Today’s Texas Rangers ride some of the most well-trained horses in the world, but a high-strung, green-broke mustang helped launch the long and distinguished career of Maj. George Erath. In his memoirs, Erath described his earliest days as a ranger private in 1835, and his first engagement with American Indians in North Central Texas.
“I was riding a young horse which had been caught a colt from the mustangs, that was fiery. When the order came to charge, it darted forward ahead of all the rest, and I found myself alone in the advance. Next came (Ranger Samuel) McFall, who was also on a wild horse, too eager for the fray. The officers shouted to us to come back into line, but our efforts to obey were in vain. Our steeds had determined to give us a reputation for bravery which we did not deserve.”
Erath and the company of men at that battle weren’t the first rangers, however, to mount up to protect Texas settlers.
The Call Goes Out
The first Texas frontier defenders actually organized in 1823, when colonizer Stephen F. Austin called for a group of adventurous men “to act as rangers for the common defense”of his Mexican land-grant settlement. These “ranging men,”as they were known in the early years, ventured out horseback to find and confront danger wherever it existed.
From the settler’s perspective, that danger existed practically everywhere in Texas. Murderous outlaws, desperados, thieves and dangerous fugitives were constant threats as Texas progressed from Austin’s Mexican colony, to an independent republic, to a U.S. state, to part of the Confederacy and finally back to a U.S. state. Through it all, the Texas Rangers built a solid reputation for establishing order out of chaos.
Respect The Enemy
The most formidable foes to the Texas settlers, and the rangers employed to defend them, were the Comanches. Widely regarded as the best light cavalry in the world at the time, the Comanches were a force to be reckoned with by the rangers throughout much of the 19th century.
Stealthy warriors learned to ride toward the enemy by moonlight. In battle and at a full gallop, they showered their adversaries with deadly arrows, and outmaneuvered any horseman who dared to pursue them.
Early frontiersmen traveled on foot or rode to the battle and dismounted before shooting at their enemies. Frontier rifles were deadly, but in the time it took a man to dismount and reload his cumbersome single-shot firearm, a Comanche covered 300 yards horseback and launched at least a dozen arrows.
Ironically, Texas Rangers adapted their fighting strategies from the Comanche style. Rangers learned to charge hard into battle, taking an aggressive, forward approach, rather than maintaining defensive postures and becoming stationary targets like their fellow countrymen. Before long, the Texas Rangers outfitted themselves with the fastest horses they could afford and rode full out at the Comanches, with as many weapons as they could carry.
The Great Equalizer
The multitude of weaponry, however, proved cumbersome on horseback, until the invention of Samuel Colt’s handgun revolver in the 1830s. Although the U.S. Army had originally turned down Colt’s invention, the Republic of Texas purchased 180 .36-caliber holster model revolvers in 1839. Stories vary on how they got in the hands of Ranger Capt. John Coffee “Jack” Hays, but one account states that he discovered them in a warehouse near present-day Waco in 1844 and was determined to use them.
However Hays “procured” them, it’s known that he took the guns to his company of nearly 50 rangers in San Antonio, where every day for two solid weeks he made them aim, fire and reload the weapons from horseback.
About 15 of these rangers put the guns to the test in the summer of 1844 during a skirmish with an estimated 70 Comanches near the Pedernales River outside of Austin. Although greatly outnumbered, the rangers killed or wounded nearly half the Comanche warriors with their new revolvers, and sent the rest into retreat.
Among those in the battle along the Pedernales was Ranger Sam Walker, who later worked with Colt to perfect the revolver, transforming it from an unreliable, difficult to reload, five-shot weapon into a quick-firing, easy-to-load six shooter. In the process, the rangers revolutionized frontier defense and began forging their reputations as men of superior horsemanship and firepower.
The Vaquero Influence
To carry out their horseback missions, rangers adapted tack and personal gear to fit their needs. The greatest influence in this area was from the vaqueros, Mexican cowboys who spent most of their waking hours on horseback.
Saddles, spurs, ropes and wide-brimmed hats used by the rangers were all fashioned after those of the vaqueros. The rangers and vaqueros even wore their guns the same way, with the holsters positioned high on the gun belt around their hips, not low on the thigh. The high holster placement made it easier to ride with a big iron. The man who could mix expert riding, shooting and tracking skills with a strong dose of courage had what it took to be a Texas Ranger.
Leading The Charge
The rangers’ successful methods of fighting Indians with superior firepower and exceptional riding skills, didn’t go unnoticed by the U.S. Army. The military adopted these ranger tactics and strategies in the U.S. Cavalry.
Federal mounted soldiers even began looking like rangers, trading in their caps for wide brimmed hats and carrying the Colt revolver that the rangers helped perfect. Federal troops also began preferring the hardy rangers’ Spanish cow ponies instead of their Thoroughbreds.
