Gallant Horses at Little Bighorn | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

Gallant Horses at Little Bighorn

Death of Blue Roan Horse painting
Death of Blue Roan Horse by Joseph No Two Horns, ca. 1876/Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

In this article author, historian, television and motion picture consultant John P. Langellier, Ph.D., gives us an overview of the Battle of the Little Bighorn from a different perspective. He discusses the special relationship that mounted warriors had with their horses, especially one No Two Horns who fought there, survived and became an accomplished Hunkpapa Lakota artist.

By John P. Langellier

In all clashes of cavalry, the horse is indispensable. However, only the riders who relied on them, provided for them, and mourned them when lost, truly appreciated their value. Among these was a cousin of Hunkpapa holy man, Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotakeknown to the whites as Sitting Bull. His relative, He Nupa Wanicas, (No Two Horns) was born at the mouth of the Grand River in what is now South Dakota. At the tender age of 11 he caught his initial glimpse of the hairy intruding Wašičus (whites) as they began to cross the Great Plains bound for the Pacific Northwest and California. Within three years he joined his elders in his first battle against the Assiniboine (Hohe), a related Siouan tribe who during their height roamed part of Alberta and southwestern Manitoba in Canada, as well as northern Montana and western North Dakota.

No Two Horns not only developed his fighting prowess as a teenager, but also went on his first buffalo hunt at age 17. Giving chase with bow and arrow he would experience the worth of a good pony. Additionally, he took away another remembrance because the day was so cold his “hands froze to the bow.” From then on, his hands were crippled from what would be the long-lasting effects of frostbite.

A few years later he saw a new, magical weapon—a rifle. Eventually he obtained firearms for hunting as well as for warfare. Whether with bow and arrow or rifle and cartridge No Two Horns participated “in nearly forty different battles.” Consequently, this experienced warrior gained status among his people, but he expressed the most pride in three raids against the Crow to capture horses. This recollection was indicative of the pivotal part played by this work animal-comrade that became central to the Plains Indians way of life.        

Thus, it was that No Two Horns rode one of these revered companion mounts when George Armstrong Custer’s command burst on the scene attacking the Indian village at their “hearths and homes” as one of the Seventh United States Cavalry’s officers described that fateful day. Protecting those near and dear to him, the battle hardened No Two Horns galloped into the fray. Eventually his horse was struck seven times, one of the lead slugs passing through No Two Horns’ left leg into the body of his pony. While the rider recovered, his faithful horse fell, but where that location was remains a mystery. Probably No Two Horns had the spot etched in his memory. Certainly, he memorialized the stricken steed in art work created over this Little Bighorn survivor’s long life.

Both in ledger drawings and carvings, the grateful Lakota depicted this extraordinary four-legged warrior. The latter renderings particularly evoked his appreciation showing in considerable detail the placement of the wounds and highlighted with actual mane and tail hairs. Unlike many other horse sticks or effigies, No Two Horns produced vividly painted finished pieces rather than crudely carved raw wood. In so doing he left a fitting legacy to a faithful friend with whom he jointly faced foes along the Greasy Grass River (Little Bighorn). 

Comanche horse
The horse known as ‘Comanche,’ was the only living representative of the U.S. Cavalry at the battle of Little Big Horn, June 25th, 1876 Comanche in 1887 photographed by John C. H. Grabill

Of course, other horses died that day or were casualties as well and ultimately had to be destroyed as beyond recovery. The exception was the storied badly wounded Comanche, who was found near his dead master, Captain Myles Keogh, commander of Company I. The army purchased this horse in 1868 in St. Louis, Missouri and sent him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Standing 15 hands (60 inches) the gelding caught Keogh’s eye, and he bought him for his personal use. Struck in the hindquarters by an arrow, Comanche would be the only equine survivor of Custer’s ill-starred battalion. Unlike others who had been seized as war spoils by the Indians, or because of their wounds would be killed by troopers from the cavalry column that arrived days after the battle, Comanche would be restored to health and led a pampered existence as what amounted to a regimental mascot.

Further, the horses ridden by Keogh and the men of Seventh differed greatly from those that No Two Horns and those who dashed from the camp to meet the threat of the white pony soldiers. The U.S. Army followed certain standards as to height, age, and breed. While these high standards of horseflesh set by the U.S. Army had their place during the American Civil War, the mustangs obtained by Indians as gifts, trading, raids, or raising proved more durable, more capable of bearing climatic changes with weather swings from the bitter cold of winter to the searing heat of summer, and survived on native plants. In this way, they greatly differed from the U.S. Army cavalry horses. These were grain fed cavalry horses that required a supply of fodder in the field as the troopers traveled. This included the often expensive private purchase animals of officers detailed to frontier duty as well as the horseflesh provided by the quartermaster for the rank and file.

Besides the differences in types of horses and how they were acquired, their maintenance, upkeep, and training as well as the training and capabilities of their riders set the two enemies apart. In addition, officers may have more than one mount such as Custer whose Dandy and Vic, a high-spirited Kentucky thoroughbred, were his pride. Yet for all their speed and beauty they were ill fitted to the rigors of western military campaigns.  

Additionally, while arguably the Plains Indians were from childhood almost weaned while atop a horse, many troopers in the Seventh Cavalry were poor, inexperienced riders. There were exceptions, such as Custer himself, who was a veritable centaur, as were some of his men. Regardless of the troopers’ equestrian skills or conversely lack of ability, No Two Horns, and those who also faced the “long knives” on June 25, 1876, won the day. They did so at a tremendous cost of lives both of mounted warriors and the steeds that unflinchingly carried them against the invaders of their ancestral lands.

For Further Reading

George P. Horse Capture and Emil Her Many Horses, eds., A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Culture. Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian, 2006.

John P. Langellier, Kurt Hamilton Cox, and Brian C. Pohanka, eds. and comps., Myles Keogh: The Life and Legend of an “Irish Dragoon” in the Seventh Cavalry. El Segundo, CA: Upton and Sons, 1991.   

Glenwood J. Swanson, G.A. Custer: His Life and Times, Agua Dulce, CA: Swanson Productions, Inc., 2004.

About John P. Langellier

John P. Langellier, Ph.D., is the author of over 40 books and monographs, including Custer, the Man, the Myth and the Movies. He has worked as an historical curator for several years, has a particular interest in the post Civil War frontier army and leads our Crazy Horse and Custer tour.


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