In War Horse, you see the British Cavalry come to Albert’s village and offer the local farmers cold, hard cash for their horses. The war had just broken out and Great Britain needed trained horses–and they needed them quickly. Historians tell us that they acquired 165,000 horses in the first 12 days of the war.
But they would need a million horses. There weren’t enough Joeys hidden away in enough little villages of England. The British military sent horse buyers around the world, but especially to the United States and Canada, where they would buy 618,000 horses and mules, and load them onto ships bound for Liverpool. Once in England, they’d be trained and shipped to France or to the combat zones of the Middle East.
At the end of World War I, the United States military took a long hard look at its own horse inventory. Would it be caught short in the event of another war? Maybe it was the economy or maybe it was the combustible engine, but the price of horses was down and so was the supply.
The government’s glance fell on a historic army base in western Nebraska and the US Cavalry took it from there. It would transform the hilly countryside of Crawford, Nebraska into the biggest horse producing zone in America. At one point, it held more horses in its pastures than some states have today.
Fort Robinson was the equivalent of The Bluegrass–for war horses, not racehorses.
For insight to Fort Robinson and the war horses who lived there, I turned to Nebraska journalist Algis Laukatis, who writes for the Journal Star in Lincoln, Nebraska. Algis has written a great article about Fort Robinson, and I’ll share a few lines from it here.
“Joey and the Horses Trained at Fort Robinson in Western Nebraska Have Little in Common” is Algis’s conclusion.
In 1919, World War I was over, and Fort Robinson was close to being abandoned. The historic outpost no longer was used as a troop station, and its buildings were in disrepair.
Fort Robinson, the site of the 1879 Cheyenne Outbreak and the death of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse, had seen better days.
And then something saved it.
The War Department established a Quartermaster Corps remount depot at Fort Robinson. It was one of four such horse-training facilities in the country. The others were in Oklahoma, Montana and Virginia.
“The climate, terrain and pastures, all of those things desirable in a Remount Depot, were available at Fort Robinson, in a more generous way than (at) either of the two other depots,” Thomas R. Buecker wrote in his book, Fort Robinson and the American Century 1900-1948.
Even with the advent of tank warfare in World War I, the military still saw a need for cavalry units, which often led the battle charge.
In the Army’s view, good animals had become scarce, Buecker noted, because the horse market was slumping and ranchers had stopped breeding riding horses.
“With increasing mechanization, both the Army and the United States Department of Agriculture feared the American riding horse was in danger of disappearing,” Buecker wrote. “By implementing a breeding program, the Army hoped ranchers would turn anew to the production of better horses.”
Between 1920 and 1931, the Fort Robinson remount depot issued 9,758 horses and mules, Buecker wrote.
Most of the animals went to military posts in the central and western United States, but they also were shipped to the Philippines, the Canal Zone in Panama, Hawaii and Alaska.
Eventually, Fort Robinson became the country’s largest remount station.
Brown and black horses with a minimum of white markings were preferred by the military. Grays, pintos and light-colored animals were rejected because they could be too easily seen by the enemy. The average price paid for a horse was $165.
Horses that made the grade were well taken care of during their stay at Fort Robinson.
“They have a life of pampered pets, properly fed, properly sheltered in the cleanest of clean stables,” Buecker wrote.
The officers and enlisted men didn’t have it bad either.
Because of its informal atmosphere and variety of outdoor activities, Fort Robinson became known as “The Country Club of the Army” during its years as a remount depot and beyond.
After a visit, a newspaper reporter wrote: “The longing to leave the recreational cabins, creeks bright with fat trout and outdoor games isn’t simply overpowering.”
Buecker noted that some of the officers who came from affluent families brought their own horses for the Fort Robinson polo team. They played against other military posts and civilian teams in Denver, Colorado Springs and Hot Springs, S.D.
The stables in which the horses were kept and the training area still are visible today. The fort is now a state park.
Algis’s story ends there but of course I had to start digging for more information. I found out that Fort Robinson suffered greatly when the Cavalry was dismounted during World War II. Cavalrymen turned in their beloved horses, which were warehoused at Fort Robinson until they could be sold at auction. The price seemed to drop with each successive auction.
But at one point, there were about 12,000 surplus government horses on the Fort.
During World War II, Fort Robinson shipped some horses east and some horses west. They were to be used by the Coast Guard.for the unique purpose of patrolling the nation’s beaches to watch for landing craft or submarines.
But it wasn’t the horseflesh that made Fort Robinson famous in World War II. It was the mules. In 1943, the fort purchased 10,000 mules; they ended up in Burma, China, and even Italy. They carried supplies and weapons and ammunition through jungles and over mountain ranges, and served the country–and Fort Robinson–outstandingly well. They became legends–but that’s another story. “War Mule” has such a nice ring to it!
Thanks to Algis and the Journal Star for their help. Photos via Nebraskahistory.org, where much more about Fort Robinson can be learned.