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First Posted: Aug 9, 2010
Aug 10, 2010

Gilbert Jones' Story/Choctaw and Cherokee Horses

This story was sent to me in a file from one of the visitors to my site, HorseHints.org. Her name is Rebecca and she is very much involved in preserving the future of the Choctaw Horses. Thank you, Rebecca, for providing this wonderful story of Gilbert Jones.

In 1916, a boy fell in love with a mare that was as fast as the wind.

The wind seldom stops blowing on the high plains of Oklahoma and Texas. The boy's little horse, Susie, an Indian Territory mustang, was descended from a Comanche Indian pony stallion that was "fast, and had stamina to hold it for miles." The boy's name was Gilbert Jones. He grew up listening to his father tell of the days when the Comanche still rode their "fancy fleet pinto ponies on raids into Texas." One story his father told "kindled my desire in later years to own a colorful mustang band." He told of seeing...about fifty Indian boys, eight to fourteen years old, riding their ponies of every color from the top of a hill to Cache Creek about half a mile away. They would ride single file at full speed up the creek bank and dive their ponies into a deep hole of water. Their ponies would run off a short distance and start grazing, waiting for their riders to return.

No doubt these boys looked forward to someday being buffalo hunters and warriors. But the times were changing. The Comanche's freedom, he writes, "was nearing an end, as their source of food, the buffalo was practically killed out. The government was turning the land over to the white man and determined that the Indians would become reservation farmers. The army had already slaughtered thousands of their ponies, which the Indians prized above everything else."

The Jones family moved often around the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico. "My father taught me very young to ride, swim, shoot guns and drive teams...These were the essentials of life for boys in that day and time," he recalls. Gilbert grew up and married, and until his death in 2001, he bred the best purebred Spanish mustangs he could find, searching far and wide for exceptional horses.

In his "History of Medicine Springs Mustangs," he tells of the blizzards, drought, sand storms, bad water, killer lightening storms and poisonous loco weed that his horses had to contend with. In 1958 Gilbert Jones moved with hiz family and 25 of his Spanish mustangs to a more hospitable environment, Medicine Springs, in Pushmataha County in southeast Oklahoma, "ten miles back in the Kiamichi Mountains with one and a half million acres of timber company open range to graze by permits."

He quickly became acquainted with several very old men, who had at one time run several hundred Choctaw ponies on the open range. Realizing that the once numerous horses were quickly disappearing, Jones began the collection of as many Choctaw and Cherokee horses as he could find and assembled the largest known herd of these purebred animals. He also crossbred the Choctaw and Cherokee horses with the Spanish mustangs he brought with him. The resulting herd was comprised of bloodlines that originated from Choctaw, Cherokee, Huasteca, Kiowa, Comanche, and other Native American tribes along with Colonial Spanish Horses from Utah and New Mexico (these became the Gilbert Jones composite horses). He established the Southwest Spanish Mustang Registry and kept extensive records of his work.

His horses became known for their ability in long endurance rides, such as the one pictured in the 2004 movie Hidalgo. In fact, a Jones' horse, itself descended from the herd that produced Hidalgo, played the famous mustang. The film is based on the story of a half-Lakota cowboy named Frank Hopkins who in 1890 rides his Spanish mustang in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000 mile survival race in the Arabian desert, besting the finest, purebred Arabian horses of the Arab sheiks. Hopkins had complete faith in his horse, saying "You can't beat mustang intelligence in the entire equine race. These animals have had to shift for themselves for generations. They had to work out their own destiny or be destroyed. Those that survived were animals of superior intelligence."

Honoring Our Heritage

Following Jones' death, his herd of 300 Spanish mustangs was inherited by close friends Bryant and Darlene Rickman. Rickman, an experienced horseman and trainer, with a real feel for these horses, continued to breed them in the same tradition that Gilbert followed. Many continued to run free in the Kiamichi Mountains. But times changed, yet again. In 2007 the lease was terminated and the future of the horses was again in jeopardy. Rickman, with help from family and friends, was faced with the daunting task of coaxing the horses into catch pens, and safely removing them to his ranch near Antlers. Once there, the horses had to be fed and cared for until they could be sold.

The whole situation was complicated by the fact that these were not just any horses--these were of exceedingly rare bloodlines--a treasure trove of genetics. Staff members Marjorie Bender and Jeannette Beranger to Oklahoma to participate in the "Blackjack Mountain Rescue." ALBC Board member Jamie McConnell and his wife, Mary, who are new Choctaw and Cherokee breeders, also participated. The challenges were enormous: to identify each animal for its genetic importance to the herd; to feed and health test the entire herd; and to promote and sell more than 150 of these horses in such a way that valuable breeding animals were placed with stewards who were committed to their conservation.

ALBC's technical advisor, Phil Sponenberg, who has been working on the conservation of this herd for about 30 years, identified the animals of greatest genetic importance and recommended a breeding plan that would ensure genetic diversity is not lost. Since then, 200 horses have been placed, with the Rickmans keeping breeding herds of each the strains of Choctaw, Cherokee, Huasteca and Jones horses. Breeding herds have also been placed with new "stewards," individuals in Oklahoma and around the U.S., like Monique Sheaffer, who are committed to the longterm survival of the strains. Despite this progress, these rare horses are not out of the proverbial woods yet. Rickman says he has 150 or more horses, including two-year-olds and 2008 foals in urgent need of homes. More horses remain in the mountains and the Rickmans are continuing to capture and remove them as they are found. While he still has some purebred Choctaws for sale, many more are of the Jones strain. And though he has breeding groups still available, he emphasizes that people do not have to commit to a being a conservation breeder to buy his horses.

The rarest bloodlines have been placed in conservation breeding programs and according to the ALBC, are "secured." Rickman has sent horses all over the world. Recently a German woman, after watching the movie Hidalgo, was moved to find the Jones/Rickman horses. She eventually traveled to Oklahoma and bought a Choctaw horse. It cost her $4000 to get the horse over to Germany, says Rickman. His horses continue to beat all-Arabians in endurance races, he says proudly. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the Sheaffers and their horses are settling into their new home. Their horses are "getting friendlier by the day," says Monique Sheaffer. She keeps in close contact with other breeders and is making plans to promote the virtues of the Choctaw horse by attending farm and horse events. "We consider it a privilege to own and work with these unique horses," she says, "and to honor our heritage in so doing."

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