Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Equine Allies in the New World

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Equine Allies in the New World

Article excerpt

Inspiring myths and legends, the horses of the conquistadors played an important role in Spain's victory over the Indians

My land was conquered by the cavalryman --Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca

When Cortes first landed in Mexico on March 12, 1519, at the mouth of the Grijalva River, he lost a shoe in the mud when coming ashore. This embarrassing first step of the Conquest was forgotten, however, the minute he took to the saddle. And it is as horsemen that Cortes and his fellow conquistadors are best remembered today--the way he regally dismounted before coming face to face with Moctezuma, the way de Soto approached the unflinching Atahualpa at a full gallop, and the way Coronado's chronicler Pedro de Castaneda so famously said about horses, "after God, to them belongs the victory."

Horses were truly the secret weapon of the conquistadors. Any school-child knows the story of how horsemen were taken to be half man and half beast by the Indians. But some superstitions were quite specific. The Zempoalans thought horse bridles were muzzles for carnivorous beasts. The Lacandons thought horses caused the cavalrymen's firearms to explode. Some Maya thought their snorting and whinnying could only be appeased by feeding them flowers. The Aztecs tied the tails of dead horses to their war bonnets and stuffed their carcasses with grass to mount as totems in temples.

Historian Joaquin Acosta tells how the Spaniards used the Indians' fear of horses to their advantage during their march on Bogota. "One night," he wrote in his history of New Granada, "when the Spaniards were encamped close to a little village, two or three horses that had got loose and galloped through the valley neighing and jumping were sufficient to disperse the Indians who thought they were as ferocious as bloodhounds."

Even though horses' evolutionary ancestors roamed throughout the New World and were probably driven to extinction by the first hunters to cross the Bering Strait, the Indians met by the Spaniards some twelve thousand years later had no idea what they were seeing. The Maya called it tzimin, or tapir, and the Nahuas called it a macatl, or deer. Macatl went on to become part of the Nahuatl compound word for many things equine, such as macacalli for stable, macacacti for horseshoer, and this mouthful--macatepoztziquahuaztli--for curry comb.

Indeed, what the Indians saw was something new, for the Spaniards had recently begun riding horses in a new way. They had learned from the Arabs during the Reconquest of Spain to ride a la jineta rather than in their traditional manner, a la brida, the relaxed chivalric seat of courts and pageants. The word jineta comes from the Zanata, a mounted North African Berber clan that took part in the Arab invasion of Spain. It was a style suited to fast action in the saddle, hand to hand fighting, sword thrusts, and javelin throws.

The jineta saddle had short stirrups that bent the rider's knees, permitting a forward, standing position as needed in battle. The bridle had a curb chain and strong bit for fast braking. The horse responded by reining the neck, allowing faster turning and freeing a hand to hold weapons. The Barbary horses of the jineta, or light cavalryman, were smaller, quicker, and more responsive than the heavily armored steeds of the overweight Knights of the Round Table and their Spanish cousins.

The jineta seat might even have once saved the life of Hernando de Soto. At the start of the Battle of Mauvila, from which nearby Mobile, Alabama, gets its name, his buttock was pierced by an arrow that he was unable to extract. The battle wore on for five hours, during which time de Soto remained in the saddle, commanding his men from a standing position.

Surprisingly, given how important horses were to the success of the Conquest, very few chroniclers pay direct tribute to their equine allies. One of the most notable who did was Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the companion of Cortes. …

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