For farm work, hauling, riding, racing, and showing, horses and mules have been a steady, profitable industry in Oklahoma since the first inhabitants began using the animals in the eighteenth century. Horses formed an important part of American Indian trade patterns and by the nineteenth century enabled Plains tribes to subsist successfully by bison hunting. In the Territorial Era horses were necessary accouterments for ranchers and cowboys in order to work cattle. Mules, too, were even more important than horses in ranch farming, general farming, and hauling. Horses and mules continued to be important as power sources in the economy of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory until the general adoption of the gasoline engine to power mechanized equipment. After the demise of horse-powered agriculture, activities in the horse industry included breeding for pleasure riding and racing and for competitive events such as horse shows, rodeos, and hunting-jumping competitions.
Breeding of horses and mules was a serious pursuit in the nonmotorized world of work in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Oklahoma was an agriculture-oriented region, plowing was important in farm work. By 1891 Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory farms had an aggregate of 75,000 horses and 18,000 mules. Ten years later the numbers had grown to 312,262 and 58,815, respectively. Mules were the more valuable, averaging $54 per head, as opposed to the $38 for a good horse. By 1907 agriculture had developed rapidly, and Oklahomans owned 371,937 horses and 91,160 mules. After 1910 Oklahoma City developed into a noted regional marketplace for mule traders, with a thousand animals per month being sold in Packingtown (now called the Stockyards City Historic District). By 1912 the city was the nation's fourth largest mule market, behind St. Louis, Kansas City, and Atlanta. One of the most significant mule breeders was William Vanselous, who maintained a facility on his Big V Ranch in Kay County. He was one of the best-known mule dealers in the United States in his day.
The numbers of horses and mules working on farms peaked in 1915–20 as farming became mechanized. After that, horses were increasingly deemed inefficient, due to the cost of feed. In the oil fields, where draft animals pulled equipment into the fields and hauled crude oil–filled tanks to the railroads, motor-powered trucks proved more powerful and efficient, especially after roads were improved. Mules were also used extensively in the Tri-State Lead and Zinc District, until the mines began to close in the 1920s. The advent of World War I in Europe in 1914 created a tremendous demand for mules, and in the first sixteen months of the war more than $10 million were sold from Oklahoma to European nations. After the United States entered the war in April 1917, Oklahoma supplied U.S. Army mules as well. The state supplied draft horses, draft mules, and pack mules in huge numbers for the battlefront. By the 1930s, however, the army, too, had begun closing its stables in favor of motor-driven vehicles.
By 1927 Oklahoma farmers, ranchers, and breeders owned 565,000 horses and 365,000 mules, and a vital horse show and breeding industry had developed. The circuit of county and state fairs promoted scientific breeding by hosting horse shows as part of the annual events. Nevertheless, the number of animals continued to decline because of mechanization. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, during the 1930s the number actually increased slightly, as farmers could little afford new tractors or the fuel to keep them running. As the economy improved, the numbers of work animals declined again.
After horses were no longer used as motive power, people still bred them for pleasure riding, for competition in shows, and for racing. Purebred draft, saddle, and harness horses were raised by ranchers and various wealthy individuals. Virtually every breed has been a part of the Oklahoma scene since the mid-nineteenth century. Draft horses, important for farm work, had a long history in the United States, the first Percherons having arrived in 1839. They were used by farmers and by teamsters. They were studied and improved in the 1930s by Oklahoma A&M College's livestock division, noted for its Percheron program. The breed became the dominant draft breed through the 1940s and remained in use. In the 1930s Enid oilman Herbert H. Champlin raised Belgian draft horses. The Oklahoma Draft Horse Breeders Association guided the development of those breeds. In the late twentieth century entrepreneur Bob Funk maintained a Clydesdale breeding facility in Canadian County. The Oklahoma Draft Horse and Mule Association and the Oklahoma Mule Owners Association have assisted breeders with shows and marketing.
The American Saddlebred horse was popular in Oklahoma from the Territorial Era. The history of the breed extends to the seventeenth century, with the first recognized shows in the early 1800s. Kentucky became the best-known breeding place. Saddlebreds have three natural gaits, and many are trained to five gaits for show competition. Several important breeders have operated in Oklahoma, including W. L. Lewis, whose horse Mass of Gold won a 1920 championship at the Kentucky State Fair. Lewis also owned Astral King, an important five-gaited horse. Another pioneer breeder was I. V. Crouch of Vinita, whose horse Monarch was a son of Highland Denmark, the original Denmark having been the breed's foundation sire. Owned by Frank Billingslea of Tulsa, Admiral King, son of Bourbon King, was another important horse in Oklahoma. Admiral King twice captured the Grand Championship at Louisville, Kentucky. By 1930 the Saddlebred for riding, light harness, hunting, jumping, and dressage was well established, with stables in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and elsewhere.
The breed called Thoroughbred was carefully created for long-distance speed contests, and the registry dates from 1791 in England. In the United States the stud book dates to 1873, but the breed has been popular from the eighteenth century. Oklahoma-raised Thoroughbreds have been trained for polo, harness racing, and racing in general. Among the most celebrated historical stables were those of Charles B. Campbell, at his 7BC Ranch. He raised polo ponies and racehorses, including U-See-It and her offspring Black Gold. When the latter horse won the Kentucky Derby in 1924, it was owned by the Hoots family, ranchers near Hominy Falls, Oklahoma.
