Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Michael Ann Williams, Erika Brady, F.E. Abernethy

Degree Program

Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Scholarship to date on the subject of horsetrading and horsetraders has been primarily narrative collections with a minimum of attention paid to the cultural context within which the horsetrader lives and works. This thesis focuses on the lives and dealings of several horsetraders in a five county region in middle to southern east Texas.

Beginning with a discussion of the merits and failings of existing scholarship, I outline the historical background leading to the unique regional context and strong sense of independence in my area of study. A combination of early isolation, radical economic and political swings, and a strong southern Baptist presence work to give this region a particular character that both condemns and supports a number of horsetraders.

Long ethically suspect, the horsetrader here has evolved from the travelling gypsy trading stock over vast areas into a fixed, though feared member of the community. The question of ethics arises in a flexible duality on the community's part as they teach and preach against al that they believe the trader guilty of, yet continually suspend these ethical values as they enter into the trader's world and attempt to beat him at his own game. A vast bank of community narrative exists to warn of the trader's deceptions, yet should a community member ever best the trader, his social status skyrockets with David and Goliath-like fame.

In order to grasp the nuances and subtleties of the trader's craft, I then describe aspects of the horsetrade in light of current folklore theory. There are elements of both folk drama and gaming in the verbal dueling and strategy of the trade, but nothing that can affix the interchange to either genre. Next I explore many of the deceptions for which the traders have become known, and more often, have become victims of themselves.

My final concern is with the changes that have taken place in the trader's world. Agribusiness that no longer relies on animal power coupled with widespread urbanization has depleted the market for horses in many respects. A new class of customers now acquire horses for specific, convenient needs, and often these are only temporary. The horsetrader has been forced to adapt to these changes or retire completely.

In summation, the region and people I studied are responsible for a unique environment that both shuns and supports horsetraders. The community depends upon the reputations of the traders to serve as examples of improper behavior and lifestyle, yet applauds the individual who can enter their ethical hinterland and return successful. (i.e. having suspended acceptable ethics). The duality works on several levels, and pervades the region and the trades, forming the very context within which the trader exists.


Anthropology | Folklore | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology