the internal combustion engine eventually made them obsolete as
the primary mode of transportation, the horse amounted to the Texan's
With several generations of Texans now much more familiar with gas
burners than oat-powered modes of locomotion, it is easy to think
of horses and cars as virtually the same things. But the only similarity
is that each, in their day, became the preferred means of personal
Even after Henry Ford began mass production of his Model T in 1908,
Texans who had grown up in the horse era had a hard time adjusting
to the new-fangled horseless carriages. Texas Ranger Capt. Will
Wright, one of the state's better-known lawmen, reluctantly made
the transition from horse to automobile.
Early on, he employed a young man (a civilian) to be his driver.
One person who drove for him was the late Bob Snow, who later became
a Texas game warden.
"If I drove too fast," Snow recalled, "the captain would tell me
to slow down so he could watch the grass grow."
In time, Wright and most other Texans adjusted. But muscle memory
takes a while to overcome. Automobiles, some learned the hard way,
do not stop when you yell "whoa"!
The portrayal of the horse in American popular culture, of course,
has not helped anyone gain an accurate understanding of how those
who lived in Texas in the 18th, 19th or early 20th century got around.
If you believe most Western movies or television shows, a horse
was instantly available and as untiring as a hunk of metal and plastic
you start with a key or by pushing a button.
The truth is, as anyone who has read much about the West or spent
any time cleaning out a corral could readily tell you, a horse is
an animal, not a machine. But they require every bit as much maintenance
as an automobile and are a whole lot less forgiving if their care
gets short shrift.
One difference between a horse and a car, of course, is mileage.
A person can get behind the wheel of a car, and, depending on how
much gas they have in their tank and how strong or weak their own
bladder is, can emerge three-and-a-half hours later 200 miles away.
With a horse, a good day's ride amounted to 30 miles. Experienced,
determined riders on a fine horse could push the distance to 40
and even up to 80 miles.
"Forty miles a day on beans and hay" was a popular expression when
an Army cavalry regiment consisted of horses, not armored vehicles
Riding a horse real hard, however, could leave it jaded, or even
permanently unfit for riding. Sometimes, an extremely tough ride
could kill a horse.
To make it as easy on government stock as possible, the Army liked
its cavalrymen to weigh 140 pounds or so. A bigger man was extra
work for his mount, not to mention that he made an easier target
for any enemy.
The Army way, when on the march, was for the men to be in the saddle
45 minutes of every hour. For a quarter of each hour, the troops
dismounted and walked ahead of their horse, giving the animal a
chance to rest a bit and cool down. At noon, Army horses on patrol
would be unsaddled and allowed to graze and rest. Later in the afternoon,
the bugler's "Stable Call" meant it was time to tend to your horse.
That had to be done before a soldier had his evening meal.
Speaking of grazing, in fall or winter, anyone traveling by horseback
had to carry horse feed (either oats or corn) or depend on some
place that had an available supply. In the spring, a hardy horse
could get by on native grass, assuming it had not been spoiled to
oats or corn.
Those who prevailed in early Texas were people who learned how to
best handle their horses. Generally, Texans could outride poorly-training
and sometimes ill-mounted federal troops. Comanches, often described
as having been the finest light cavalry in the world during their
heyday, could sometimes outride either soldiers or Texans.
No matter how skilled the rider, a horse could not go faster than
a gasoline-powered vehicle. But perception of speed is another thing.
Texas storyteller J. Frank Dobie, who as a young man spent plenty
of time in the saddle, had this to say about the difference:
"Although machinery has reduced miles to minute decimals, it has
not reduced the sense of speed felt by a horseman and shared by
his horse. A running team of mustangs hitched to a buckboard will
give the rider more sense of motion that the fastest automobile
on a straight concrete road."
And a bag of feed costs a whole lot less than a tank of gas.