Thursday, August 20, 2009


Some of the early rock art representations of horses equipped with tack or gear illustrate it with the body covered by a tent-like hanging covering. These represent horses that are covered with rawhide horse armor. John Ewers related an early report of this which was found in Lewis and Clark’s 1805 description of the Lemhi Shoshoni. “They have a kind of armor like a coat of mail, which is formed of a great many folds of dressed antelope-skins, united by means of a mixture of glue and sand. With this they cover their own bodies and those of their horses, and find it impervious to arrows”.
Citing a number of early sources Ewers continued:
“The earliest known description of the use of armor by any Plains Indian tribe refers to both body and horse types. In 1690, Tonty found the Caddo on Red River wore “body-coverings of several skins, one over the other, as a protection from arrows. They arm the breasts of their horses with the same material, a proof that they are not very far from the Spaniards.” The French explorers Du Tisne and La Harpe found the Wichita and their neighbors on the Arkansas wore hide body armor and decked their horses with breastplates of tanned hide in 1719. Five years later Bourgmont remarked that the Paduca (Apache) went to war dressed in “specially tanned buffalo skins with which they protect themselves. They also hang them around their horses to protect them against arrows” A Ponca tradition refers to their fights with mounted Comanche, before the Ponca themselves obtained horses, in which the Comanche employed horse armor “of thick rawhide cut in round pieces and made to overlap like the scales of a fish. Over the surface was sand held on by glue”.
Armored horse petroglyph, Farrington
Springs, Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

Imagery of armored horses has been discovered at the monumental rock art site of Farrington Springs, in southeastern Colorado, by Mark Mitchell.

Rock Art Depicting Commanches, Horses Clad In Leather Armor Discovered In Colorado, ScienceDaily, April 1, 2004 — Several new rock art discoveries by a University of Colorado at Boulder researcher depict mounted warriors, likely Comanche, astride horses clad in leather armor and created around 1700 to 1750, the first such petroglyphs found in the state. CU-Boulder anthropology doctoral student Mark Mitchell, who identified the art, said Plains Indians like the Comanche probably acquired horses from the Spanish in northern New Mexico beginning about 1650 through raiding or trading. The idea of leather-armored horses and riders to deflect spears and arrows probably came from American Indians seeing armored Spanish horse soldiers in the Southwest or Mexico.
"This art tells us about Comanche history through archaeology," Mitchell said. "There is some recorded history but virtually no archaeology of the Comanche, which makes these rock art depictions very valuable. They should point us to additional places to look for Comanche sites containing artifacts associated with horses."

Armored horse petroglyph, Farrington
Springs, CO, photo: Peter Faris

The new finds by Mitchell include three in Colorado and one in central Kansas. He identified two separate rock art depictions of armored horses on the Purgatoire River in southeast Colorado, both showing the horses' armor as rough trapezoids of leather on each side with straight to slightly flaring front and back margins and curved at the top and bottom. "Both also clearly show an armored collar from which horses' heads protrude," said Mitchell.
Page 34, Rock Art of Western North Dakota and the Southern
Black Hills, James D. Keyser and Linea Sundstrom, South
Dakota Archaeological Society, No. 9, 1984.

In order to pick out the image of the armored horse in the first photo from Farrington Springs, Colorado, you need to first see the fairly large, tent-like shape in the middle of the picture. That represents the body of the horse draped in a cover of leather armor. Protruding from the right side of that shape is a parallelogram representing the cylindrical neck covering of the armor. The horse’s head protrudes from the right side of that cylindrical neck armor with a pointed ear, and is almost ludicrously small in comparison with the size of the neck and body. This is much like the larger of the two armored horses in James Keyser’s illustration from Rock Art of Western South Dakota, the North Cave Hills, and the Southern Black Hills (South Dakota Archaeological Society, Number 9, Special Publication) as seen above.

Mark Mitchell’s exciting discovery adds important new evidence for interpreting the prehistoric/historic transitional period in the American west. It also illustrates beautifully one of the most important axioms in rock art research. We really do tend to see what we look for. This site has been visited by hundreds of visitors over the years, including yours truly, and as far as I know not one of us recognized the important image of the armored horse. We certainly saw it, but it did not register. Then Mark Mitchell stood in front of the panel in the same place that so many of us had stood in before, and he realized what it was he was seeing. Congratulations Mark, on your important contribution.

1 comment:

  1. hello,
    thanks for this picture - I have been looking for it.
    This image is similar to the Greers' presented Arminto (wyoming) photos in their 'Armored Horses in the Northwestern Plains Art' (2002).
    I am courious though why this image is ascribed to the Comanches - I would think they might have been the Plains Apaches - eg, Bourgmont remarks from 1724 AD - as this area used to belong to them at least during the first quarter of the 18th century.