The Quarter Horse was developed from small, speedy, short-distance horses, primarily in the Southwest, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Quarter Horses became famous for working cattle as well as for winning money on the track. Peter McCue, a foundation sire and son of the legendary horse Dan Tucker, was foaled in 1895 in Illinois and occasionally raced in western Oklahoma. After being injured at age three, he never competed again but sired thousands of important horses. In 1911 Milo Burlingame, of Cheyenne, Oklahoma, bought him, put him at stud, and sold him in 1916. Many American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) champions have been produced and raised by Oklahoma breeders. Bud Warren, a nationally known breeder and rancher near Perry, owned stallions Leo, Sugar Bars, and Jet Deck. Walter Merrick, owner of the 14 Ranch at Sayre, Oklahoma, owned the legendary Easy Jet, sired by Jet Deck and raised and trained in Oklahoma. Easy Jet was named World Champion Quarter Running Horse in 1969 and over two years accumulated a record of twenty-seven wins, seven second places, and two third places from thirty-eight starts. At the end of the twentieth century the American Quarter Horse was the most numerous breed in the state, numbering between 50 and 60 percent of the state's 278,000 horses. The Oklahoma Quarter Horse Association has assisted with maintaining the breed, and the AQHA has held its World Championship Show in Oklahoma City since 1975.
Horse racing has always been popular in Oklahoma. Its attraction was evident from the early statehood years, a period when local, county, and state fairs prominently advertised racing as a major event. As an indigenous economic activity racing expanded greatly in the last half of the twentieth century as the racehorse-training industry developed. Publicly accessible training tracks (licensed, non-betting) have included facilities at Blue Ribbon Downs at Sallisaw, Garfield Downs at Enid, Midway Downs in Stroud, Will Rogers Downs at Claremore, and Ross Meadows at Ada as well as several others. The Oklahoma Horse Racing Act, passed in 1982, became effective in 1983. That legislation permitted betting at officially licensed tracks. Blue Ribbon Downs (Sallisaw), a nationally prominent non–pari-mutuel training track, became a pari-mutuel facility and has concentrated on Quarter Horse racing. Remington Park (Oklahoma City) has offered primarily Thoroughbred events. By 1993 horse racing contributed more than $51 million to the state's economy and employed 5,547 individuals.
Equestrian competition, or the "show-horse industry," which may have begun as early as 1853 in Virginia, became very popular in the United States after that time. The American Horse Shows Association, established in 1917, and its affiliates sponsor competitions that include hunters and jumpers as well as dressage (the training of horses and riders). Horse shows have a lengthy history in Oklahoma. As early as 1910 an annual event was held at the Oklahoma State Fair. Among other breeds, the American Saddlebred competed for a trophy for the best stallion or mare registered in the American Saddle Horse Register. The categories included roadster trotters, harness horses, and five-gaited saddle horses. With four thousand people there on opening day, it was a major social event for the city and state.
By the late 1920s Oklahoma City social leaders had developed a new horse show. The event was conceived by Gilbert A. Nichols, the city's largest breeder of Saddlebreds, and by a committee that included Ed Overholser. The Junior League directed the arrangements. Held in February-March at the Coliseum in Packingtown, the show attracted entries from around the United States. Nichols also established the Saddle Club Stable and built an extensive system of bridle paths in Nichols Hills, a residential community he developed within Oklahoma City. Similarly, Mohawk Stables, in Tulsa's Mohawk Park, hosted the Riding and Hunt Club, whose charter members included Waite Phillips, William G. Skelly, T. K. Simmons, C. W. Flint, and other prominent leaders.
By the turn of the twenty-first century Oklahoma had developed a reputation as a national center for the horse industry. Virtually all breed associations have been represented in the state. National and world-level horse shows that have been held in Oklahoma include the International Arabian Horse Fair, the World Appaloosa Show, the World Paint Horse Show, the Grand National and World Championship Morgan Horse Show, the National Reining Horse Association Championship, the Silver States Cutting Futurity, and numerous national rodeo championship events. Among the commercial activities that continued to involve horses were breeding, training, boarding, trail ride operations, horse sales, and wholesale and retail horse feed and gear outlets, as well as racing and horse shows. The economic impact on the state in 1999 registered $762 million and in 2005 more than $3.3 billion, including tourism and travel, and supported the equivalent of 32,613 jobs. By 1996, when there were 6.9 million horses in the United States, Oklahoma ranked fourth in the nation, with 278,000 and first in the number of horses owned per capita. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in that year one in every forty-six Oklahomans (approximately seventy-three thousand) owned a horse. The Oklahoma Horse Industry Council, Incorporated, monitors and promotes the industry.
Hilton M. Briggs and Dinus M. Briggs, Modern Breeds of Livestock (4th ed.; New York: MacMillan Co., 1980).
The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry in the United States, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: American Horse Council, 1996–97).
Mike Flynn, "Horse," Tulsa Magazine (September 1974).
David W. Freeman, "Demographics and Economic Impact of the Horse Racing Industry in Oklahoma," Current Report 3918 (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1997).
David W. Freeman, "Oklahoma Horse Industry Trends," Current Report 3987 (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1994).
Diane B. Haser-Harris, "Horse Racing in Early Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 64 (Spring 1986).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Horse Industry,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=HO031.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.