‘We were actually able to trace these horses going back with specific families on the Trail of Tears’
If you haven’t gathered from all the new fencing going up, some much welcome life — rare life at that — has come to Millwood, among Rappahannock County’s most historic estates, circa 1835, at the southern entrance to Woodville.
“These are descendants of the horses that came with the [Spanish] Conquistadors,” educates Mary Carter McConnell, who relocating from her former farm in Rapidan has brought to Rappahannock her rare herd of 40 endangered Cherokee and Choctaw horses.
“There were no horses in America; horses came with the second voyage of Columbus,” the renowned horse breeder recalls. “The missions that got set up in the southeast became learning centers for pigs, cattle, poultry, horses, all the animals that came with the Europeans, the Jesuits and the Franciscans.
“The southeastern tribes [known as the Five Civilized Tribes] were agriculturalists well before the Spanish came,” McConnell continues. “While lots of plants got sent back to Europe, most of the animals came from Europeans. So each of the southeastern tribes bred their own lines of horses . . . for the specific things they needed culturally and for their geography.”
The Chickasaw, she points out, bred horses that moved easily through sand. The Cherokee bred for gaitedness and flashy colors. The Choctaw for gentleness and versatility. And everybody bred for endurance.
“So you had a couple hundred years of breeding and then during the removal [the Indian Removal Act of 1830] the horses walked the Trail of Tears with the people,” says McConnell, who is part Choctaw. “If you couldn’t walk from Georgia to Oklahoma, and carry the old and sick and young and family goods, you’re not part of this breeding pool. So the endurance qualities, the strain, the resilience of this herd is not only through careful selection but through history.”
Only several hundred of these prized tribal horses — their populations having been depleted right alongside the Native Americans — remain today, the Choctaw breed the most critically endangered. Now, with her herd of horses moving onto Millwood’s 154 acres, Rappahannock County virtually overnight has become home to one of the largest remaining Choctaw and Cherokee horse populations in America — one that McConnell is help to grow with unbridled enthusiasm and love.
“If you look at the horses they are a different shape,” she says of the herd she began establishing from Oklahoma in 2007. “Their genetics are closest to the Spanish. The umbrella term is ‘Spanish Mustang.’ I have specific lines of Choctaw horses, Cherokee horses, and then we have some western strains, so some of mine have Comanche and Ute in them.
“Each of the tribes kept their own line — we know of the families who bred these horses, and we were actually able to trace these horses going back with specific families on the Trail of Tears,” she says, referring to the forced relocations of Native Americans from their homes in the southeastern U.S. to newly designated “Indian Territory” to the west.
Many of these Indians who with their cherished horses set out on the deadly trek — suffering from exposure, disease and starvation along the way — were members of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations.
McConnell describes today’s brightly patterned tribe of hooved descendants as incredibly intelligent and quite versatile, with smooth gaits and gentle personalities — perfect for Virginia fox hunts and trail rides alike.
“They’ve been used out west for cattle work, but here in Virginia they love to go fox hunting,” she says. Of which there is plenty in Rappahannock.
“I remember driving through here a couple years ago and just thought it was so physically beautiful,” she explains of moving to Woodville. “I mean look at this, look at these mountains. And the clouds. And I like night, I want it to be dark! And I really like the people here, they’re environmentally conscious.”
Soon, the breeder will have her new website — goldrunstrue.com — up and running, which will include the rich history of the Indian horse breeds she’s helping to preserve.
In person, for those fortunate enough to be in her company, she describes the unique personality and disposition of each horse happily approaching her along the fence lines as if a proud mother introducing her children.
“One of the nicest tributes for the horses is the multiple people who have gotten one, and then have come back for more. Or they want one for their grandchild. And I’m careful where they go,” she says. “It’s always fun for me.”