‘For want of a horse…’

This piece at Today in History on the warhorse Sgt. Reckless reminded me of the important role horses played in warfare up until little more than a century past. Certainly horses — or the lack thereof — played a key role in Nana’s Raid. For Nana and his men horses were both loot and getaway vehicles. They rounded up horses and mules from every ranch they passed, replacing jaded mounts with freshly rustled stock. This instant remount system allowed them to cover astonishing distances at a rapid pace, leaving pursuit far behind.

“Horses move long distances at a fast walk or a slow trot, not at a gallop,” Kaywaykla later told Eve Ball (In the Days of Victorio, p. 73). “They can maintain a pace of five or six miles an hour half the night. When ours became exhausted we changed mounts, preferably to ranch horses roped out as we went. Our tired ones were loose-herded with us, or if we had them long, they followed.”

While the raiders generally had as many fresh horses as they could handle, the poor 9th Cavalry was still recovering from the previous year’s campaign against Victorio and was critically short of serviceable mounts in the summer of 1881. The rocky and arid high country desert used up horses at a fearful rate. As early as 1868, the Quartermaster General was suggesting that horses bred in Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and states still further north be “acclimated” with a year’s residence in Texas before entering field service. Unfortunately, the demand for horses by not just the 9th but by all the cavalry regiments in the West was so urgent that the Army continued to send untrained and all but unbroken horses straight from the farm to the mountains of the Southwest.

The Apaches recognized this vulnerability and preyed on it, deliberately targeting their opponents’ horses in engagements and stealing them whenever possible. In 1879, Victorio opened his war with a raid on Company E’s herd at Ojo Caliente, killing eight men and running off 68 horses and mules. Nana took three dozen horses away from the civilian posse in Red Canyon and another 30 from the mixed cavalry and civilian force in the Gavilan Canyon ambush.

“For want of nail, the shoe was lost” runs the old proverb . “For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost.”

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