History of Horseback Riding in Arizona

No horses, no cowboys

The history of horseback riding in Arizona traces back to about a century after the Spanish conquistadors first arrived on American soil in the 16th century. After 1680, when the Pueblo Rebellion took place in Santa Fe, many horses escaped into the wild and the Indians were able to capture hundreds of others. Horsepower and speed totally changed their lifestyle, making it far easier to hunt buffalo and to move from place to place. Tribes like the Apache and Comanche delayed European settlement in the Southwest for decades because they had become extremely skillful at mounted warfare and had amazing mobility. Their nomadic life style made them hard to track down and subdue. When the Mexicans were defeated in the War of 1846-1848 most of what is now Arizona was ceded to the United States, but it took time to settle this huge territory.

Soon after the Civil War the Indian conflicts were greatly reduced and the huge buffalo herds they depended on for their commissary was being quickly exterminated. At the same time the completion of transcontinental railways made it possible to market cattle in the East where a rapidly growing population had developed a huge appetite for beef. The cattle business was soon thriving in Arizona and of course it took many cowboys and even more horses to handle the herds over the wide areas where they grazed. At the start there were still big herds of wild horses which had gone quickly feral and multiplied. Many of them were captured, tamed and turned into excellent cow ponies without which ranching could not have developed so rapidly. In the early years there were difficult booms and busts in the business because some ranchers tried to overstock the range and when drought years came many of the cattle starved. After some hard lessons ranchers learned to graze in a sustainable way and the amount of grazing on public lands was closely regulated. The mild climate makes wintering stock in Arizona easier than in a place like Wyoming. Mountain lions take a toll of cattle in many parts of the state and their population has to be controlled.

To give you some idea of the importance of ranching in the history of the Arizona, until about 1950 there were more cattle than people and they still number nearly a million head today. Wild horses are not as numerous as they once were, but there are a number of protected herds. Many visitors have enjoyed watching them interact in their natural environment. There are also wild burros which were used extensively as pack animals, particularly by lonely prospectors wandering in the remote mountains searching for gold. Many of these burros escaped or were abandoned and have done well in the wild where they are protected in some areas.

Equitours’ horseback riding vacations in Arizona are run by outfitters who are a fourth generation ranching family and have been driving their cattle between summer and winter pasture over the same route for a century. Horseback riding in Arizona with them is like stepping back a hundred years into the past and living the exciting and satisfying life of a cowboy. It will bring alive all those Western movies you have seen, books you have read and songs you have listened to.