Horses appear at key moments throughout the text as a reminder of the pain and injustice that American Indians have suffered over generations. Horses are linked to an episode in Big Mom’s memory, when hundreds of Indian horses were captured and slaughtered after a battle. Big Mom takes the bones of the most beautiful horse and makes a flute, on which she plays a song of despair and mourning that she adapts from the horses’ screams. These horses’ screams then haunt George Wright—who is mysteriously both a Cavalry Record executive and the historical general from the Indian Wars—and make him feel remorse for his role in the wars.
Horses also appear at the end of the novel, running in the night alongside the van as Chess, Checkers, and Thomas drive away from the reservation and into an unknown future. Here they represent the powerful spirit and vitality of Native American people, despite all the suffering and oppression they have faced throughout history. The wild horses, like the Native Americans themselves, have almost disappeared from the land that was once theirs, but those horses that remain still retain their fierce spirit and freedom. Their presence helps the tragic novel end on a brief note of hope, as the characters ride forward surrounded by the horses of their people.