BROWNING, Mont. – When Bob Blackbull, a member of the Blackfeet Medicine Pipe Society, whistles and calls, scattered bands of horses immediately look up and begin trotting his way. He has a deep love for horses and kids. His goal is to keep kids involved with the horses. “Hooked on horses, not drugs and alcohol” is his motto, one he frequently repeats as he talks about the kids. “That’s the main thing,” he said, “but we also keep traditional things going.”
Blackbull is founder and chairman of the Blackfeet Buffalo Horse Coalition. The purpose of the coalition is to preserve herds of Spanish mustang, or buffalo runner, horses and conserve the species; tied closely to that is the need to preserve the cultural heritage of Blackfeet youth, who traditionally were the ones to care for the horses, and give them an alternative to drugs and alcohol. Some weeks he’s had as many as 60 youngsters. “Let me tell you, that gets way too much to handle,” he laughed.
The coalition’s goals are to provide a treatment environment for youth to learn to work cooperatively with each other, offer the opportunity to train and work with horses, develop a holistic approach to working with families to ensure the health of future generations and establish a mentoring program based on a positive cultural lifestyle.
“We run all this on no federal money, no state money and no tribal money.” Blackbull explained that he felt any form of politics could cause things to go wrong and he wants to avoid that, pointing out that the only things that matter are the horses and the kids.
Blackbull presently has 118 head of horses on this 633-acre ranch. Ten horses were auctioned off in November in order to provide monies for dining facilities, a recreation hall and kitchen. Long-term plans for the ranch include bunk houses and staff quarters so kids can stay and work for a week at a time rather than being bused in and out daily.
Blackbull’s love of these horses is obvious, and he tells how youngsters can do nearly anything with them, but his talk always returns to the kids. “This is for the children. I’m just a caretaker. If all the things we hold valuable, our traditional heritage, our values, are not carried on by these kids, it all dies with us. There’s not enough attention being paid to drugs and alcohol and we’re losing so many kids it’s ridiculous. We need to get the kids hooked on horses.”
These horses are not the normal ranch quarter horse, but true Spanish mustangs. “They are the descendents of the buffalo runners,” Blackbull explained. “This is what our people used. A lot of people thought these horses were totally gone” after a government extermination program brought them to the edge of extinction. The horses are a little smaller than quarter horses. Most stand about 14 hands high or slightly more. Some are as little as 13 hands. Blackbull told of their intelligence and that they’ve got “endurance plus” in spite of their small size.
The horses are descendants of those brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors roughly 400 years ago. They were used by them to explore the Southwest as they moved northward and soon became introduced to Indian tribes. At one time, the numbers of Spanish mustangs probably numbered in the millions.
He estimated there are probably only about 1,900 Spanish mustangs alive today despite the fact that quite a few are found on the Blackfeet Reservation. “I’ve given some away to some of the kids that wanted to start their own herd. Now there are two herds started in Canada on the Blood Reserve. I’ve got herds going on the Salish Kootenai Reservation on the other side of the mountains. We helped the Cheyenne and the Crows start their herds. The biggest herd of these horses is owned by the Brislawn family at their home in Oshoto, Wyoming.”