Introduction: In The Puyallup-Nisqually, Marian Smith, the author, identifies some members of this cultural group as “Prairie people” or “horse Indians.” The following is a discussion of the horses used by those “people of the prairie.” Smith writes: “sabakwtbabc.” Prairie people. These were characterized as horse Indians. They were inland groups of a particular kind, the differentiation resting upon their ownership and use of horses. . . .
The herds of horses owned by each family of the prairie groups were always small, never exceeding ten or twelve for a family. Under the best conditions a family counted on no more than two horses for each adult: one to ride while shifting camp and the other to act as a pack animal. Several children rode a single horse. However, the number of horses claimed by the members of an entire village was sometimes considerable.
Pasturage was relatively scarce, especially in the region of the Puyallup, and each hard winter took its toll of horses. Before the coming of the whites animals depended for winter feed upon the six foot bunch or joint grass which stood above the moderate snows of the area. Panthers, driven from the mountains in search of food and following the deer to the low lands, also destroyed some horses each year. Mares occasionally killed panthers which attacked their colts but they were generally no match for the big cats. A horse discovered freshly killed was the signal for a general hunt in which the panther was tracked by its trail in the snow, treed without the help of dogs, and shot. Although such hunts were more dangerous before the introduction of guns, they were attempted nevertheless.
Horses were treated as pets and each one of the small herd was thoroughly gentle. There was none of the wildness characteristic of the large, unwieldy herds of the Sahaptins. A family herd was often built up from a single mare and this animal was regarded with a great deal of sentiment, was kept long after her usefulness had expired, well treated and fed on roots from the family supply when other feed was exhausted, and was never traded nor staked in gambling as were other horses of the herd.
The animals were turned loose and breeding was a completely chance affair. Colts were kept with the others while on a journey by placing some grass in the pack of another animal, which it then followed closely. The herd was kept to the local range by barricading the trails with brush, the natural barriers of stream and timber line being sufficient to keep it from wandering. Since all of the horses of the area were easily recognized and their owners known, a stray horse was identified and kept on the range until an opportunity for its return offered. Only the stray of an enemy would be used in any way, an act which might occasion or was the result of “bad blood” between the owners. When a new horse was introduced into a herd, scales from above the first joint of its leg were dampened and rubbed on the leg of another horse and the two were tied together for a night. After that the new horse would not wander.