In 1991, Claire Henderson, a member of the History Department at Laval University in Quebec City, wrote a paper entitled The Aboriginal North American Horse supporting the beliefs of the North American Native people that horses were present long before the arrival of Europeans and did not go extinct.
“Dakota/Lakota Elders as well as many other Indian nations … contend that according to their oral history, the North American horse survived the Ice Age, and that they had developed a horse culture long before the arrival of Europeans, and, furthermore, that these same distinct ponies continued to thrive on the prairies until the latter part of the 19th century, when the U.S. government ordered them rounded up and destroyed to prevent Indians from leaving the newly-created reservations,” Henderson stated. “Some biologists have pointed out that Elders could indeed be correct, for while the mammoth and other Pleistocene mammals died out during the last Ice Age in both continents, if the horse survived in Eurasia, there is no reason for it to have become extinct in North America, especially given similar environment and climate on the steppes and prairies.”
Henderson conducted her own investigation, following information left by the French explorer LaVerendrye, who in 1642 went on a quest to find the People of the Horse, whom he hoped would take him to the Western (China) Sea. LaVerendrye's trail led to Wyoming, where Henderson interviewed Lakota tribal elders, and uncovered some interesting information.
“According to Elders, the aboriginal pony had the following characteristics: it was small, about 13 hands, it had a 'strait' back necessitating a different saddle from that used on European horses, wider nostrils, larger lungs so that its endurance was proverbial,” said Henderson. “One breed had a long mane, and shaggy (curly) hair, while another had a 'singed mane'."
Henderson did further research and discovered other French accounts of Lakota people being skilled horsemen in the mid-1600s and using horses to hunt buffalo.
“Several years prior to 1657, these Prairie Indians were already expert horsemen, having developed remarkable riding and hunting skills,” said Henderson. “That such expertise was developed by 1650 is remarkable in many ways. It implies that the original (Spanish horses) had so multiplied that within a few short years after the horses appeared, these Prairies Dakotas had devised methods for catching them, had learned to tame them, had become expert riders, had devised the most efficient buffalo hunting techniques on horseback, and had also devised techniques for training their horses in these skills. These accomplishments, in so short a time, seem all the more extraordinary when examining the development of similar skills in other areas of the world.”
In fact, she said, just seeing the Spanish riding horses would not have been enough for any of the Native cultures to become so proficient with horses so quickly. She said that in the Middle East, where a similar situation occurred with the Scythians bringing horses to the Assyrians (who had no prior experience with horses), it took about a century from the arrival of this new animal until its people rode awkwardly, and that it took several generations for them to become horsemen, even when experts were there to teach them.
“These examples from other cultures make it difficult to believe that the aboriginal horse had indeed disappeared during the last Ice Age,” Henderson concluded.