River Valley used horsesmore for transportation, freighting, and buffalo hunting than for farm work.Oxen were used for farm work more than the horses. The oxen were less expensive,stronger, and could maintain themselves better than horses. But when machinerybecame more popular, horses replaced oxen because they worked faster andwere more readily obtainable. In Minnesota in 1860, oxen outnumbered horsesby 10,000 head. By 1870, horses outnumbered oxen by 50,000.

The big shipments of horses into the Red River Valley clearlyshow the great numbers of these animals necessary for the farm.

Number Of Horses In:

Kittson County Pembina County

1880 140 780

1890 2,941 10,235

1900 7,395 15,462

1910 8,335 14,126

1920 10,185 16,032


Horsepower was adapted to such mechanical functions asthreshing machines, grain elevators, feed grinders, fanning mills, welldiggers, stump pullers, and winches which used tread mills or sweep power.

Although wheat proved to be the main money crop of theRed River Valley, the farmers were forced to diversify their crops becausethe land lost some of its fertility and also because of the large amountof feed crops necessary for the horses and mules. Nearly one-fourth of afarmer's land had to be used for the horse's feed. Horses were fed 16 poundsof hay and 16 pounds of oats on a work day. On idle days they were fed only20 pounds of hay.

Horses and their upkeep ranked second only to wages andboard of men in the 1800's. It was not the original expense of securingthe horses but the need for constant replacement in addition to the feedingand housing that made the cost of animal power a great factor in the financingof a farm.

In 1887, a good team of horses cost $400. Two dry yearsbrought the demand and price of horses down 50% from the peak prices in1883. Poor crops, an increase in the horse supply, and a decline in therate of farm expansion dropped the horse prices each year during the late1880's and into 1890 when horses averaged only about $100. On the otherhand, lower prices encouraged some farmers to buy too many horses. Theywere considered choice collateral and, next to land, were most readily takenas security. Many times they secured up to their full value.

Each year, as more and more acres were cultivated, theanimal power requirements increased. The Dalrymple and Grandin farms, twoof the larger bonanzas (1), used at least 800 animals each at their peakyears in 1884 and 1885. Even the smaller bonanzas had large horse herds.Some of these smaller farms rented their horses out to lumber camps forthe winter.

The Raymond farm north of Fargo had a business agreementwith the lumbering camps regarding their horses and mules. His animals weresent to the woods each year for a six month period. He reported that hereceived $12.50 a month for each animal while they were at the lumber camp.(2)

The normal work day for a farm horse in the 1800's duringseeding, haying, and harvest was long. The horses were fed hay and oatsat about three or four in the morning, depending on how many there were.Then they were curried and harnessed. The men went to breakfast for halfan hour and were ready for work at full daylight. A full hour was necessaryat noon to rest and feed the horses. When it was hot, the horses were eitherchanged at noon or given half an hours's extra rest. They were always inthe barn by dusk. After supper, the men would dry and brush them.

Horses sometimes saved men's lives but on many occasionsthey were responsible for injury or even death. Smashed faces, kicks inthe groin, broken pelvises, or smashed toes were frequent in the days ofhorse power agriculture.

Riding also presented problems. For those who know horsesknow they can act peculiar at times. Horses with sore shoulders, itchy necks,or those who were just temperamental and knew how to throw the collar orharness were all part of the horse age.

Once Charles Hobart from near Fargo, had his patience triedby a balky horse named Doll. His wife was going to ride her but when shegot on, the pony wouldn't move. So, Charles came out and gave Doll a lessonshe never forgot; at least she never balked again.

Another time, he had a close call when he was hauling wheatwith his two most dependable horses, Gypsy and Norma. Hobart was walkingbeside the wagon to keep warm. To avoid losing the reins, he had tied thembehind his back. As the wagon went down a coulee, he slipped and fell. Thehorses kept going. Hobart was dragged face down at the rear of the wagonall the way down the hill before the horses stopped.

I love hearing human interest stories about the experiencesthat people had with horses during the horse era. Mr. Gordon Short who presentlyresides in St. Vincent, Minnesota, has had many tragic experiences withhorses.

One bad accident occurred when he was only five years oldand lived in McIntosh, Minnesota. He was driving a potato wagon. When themen waved to him, it would be the signal to move the wagon. All Gordon hadto do was to say "Giddyup" and the teams would go forward. Buthe thought that this was too slow. He thought he would liven it up a little.He'd seen his dad slap the horses on the rump to speed them up so he didthe same and they took off. He was thrown underneath the wagon. The wheelsrolled over his head and his arm. He has a bent arm today to remind himof the incident.

