Cayuses

The Spanish brought horses to North America in the 1500s where they found an environment similar to that of their native North Africa. The hot, dry climate of Mexico and the southern United States and the short grasses of the hot plains made the small, lean horses even more wiry. The hundreds of horses that escaped into the wild thrived in the plains and mountains of the south and,

A photograph of a horse ranch in the Okanagan Valley.Click to enlarge,
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Horse Ranch, Okanagan Valley. PA-40901 - Courtesy of the Public Archives of Canada.

in their wild state, grew as fleet as deer and strong as oxen. Generation after generation of horses lost flesh and gained “wind.” What they lost in beauty they made up for in utility. They were made for running and quick turns, with lungs built from generations of clean air, hearts from centuries of freedom, and stomachs from years of dry feed.

On the ranges of the northwest, the wild horses generally were called “cayuses,” a term unknown in the south or east of the Rockies. It was derived from the Cayuse Native people in eastern Washington and Oregon, who were noted for their expert horsemanship and careful breeding of these small, strong horses. The term came north with the early drovers and miners and eventually referred to any wild horse that could be broken for ranch work.

A photograph of a cowboy on his horse. Click to enlarge,
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Cowboy on pony. 11947 – Courtesy of the Kelowna Museum

In the Interior of British Columbia, cayuses found another environment that particularly suited their constitution. Extensive grasslands and hot dry summers resembled the southern climates from whence they had come, and the cold winters were mild enough that horses could survive by pawing away the snow in the sheltered valleys. Soon cayuses were at home in British Columbia. They joined those that had escaped in earlier years from the Native people and the fur traders to form large herds of wild horses. The ranchers and cowboys of the Interior saw these herds as the ready material they needed to carry on their business. The thrill of the wild horse chase and the toughness and skill of the horse breaker became a part of the cowboy way of life in British Columbia.

Media Files

Audio Tapes 2726:1a Cattle Barons- “Horses”
A rancher talks about his first horse and about good cow horses.

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“Gal Leg” Bit

The bit was inserted into the horse’s mouth and attached at either side to the reins, to control the horse by exerting pressure on the mouth. This type of bit has a high “port” or centrepiece that, when the reins are pulled, puts pressure on the roof of the horse’s mouth. This nickel coated design, using a woman’s leg as part of the cheek (side) piece, was popular with the cowboys.

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