West of the Little Bighorn River on a wide grassy bench, 20,000 ponies grazed and rested on the morning of June 25, 1876.
Their Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho owners watered the animals, then drove them a good distance from the huge village stretching for miles along the river bank. Most of the grass nearby had been eaten in the day since the tribes set up camp in the valley.
Still, horses were probably scattered everywhere. Warriors often picketed their war ponies near their lodges. Others were being watered at the river bank. At one end of the village, boys were learning how to break them.
U.S. Cavalry troopers depended on and pampered their horses, too, but bred them for stamina and hard use, said John Doerner, chief historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
On the morning of June 25, they may not have been as fresh as those grazing outside the Indian camp. The day before the horses had carried riders across about 30 miles of broken prairie. Then late that night, had been saddled up for another 10-mile march.
The troops bivouacked about 2:30 a.m., then started the ride to the Little Bighorn about 51/2 hours later. Whether the horses had been well-watered on the journey remains a matter of controversy, Doerner said.
It was hot that day, and the season was dry.
Seventh Cavalry horses pounding across the hills toward the Indian camp loosed powdered dust high into the seething summer haze. For most in the village, the brown cloud was the first sign of trouble.
Cheyenne Chief Two Moon, fresh from a swim in the river, glanced in the direction of Sitting Bull's camp.
"I saw a great dust rising," he told a reporter for McClure's Magazine in September 1898. "It looked like a whirlwind. Soon Sioux horseman came rushing into camp shouting: 'Soldiers come! Plenty white soldiers.' "
Three companies of blue coats came roaring across the river, some of their Arikira scouts riding beyond the village toward the vast pony herd or toward a smaller herd east of the river. Troops under Maj. Marcus Reno had launched the initial attack near the present site of Garryowen.
"I ran into my lodge and said to my brother-in-law, 'Get your horses; the white man is coming. Everybody run for horses,' " Two Moon recalled.
Once the horses had been driven in and saddled, he rode toward Sitting Bull's camp, where Reno's troops were soon overwhelmed. In desperation, they remounted and fled pell-mell across the Little Bighorn and into high bluffs above the village.
Meanwhile, five companies under the command of Lt. Col. George A. Custer rode northward in search of the other end of the village. Reno, joined by four companies under Capt. Frederick Benteen, hunkered down on the bluffs, while Custer found himself in the vortex of angry Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho.
"We circled around them, swirling like water round a stone," Two Moon said. "We shoot, we ride fast, we shoot again."
Gall, war chief of the Hunkpapas, told a newspaper reporter in 1886 that warriors tried to kill the soldiers assigned to hold the horses - usually one in four of the troopers.
"Then by waving blankets and shouting we scared the horses down that coulee, where the Cheyenne women caught them," he said.
Gall seemed more interested in the number of horses captured than the fight to the death at Battle Ridge, the reporter commented.
Wooden Leg said the horses were easy to entice toward the river where they could be caught.
"They were very thirsty," he said.
On the ridge, the troopers had dismounted to face the overwhelming numbers of warriors bearing down on them. They shot their beloved mounts for breastworks, something that may have hurt at much as it helped.
Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne warrior at the battle, said that neither the warriors nor the soldiers could see each other in the thick dust raised by the battle, but the dead horses the soldiers were using as shields could be seen clearly.
"So I just sent my bullets in that direction," he said.
Lt. Charles DeRudio, who arrived on the reeking battlefield when the fate of Custer's five companies was discovered two days after the battle, reported: "Custer was lying on top of a conical hill where five or six horses lay as if to suggest a barricade. Empty shells were found behind the horses which were all sorrels of C Company."
Lt. Edward S. Godfrey, who also was on the battlefield on June 27, said he counted 42 men and 39 horses dead on Custer Hill.
"A great many horses died of wounds and fatigue," a Sioux chief named Kill Eagle told a interviewer a few months after the battle when asked what happened to the cavalry mounts. "Whoever captured them kept them."
Food was scarce in the vast camp at the time, so the Cheyenne ate some of the dead horses, he said.
Wooden Leg marveled at the cavalry horses. He reported that they were all fat, sleek, strong and lively.
"They were better than any of the Indian horses," he said.
Troops arriving in the battle aftermath had no shovels or spades to dig graves for the soldiers, let alone deal with the horse carcasses. The soldiers received token burials, often no more than a pile of stones.
Visitors during the next two years apparently raised the alarm that bodies were lying exposed on the battlefield. When a reburial detail arrived from nearby Fort Custer in 1879, Capt. G. K. Sanderson concluded that most of the reports were unfounded and that the bones that raised such indignation were horse bones.
The captain cleared the field of horse remains and placed them inside a 11-foot-tall cordwood monument that he erected as a temporary memorial to the Seventh Cavalry.
Two years later, the cordwood monument was dismantled and replaced with the current granite monument. Lt. Charles Roe, in charge of putting up the new monument, didn't mention removing the horse bones, but they were reburied just to the northeast of the monument, Doerner said. Roe used the cordwood from the original monument to line the grave.
That was the last anyone saw of the horses until 1941.
A crew digging a pipeline on Custer Hill disturbed a trench lined with what appeared to be cordwood from the old monument. The trench gave way, and about 10 horse skeletons fell out, National Park Service Superintendent Edward S. Luce wrote in a letter on April 18.
Luce wanted to excavate the trench, but World War II interfered. Not until 1946 was the project undertaken by Lt. Col. Elwood L. Nye, an army veterinarian.
Nye wanted to make a comparison of horses ridden into battle in 1876 with those the Army was using in 1941, Doerner said. But, if a report was ever completed, it has since disappeared, as have the horse bones taken from the battlefield for study.
The site remained undisturbed until April 2002, when National Park Service archaeologist Douglas D. Scott went over the area as part of the preparations for construction of the Indian Memorial.
He surveyed two 6-foot-square areas just northeast of the cavalry monument. A few horse remains were found in both areas. They were documented, mapped and photographed, then covered with a protective plastic sheeting before the site was restored with backfill.
While on the way between the Seventh Cavalry and Indian memorials, visitors can pay homage to the faithful horses that carried the Seventh Cavalry into battle. An interpretative wayside exhibit or granite marker commemorating the site is being prepared and should be ready by the June 25 dedication of the Indian Memorial, Doerner said.
"We don't often think of horses as making sacrifices in battle, but they, too, 'gave their all' during one of our nation's most famous battles," Doerner said.
Doerner drew the horse that will be featured on the headstone monument, making sure it was adorned with all the proper equipment and the U.S. and Seventh Cavalry brands. The inscription will read:
"In memory of the Seventh Cavalry horses killed during Custer's Last Stand June 25, 1876, and later buried here in July 1881 under the supervision of Lt. Charles F. Roe of the Second Cavalry."