Not all the accidents happened to people, however. Manytimes it was the horse who got the worst end of the deal. They were oftencaught in barb wire fences and torn to pieces.

Gordon tells of another unfortunate experience with a horsehis father owned. After a heavy rainstorm, the horse had wandered over toa freshly graded ditch. He slipped in and struggled to get out. But themore he struggled, the worse he became entrapped. His absence was not noticeduntil nearly a day later. During this time he had mired himself deeper intothe mud. Gordon's father had to hitch up a team of horses to pull him fromthe mud. By the time he got out, he was so weak and worn that he had tobe disposed of.

There were other problems with raising horses. Sometimeswhen a horse did not have sufficient water, he could become constipated.Usually, this ailment could be cured by giving the horse a quart of linseedoil through either the nose or the mouth. Often warm soapy water was recommendedto wash out the intestines. One of Short's horses had a severe case of constipationso they called in the one and only veterinarian in the area. He happenedto be an ex-convict. He had been convicted for the theft of veterinariansupplies. He wanted to go into the profession but couldn't afford the equipment.When he was released from jail, he picked up the supplies and started hispractice.

After looking at this particular horse, he recommendedan injection which he said would either cure him or kill him. As it turnedout, he died in five minutes.

Another gruesome accident happened during haying season.When the men were mowing hay, a prairie chicken flew up and her loud squawkingfrightened the horses. They bolted ahead and ran into the path of anothermower. The sickle of this mower cut one horse's hoof completely off at thehock. Gordon's dad immediately ordered his hired man to do away with thehorse with a sledge hammer.

Of course, the stories did not all have sad endings. Gordonrecalls a team of mules his father owned that were notorious for their kickingability. Everyone was very cautious when working around them.

But, one day, Gordon's little sister, May, who was aboutfive years old, strolled into the corral and grabbed the mule's tails andpulled on them. When her parents saw it, they held their breath. To theirimmense relief, the only thing that the mules did was to lift their tailsand look around at her. It's common knowledge that mules will never kicka small child.

My grandpa also told me a story concerning mules. A muleis the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. Mules were very muchin demand as work animals because they could work hard and for a long timeand were less likely to suffer from overwork than horses.

For these reasons, some of the farmers around Badger, Minnesotadecided to get some mules. One farmer owned a male donkey so they decidedto breed him to their work horses. But these horses were so tall that thesmall donkey couldn't reach them. So, they built him a stool to stand onand he was able to reach them. That's how they got their mules.

It sometimes seemed as if horses had almost human brains.Shorts had a horse called Fred that they used during calving time when thecows were having trouble. They would hitch up Fred to the calf's front legs.When the laboring cow strained, the men would shout, "Move, Fred!"and Fred would lean forward in his harness. When the cow relaxed, he wouldease up. He brought many a calf into this world with his tender loving care.

It was not all work, though, at the Short farm. They hadtime for fun, too. Gordon remembers on many Sundays in winter when theywould put the collar on a horse, attach a long rope to it and ski behindthe horse. When one horse got too tired, the boys would hitch up a freshone. (Of course, they had to be careful that their father wasn't around.)

Sleigh rides were great entertainment as well as the onlymeans of transportation in the winter. The people would bundle up in warmclothes and wrap themselves in buffalo or horse robes. The wagon was fullof hay. Heated bricks and hot water bags were provided to keep their feetwarm.

With these stories of days gone by, I have tried to makethe past come alive. For many people, horses will always be an importantpart of their lives. For others, they won't be. But anyway, horses haveplayed an important part in the building of the Red River Valley.

(1) Bonanzas were farms which had secured their lands cheaplyby exchanging their depreciated bonds of the bankrupt Northern Pacific forportions of that railroad's land grant.

(2) Report to Food Administration, Grain Corporation, Letterof estimate from Hickock Construction Company, May 17, 1920, A & S Papers,File 134



Drache, Hiram, The Challenge of the Prairie, Lund Press,Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 1970

Drache, Hiram, The Day of the Bonanza, Lund Press, Inc.,Minneapolis, MN, 1964

Hylland, Martin, Interview, December 25, 1974

Ohmann, Reuben, Interview, January 27, 1975

Murray, Stanley Norman, The Valley Comes of Age, Lund Press,Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 1967

Short, Gordon, Interview, January 28, 1975

T SIZE=+1>Ohmann, Reuben, Interview, January 27, 1975

Murray, Stanley Norman, The Valley Comes of Age, Lund Press,Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 1967

Short, Gordon, Interview, January 28, 1975