Saturday, November 16, 2013


Biographic panel from Joliet, Montana. Keyser and 
Klassen, 2001, Plains Indian Rock Art, p. 237.

On any important occasion a Native American wanted to be as memorable as possible. Part of the preparation for that was to dress oneself up in finery, and that went for their horse as well. Not only for ceremonial occasions, but often for combat, a warrior’s horse would have been painted with symbols carrying spiritual protection, and announcing the warriors strength and prowess. Another essential part of the decoration of any Native American’s horse is eagle feathers.

Mail's illustration of a decorated horse. Thomas Mails,
Mystic Warriors of the Plains, p. 222.

Thomas Mails explained this as follows: “Golden eagle tail feathers were often tied to the mane and/or tail of the war horse when the owner was about to go on a mounted war party. A common Plains custom was that of tying up the horse’s tail when preparing for battle. The Indians believed it sensible to get the long tails out of the horse’s way. Sometimes the tail itself was simply tied in a knot. Other times it was folded and bound with buckskin strips, or in trade days with red blanket cloth. Feathers and fringes were often added to the ties for more spectacular effect.” (Mails 1991:223)

Detail, Biographic panel from Joliet, Montana. Keyser and 
Klassen, 2001, Plains Indian Rock Art, p. 237.

The rock art image from Keyser and Klassen Plains Indian Rock Art (2001:237) located at Joliet, Montana, shows horses and riders in a battle. The detail illustrates a feather decorated horse carrying two riders, the rear rider turned and firing his rifle at an enemy. The image of a horse carrying two riders is usually an illustration recording the heroic rescue of a downed comrade in a battle. The horse that the two warriors are riding has an eagle feather attached to its forelock and also appears to have three feathers hanging from its tied-up tail. This horse was carefully decorated for war so I assume that it represents the aggressors, the defenders presumably would have been caught by surprise and not had enough time to make such careful preparations.

Horse petroglyph, Writing-on-stone Provincial Park,
Alberta, Canada. Three lines from the back of the
horse's head represent feathers, or possibly two
ears and one feather.

“Siya’ka said that on one occasion when he was hard pressed on the warpath, he dismounted, and, standing in front of his horse, spoke to him saying: “We are in danger. Obey me promptly that we may conquer. If you have to run for your life and mine, do your best, and if we reach home, I will give you the best eagle feather I can get – and you shall be painted with the best paint.”” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:41)

Horse images with decorative feathers attached are found in many media utilized by Native American artists. Some examples are shown and listed below.

Bone quirt handle. George Horse Capture and Emil Her
Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation,
Horses in Native American Cultures, p. 38.

Bone quirt handle showing a feather tied to the tail of the horse – “1870s, By identifying stylistic motifs, scholars can often determine which groups created the drawings, and occasionally, a match can be found by comparing figures in rock art to those items made by contemporary tribes, confirming that some ancient art styles reach across the centuries. A wedge-shaped anthropomorphic figure carved into a stone wall in southern Alberta, Canada, is similar to the one incised into the handle of this quirt, collected in the early twentieth century.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:38)

Portrait of High Wolf. George Horse Capture and Emil Her
Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation, Horses
in Native American Cultures, p. 40.

Ledger painting, horse with feathers both on his tail and forelock – “Yellow Nose (Ute raised as Cheyenne), Portrait of High Wolf, circa 1880. This drawing shows high wolf counting coup with a riding quirt against a Nez Perce. The imitation scalp under the horses chin indicates the accomplishments of both horse and rider.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:40)

Shield cover. George Horse Capture. and Emil Her
Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation,
Horses in Native American Cultures, p. 70.

Shield cover, horse with feathers tied to his tail - “Cheyenne River Sioux painted hide shield cover, circa 1880s – This shield cover records a battle scene between the Lakota and some of their enemies, possibly Crow or Pawnee, who are recognized by the topknot hairstyle that was popular with both tribes. The hero/owner of this shield, wearing a split horn war bonnet, is at the center, moving left.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:70)

Portrait of Few Tails by Red Dog, ca. 1884. George Horse Capture 
and Emil Her Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation,
Horses in Native American Cultures, p. 87.

Ledger portrait, the horse has a feather fan tied to his tail – “Red Dog (Lakota), Portrait of Few Tails, circa 1884. Fully decked out in warrior society accoutrements, Few Tails appears to be dressed for battle. Most portraits, like this one, incorporate stylized faces. Because each Plains warrior’s shield was decorated differently, individuals or tribes were identified in artwork by their shield designs and clothing styles.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:87)

As Jim Keyser has demonstrated in his many analytic rock art publications, much can be learned from careful attention to the details in rock art, and by comparison with other art forms which display the same sort of imagery. In the case of horses decorated with feathers it can represent a warrior prepared for war, or for a ceremonial occasion.


Afton, Jean, David Fridtjof Halaas, and Andrew E. Masich
1997    Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: A Ledgerbook History of Coups and Combat, Colorado Historical Society and University Press of Colorado, Denver.

Horse Capture, George P. and Emil Her Many Horses
2006    A Song For The Horse Nation, Horses in Native American Cultures, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and Fulcrum Press, Golden, CO.

Keyser, James D.
2012    “My Name Was Made High:” A Crow War Record at 48HO9, The Wyoming Archaeologist, Vo. 55, Spring 2011 (pub. Oct. 2012).

Keyser, James D. and Michael A. Klassen,
2001    Plains Indian Rock Art, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Mails, Thomas E.
1991    Mystic Warriors of the Plains, Barnes and Noble Books, New York.

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