Origin of the Blackjack Mountain Horses

by Maila Coleman, MD

     The Blackjack Mountain Horses, also known as "The Spanish Mustangs of Blackjack Mountain," are the carefully bred descendants of horses acquired by Native Americans and early settlers from Spanish explorers in the 1500s.  Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw brought many of their horses along the "Trail of Tears" in the 1800s.  Choctaw settled in SE Oklahoma and continued to breed their highly sought after strain of "Choctaw Ponies" in the Blackjack Mountain region.  They also traded some horses with the Cherokee to the north, and Chickasaw to the west.  

     Later, n the early 1900s, Gilbert Jones began collecting and breeding his line of "Spanish Mustangs" including Huasteca, Kiowa, Comanche, and other Native American tribes, along with rancher and feral stock acquired from Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.  He subsequently settled with his family at "Medicine Springs" on Blackjack Mountain in 1958, where he continued to add select Choctaw horses to his line.  

     As time passed, timber companies acquired large tracts of land in the SE Oklahoma mountains, but for many years allowed ranchers to graze their livestock on the unfenced land.  In early 2000s however, "grazing leases" were discontinued, land was fenced and gated, and ranchers had to find other properties if they wanted to continue breeding their horses.    

     During the crisis of eviction of these Historic Horses from Blackjack Mountain, the Livestock Conservancy, then known as the "ALBC" stepped in to help document the rare purity of the Blackjack Mountain horses.   They helped catalogue the horses, as well as obtain blood samples and hair follicles for DNA testing.  Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, their Technical Advisor, had studied these horses for many years as a long-time collaborator with Gilbert Jones and other breeders in the area.  With the data accrued on these herds,  Dr. Sponenberg developed a conservation breeding strategy to ensure the diversity and long-term survival of irreplaceable genetics represented in these horses.  As an expert on rare breeds of equines and other species, Dr. Sponenberg designated two main breeding populations or strains within the herd:  the Gilbert Jones strain and the Choctaw strain. 

• Gilbert Jones Strain:  these horses originated from Southwestern strains that Gilbert Jones acquired from Texas, New Mexico, Utah, and Mexico (especially Huasteca Indian bred), to which he later added many Choctaw as well.  Jones horses excel at endurance and are very surefooted.     

• Choctaw Strain:  Choctaw horses are a Southeastern strain that was bred by the Choctaw Indians for their gentle nature, easy going gait, and friendliness to people.  Choctaw people were among the first Native Americans to relocate from their homelands to designated "Indian Territory" in what is now SE Oklahoma.  They were able to negotiate permission to bring many of their horses along the infamous "Trail of Tears" and continue breeding them on Blackjack Mountain.  Since then, this strain has expanded into four groups:  pure Choctaw, Choctaw + Cherokee, Choctaw + Huasteca/Jones, and mixed Choctaw with Chickasaw and/or Cherokee and/or Huasteca/Jones lineage.