Always at the forefront, leading the fight on horseback, the rangers became accomplished advance scouts for federal mounted units.
One testimonial, an 1845 account from U.S. Army Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson, who relayed a report given to him: “They are teaching the United States officers and soldiers how to ride. The feats of horsemanship of our frontier-men are extraordinary. I saw one of them pick up from the ground three dollars, each fifty yards apart, at full speed, and pass under a horse’s neck at a pace not much short of full speed.”
Ranger James Gillet, who served from 1875 to 1881, wrote of similar feats that give further testimony of the rangers’ riding skills and influence on the U.S. Army.
“No crack cavalryman in any army can mount a horse more quickly or more expertly than a ranger,” wrote Gillet, “and he can keep a constant stream of fire pouring from his carbine when his horse is going at top speed, and hit the mark nine times out of 10. Should a ranger drop on the ground anything that he wants, he doesn’t even check the speed of his horse, but, bending from the saddle as if he were made of India rubber, he picks up the object at full gallop.”
Gillet also wrote, “Horse-racing is popular, and the fastest horse in the company is soon spotted, for the rangers match their mounts one against the other.”
Merging work and pleasure with horses created strong bonds between the rangers and their mounts, Gillet wrote. ” ‘We live in the saddle and sky is our roof,’ say the old rangers, and this is literally true. The rangers are perfect centaurs, and almost live in the saddle.”
All The King’s Horses
Although rangers certainly expected a lot from their horses, their mounts weren’t always the most admired of the Southwest. Horses were major expenditures and, since the Texas Rangers supplied their own mounts, they rode what they could afford.
Undoubtedly, some of the best ranger horses came from South Texas’ legendary King Ranch. In the dangerous “Nueces Strip,”where Mexican bandits and lawless Americans helped themselves to other people’s cattle and horses, the King Ranch always stood a lot to lose, and often did. Understandably, ranch owner Richard King was a good friend to the rangers and was always glad to see them.
Historic accounts show that on more than one occasion, King offered fresh mounts to whole ranger companies riding to the rescue of South Texas ranchers. Fed, rested and then mounted on King Ranch horses, the rangers likely felt invincible as they took the fight to the bandits.
Even today, ranchers offer the use of their horses to Texas Rangers who might be tracking suspects and fugitives nearby. Whether on borrowed horses or their own mounts, the rangers were acutely aware that reliable horses were healthy horses.
John Salmon “Rip” Ford, who served the rangers during the Mexican and Indian Wars, recalled one long, hard ride in which his company traveled an estimated 107 miles in less than 30 hours.
“None of our horses were rendered unserviceable by this toilsome march,” wrote Ford. “They were fed on barley, one of the best articles for horse feed ever used. Our men were generally careful with their horses. They were well-groomed and well-fed. No one fancied losing his American horse and being mounted on a Mexican caballo. He was an animal of great endurance, but was not as fleet as his American brother. Two things are considered uncomfortable by mounted men of pluck – to be in the rear of a charge, and behind in a retreat.”
On another occasion, after a 90-mile ride in only 14 hours in Mexico, Ford recalled, “We rested ourselves and horses that day and part of the next. The mounted man has an affection for his charger, and treats him kindly.”
Riding Into The Future
Railroad trains steaming through Texas in the late 19th century offered rangers another method of covering long distances. Traveling from El Paso to Dallas, for example, might take more than a week by horse, but only a day by rail. And once there, the ranger and his horse were rested and ready for local travel.
After the turn of the 19th century, when motorized vehicles came on the scene, rangers kept up with progress and adopted that mode of transportation. With the need gone to fight Indians and outlaws, the 20th century rangers turned much of their attention to detective work.
Today’s rangers investigate felony crimes, suppress riots, protect criminals in high profile cases and investigate white-collar crimes. These elite lawmen, who covered thousands of miles on horseback in a year’s time, now cover millions of miles by all means of transportation, both ground and air.
Horses continue to play a role in the lives of the Texas Rangers, who remain active in manhunts, evidence collection and searches for murder victims. Like their colleagues of yesteryear, many rangers around the state are respected for their superior riding and tracking skills. When local law enforcement authorities search the rural countryside, they often call in these rangers.
Although the rangers no longer have to supply their own mounts, “chase” horses and tracking dogs are always at the ready on the grounds at 34 prison units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These horses are specially trained for manhunts and work in combination with tracking dogs. At times, when rangers search for evidence, they even opt to use their own horses.
Although the horse’s role has greatly diminished during the second half of the rangers’ 182-year existence, the Texas lawmen continue to respect the horses that have become such an important part of their history.
“There will always be a place for the horse with the Texas Rangers,” says 18-year veteran Ranger Calvin Cox. “In situations where you need them, there’s still nothing better.”