The most horrifying behind-the-scenes Bonanza rumor is based on a true unsolved crime
Michael Landon chased down the culprit to no avail when the Cartwrights' horses were attacked in 1961.
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The horses that the Cartwrights ride during the opening sequence of Bonanza have become embedded in fans' minds as they tune in again and again.
With eyes closed, true fans could probably picture all four characters in their iconic wardrobes, saddled up atop four distinctly different horses: brown, red, black, and black-and-white.
The horses are so familiar, they're characters themselves.
That's why a shocking rumor that arose during the show's second season caused some fans to feel their pulse race.
"Can this dreadful story I read be true — that all the horses the Cartwrights rode on TV's Bonanza were shot and that Michael Landon offered a reward to find the guilty person?" Mrs. Charlene Boyles asked the Cincinnati Enquirer's trivia column "Glad You Asked That!" in 1970.
"The incident your reader refers to occurred about nine years ago," responded Richard Collins, a Bonanza producer who worked on more than 100 episodes.
He quickly clarified that none of the horses were shot. However, there was an attack and not all of them survived:
"The horses were not shot but mutilated, and as a result, Michael Landon's horse did die," Collins confirmed.
Collins continued, describing how Landon immediately went after the culprit, offering a reward for any information on the attack. But Landon's best efforts unfortunately didn't nab the bad guys in the real world.
"[Landon] offered a reward and an intensive investigation was undertaken, but unfortunately, no evidence was uncovered, and the case is inactive at present," Collins said.
You could say the tragedy remains Bonanza's biggest unsolved mystery. After mourning the loss of Little Joe's horse, the show had to go on.
Landon's horse got replaced by another black and white pinto, and it was this horse that accompanied Little Joe during appearances at rodeos and events around the country.
The actor would eventually find out that this new horse perhaps had a little more bite in him than his last ride.
In 1964, Landon was riding his new horse at a Houston rodeo when a 55-year-old woman named Emma Thompson approached the TV star on his steed.
That's when the horse unexpectedly bit Thompson, actually severing off the tip of Thompson's finger.
"Isn't this ridiculous?" Thompson bravely laughed off her injury, while holding up a casted forefinger for the photographer when The Tampa Times came to see her at the hospital.
The Tampa Times reported that they weren't the only ones to pay Mrs. Thompson a visit.
Landon stopped by to console her, too.
Lucky for everyone, Thompson was as tough as any TV Western cowboy and took the bite in stride, seeing it as the cost of getting too close to Little Joe's horse, which was what every fan at the rodeo was there to do.
But in our digging, we found out that not all big fans of Little Joe have a perfect memory of what his horse looked like.
In 1971, a fan wrote into an Abilene Reporter-News trivia column, perplexed by a decision to swap out Landon's horse:
"What happened to Mike Landon's (Little Joe on Bonanza) horse? Not too long ago he was riding a red and white (bay) horse, now he's riding a black and white horse? What happened to the red and white horse? I liked it better."
In this case, the fan got the colors wrong, and was likely confusing Pernell Roberts' horse with Landon's. The official response from NBC director of program publicity Gene Walsh was that "Michael Landon's horse in Bonanza has always been a black and white pinto."
The trivia columnist couldn't help but pick fun at the fan, pondering, "Was just wondering if maybe your color TV was out of whack awhile back?"