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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

131 Years Ago Today: Laminitis on the Little Big Horn

Comanche, the lone survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn, with the German immigrant farrier Gustave Korn, who saved his life and helped the horse recover from seven wounds suffered in the battle. Photo courtesy of and the Library of Congress, available from the Denver Public Library's Western Image Collection. Note the swallowtail saddle cloth, now in vogue with dressage riders.

Is there any one among us who does not know the meaning of the three simple words, "Little Big Horn"? Today, my friends, is the anniversary of the day after the massacre known generally as "Custer's Last Stand". The battle was June 25, and the history books tell us that it was today, June 26, when the annihilated troops were found. 

Several farriers died at Little Big Horn; any veterinarians in Custer's service are not listed among the dead. It's not known whether they remained behind or perhaps were with the supply train bringing up the rear.

Everyone thinks that no one on the US Cavalry side survived the war, but that is not so. One single horse, named Comanche, was found alive on the battlefield, out of 225 horses that marched into the valley. But more about Comanche later.

Volumes have been written about the horses that carried the Custer troop but recently an interesting footnote has been unearthed. I recently read the book Laminitis and Founder: Prevention and Treatment by Drs Butler and Gravlee. I was very surprised when Custer's name popped up in that book.

The authors put forth an interesting footnote in agricultural history that has not been widely published before. They quote a report by Dr. E. Harper, published in the journal Agricultural History in 1944, which states that Custer's horses had been wintered in fields with heavy growth of selenium-rich plants and soil.

Sitting Bull did not winter his horses in those types of fields.

But it wasn't until the 1930s--more than 50 years after the massacre--that it was scientifically proven that selenium is toxic to horses in large doses, and causes laminitis of such severity that horses' feet will actually start to slough.

(To learn more about selenium toxicity, scroll down and read our post from June 11; horses are still suffering from selenium-based laminitis today.)

By the way, the Native American name for the Little Bighorn is "The Greasy Grass" River.

If you are fascinated by the role that horses, especially wild horses, played in the history of the American West, I have a real treat for you. (Comanche, by the way, was a wild horse from Texas who was rounded up and sold to the US Government.)

Writer Deanne Stillman has been hard at work on the definitive biography of Comanche as the icon of the American wild horse. Her new boo Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in spring 2008.

But in recognition of today's anniversary, a couple of chapters were sneak-previewed on the web today, and you can have a good read, thanks to This is great stuff! (Make sure you read both chapters, and make it all the way to the battle.)

Another interesting book is Custer's Horses by Gary Paul Johnston.

And what became of the German farrier? Gustave Korn spent the rest of his career being the personal caretaker for Comanche at Fort Riley in Kansas, among other forts. However, in 1890, Korn was assigned to field duty and was killed at Wounded Knee. Comanche became depressed, although another farrier, Samuel Winchester, was assigned to be his servant. On November 7, 1891, Comanche died of colic in Winchester's arms. He was 29 years old.

As an interesting aside: Comanche's hide was stuffed and he has been living at the University of Kansas at Lawrence for over 100 years, unless he has been moved recently. It's very interesting to read that his hide was excessively long-haired, even though winter had not begun. Comanche was never ridden after Little Big Horn, and spent his days roaming freely about the fort, where he bullied people for food and ate out of the trash. He also developed a liking for beer and was known to be intoxicated.

PS (next day): this post just never ends. Here's a link to the blog of Florida equine practitioner Dr Alan Weldon. He's one of my favorite bloggers. He has an inventory of famous Amercan war horses who are still around (in some form) and includes details of Comanche and the fact that he is in a glass case at the University of Kansas.

Read more here:

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Dr. Alan Weldon said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm in DC now and the American History Museum was closed so no big finds for me. The Native American Museum was lacking in the role of the horse in their culture. Perhaps there is more but I missed it. One thing I would like to know is the names of all of the horses in the statues. ie. Grant- Cincinnitus ?

Fran Jurga said...

Yes, the statue of Grant on Capitol Hill does depit him astride Cincinnatus. And the one of Sheridan has him riding Rienzi, aka Winchester, the horse that is stuffed in the Smithsonian. I think I remember that there is a guide to all the equestrian statues in DC but I don't have it.

Erica Peters said...

This Article was very helpful as I am the great grand daughter of Samuel J Winchester. Thank you
Erica Peters

Fran Jurga said...

Erica, I would be very interested to know if you have other details about your great grandfather's work as a farrier.