Sunday, November 3, 2013


Warriors of the Plains horse tribes painted their horses for special occasions. These painted markings and symbols were not so much an identifier in the nature of the Angle horse brand as they were an enhancement, visual or spiritual, of the horse’s and the rider’s presence. Some of the symbols represented specific accomplishments and so could be read like a biography of the warrior. Other symbols conferred spiritual powers and abilities that had been shown to the warrior on a vision quest. Some examples of painted horses can be seen in rock art and other Native American art forms, and some of these messages can still be read in the painted markings.

Symbols from painted horses, Thomas E. Mails, 
Mystic Warriors of the Plains, 1991, p.220.

Thomas Mails illustrated a number of commonly seen marks in his book Mystic Warriors of the Plains (Mails 1991:220) and examples (including variations) of some of these symbols can be seen in examples of Native American art. “Painted exploit symbols used on horses. a, war party leader. b, enemy killed in hand combat. c, owner fought from behind breastworks. d, hail. e, coup marks. f, horse raids or number of horses stolen. g, mourning marks. h, medicine symbol.” (Mails 1972: 220)

Picture Canyon, Baca County. Photograph: Peter Faris.

Close-up of symbol on the horse from Picture
 Canyon, Baca County, Colorado.

In Picture Canyon, Baca County, Colorado, a horse figure that is faintly drawn in black and also lightly incised into the cliff face has markings carved into his front shoulder that might represent a variation of Mail’s marks for coup counts. An extremely faded rider can be made out and the shapes of tipis in the background are now almost invisible.

A coup count, Dog Soldier Ledger, pl. 91, p. 189.

Detail, A coup count, Dog Soldier Ledger, pl. 91, p. 189.

Coup count symbols can be seen on the horse illustrated in one of the plates in the Dog Soldier Ledger (p. 91, p. 189) in which an unidentified warrior has dismounted to count coup with a strike of his bow on a wounded soldier.

Keyser, James D. and Michael A. Klassen,
2001, Plains Indian Rock Art,p. 237.

An incised panel from Joliet, Montana, is illustrated in James Keyser’s and Michael Klassen’s 2001 book Plains Indian Rock Art (p. 237). The large horse in the center of the illustration carries an “H” on his hip which might represent an Anglo brand, but the horse also shows a open-bottom rounded symbol on his front shoulder which is quite possibly Mail’s symbol for horse raids and/or horses stolen, a could possibly actually refer to the capture of the horse illustrated by its rider.

White Bird lancing a soldier, a circle is painted
on the hip of his horse. Dog Soldier Ledger,
plate 100, p. 203. 

Another illustration from the Dog Soldier Ledger (p. 100, p. 203) shows White Bird lancing a white man. White Bird’s horse is painted with a circle identified by Mails as signifying fighting from behind breastworks or from some sort of defensive position. Additional illustrations of White Bird in the same publication show the same symbol on his horse.

“A warrior often painted his favorite war horse with the same pattern and colors he used for his own face and body. And when he was preparing for ceremonial events or for journeys into enemy territory, he painted his horse at the same time as he painted himself. – The main thing to bear in mind is that the painted horse always carried a message about his owner, hence sometimes the quality of the horse bearing the marks – although the painted horse might not always be the one the owner had ridden on the raids described.” (Mails 1991:219)

The value and importance of the horse painting is illustrated by George P. Horse Capture and Emil Her Many Horses in their 2006 book “Song for the Horse Nation”. “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)  “The best paint” presumably is paint made with the rarest, or hardest to acquire, pigments, the value being due to the effort or expense of acquisition.

A range of motives and reasons led to painting of their horses by Native American Plains warriors, and many of these motives and reasons were of such importance that the same symbols were occasionally portrayed on rock art of horses. Indeed, many of these symbols can often be found independantly painted or pecked into the rock as well, but that is a subject for a later posting.


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, Colorado.

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