Witte Museum

San Antonio, TX




Thundering Hooves: Five Centuries of Horse Power in the American West


Thundering Hooves: Five Centuries of Horse Power in the American West, organized by the Witte Museum from its extensive Western collections, is currently on display at the museum through December 14, 1997. Created in 1992, the exhibit has been touring the United States for the past four years.

Charles B. Cox

Attack on the Pony Express, 1885

oil on canvas

Thundering Hooves traces 500 years of the horse in the American Southwest, focusing on the growth of the four major cultures of the region that centered around the horse: the conquistadors, vaqueros, Comanches and cowboys. The exhibition and its international tour are made possible by Ford Motor Company.

Approximately 400 objects include riding equipment and clothing, together with artifacts, paintings, models and videos illustrating the vital role of the horse and rider in the settlement of the American Southwest. Each of the four exhibit areas feature a life-size model of a horse and fully-dressed rider, complete with equestrian equipment.

Gutzon Borglum

Indians Pursued, c. 1930

bronze sculpture

Following its extinction in North America in prehistoric times, the conquistadors (1519-1650) returned the horse to the Americas during the Spanish conquest of the 16th century, and brought with them the tradition of the Spanish caballero or horseman, which they spread through the Americas by conquest and colonizatian. The exhibition's conquistador section includes an impressive figure of a light cavalryman in full dress, with a chain mail shirt, helmet, gauntlets, shield and lance, and three rare saddles including one embroidered with silver and linen thread, produced in New Spain around 1600.

Mexican vaqueros or cowboys (1650-1850), along with the Franciscan missionary groups that subsequently arrived, developed the ranching and trading economy of the southwest centered around the horse. The vaquero section includes an unusual pair of beruchis or riding shoes of deerskin, dating from the late 1700s and made in New Spain in the area that is now California.

A magnificent charro saddle and dress sword on display date from 1910. The saddle is hand-embroidered from twisted plant fibers. The saddle fittings and sword are made of forged iron and steel, decorated with inlaid silver. The saddle and sword would have been used far formal occasions such as a parade on a national holiday or in a charreada (equestrian event).

Southern Plains Indians (1700-1880), primarily Apache and Comanche, learned riding from the vaqueros and developed an equestrian culture that virtually controlled the plains of North America, both politically and physically. This section includes a Kiowa/Comanche cradle board and pair of women's boots, circa 1885. Both are made of deerskin, elaborately decorated with colorful glass beads. The baby carrier has wood slats for traveling.

North American cowboys (1850-1890), using vaquero ranching techniques, developed an economy around ranching and the trail drive. The cowboy section includes a pair of angora chaps, circa 1900, which were used for protection against cold weather on the northern plains and a horse trader's cane, complete with a concealed horse measure, made in England in 1880.

A section on the phenomenon of the popular cowboy culture of the 20th century includes a stage costunre dating from the late 1800s from Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, trick ropes, a rifle used for trick shooting and a selection of articulated folk toys, circa 1910, including Buffalo Bill, a Plains Indian and a buckaroo with a quirt.

Live demonstrations for audience participation include "Tools of the Trade; Vaqueros and Cowboys at Work," a history of ropes and brands, and "Portable Possessions," a look inside a cowboy bedroll and an Indian rawhide carrying bag. In an interactive area, visitors can sit on different types of saddles and handle cowboy and indian gear.

Thundering Hooves: Five Centuries of Horse Power in the American West remains an display at the Witte Museum through December 14, 1997 and then continues its national tour.

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