Skip to the content


The Perilous Crossing

The Voyage was Often More Difficult for Horse than Man

Rough seas could send the contents of a ship flying about, creating great hazards for both life and property. To protect the horses in transit, slings were constructed to allow the horses to swing with the roll of the ship, and to take the weight off their feet. Confinement in damp, dark holds and lack of exercise took its toll on equine emigrants. Sometimes half of the horses died in route to America. That section of the Atlantic Ocean known as the “Horse Latitudes” gained its name from the sad fact that innumerable dead horses were thrown overboard into the ocean during these early voyages of colonization. Horse transport between the Old and New Worlds remained a great hazard until only recently. Records from the 1800s tell of the frequent death of valuable horses, lost to the stormy Atlantic.

Bringing the Horse Ashore

When a ship anchored off the coast of the New World, the horses that had survived the voyage were brought out of their stalls in the ship’s hold. In order to prevent them from panicking, they were blindfolded and carefully raised from below deck by hoists attached to slings surrounding the horses’ bodies. Before wharves were build, the horses were lowered into the water and made to swim ashore, led by men in row boats.

“Next to God, We Owe Our Victory to Our Horses,” 1519

When Cortes landed in what is today Vera Cruz in 1519, it was the first time that horses had set foot on the mainland of North America for more than 10,000 years. His proclamation concerning his horses had much meaning. In addition to simply carrying the conquistadors, the horses were feared and held in awe by the Indians. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortes in his incursion into Mexico, wrote “The natives had never seen horses up to this time and thought the horse and rider were all one animal.” Cortes’ contingent had only 16 horses, yet the Indians’ astonishment at these “horse-men” contributed to their submission to the conquistadors.

The Spanish Return Equus to its Prehistoric Home

The Spanish conquistadors that came to the Americas in the early 1500s considered themselves explorers and colonists of a vast new world. For the horses which the Spanish brought with them, the voyage to the Americas was really a homecoming. Although the horse is believed to have originated in North America, none survived prehistoric times except those that immigrated to Asia over an ancient land bridge which connected what is now Alaska and Siberia. Although we do not know what caused the annihilation of the horse in prehistoric times, we do know that the horse became a central factor in the settlement of the Western Hemisphere. The horse was completely unknown to the native Indians. They looked at the creature with awe and some even considered the horse a god.

The Spanish Horse and Rider

“Concerning the condition in which the troops which garrison the frontier ranks of the nine internal provinces of New Spain are outfitted.”


1.Jacket of elk skins in quilted form.

2.Front and rear saddle bows.

3.Fowling piece.

4.Saddle bags to carry water and provisions.


6.Hanging pistols with holster hooks.


8.Boots and spurs.

9.Wooden stirrups.

10.Cartridge pouch