Saturday, March 1, 2014


Armored horse, Farrington Springs, Colorado.
Photograph: Peter Faris, May 2002.

Drawing of armored horse, Farrington Springs, Colorado.

On August 20, 2009, I posted a column entitled Armored Horse Petroglyphs, about the discovery by Mark Mitchell of two petroglyphs of armored horses at the great rock art site of Farrington Springs, in Bent County, Colorado. I wish to study the phenomenon of armored horses in Plains Indian art, especially rock art, in greater depth, and share a few more photographs with you.

Armored horse, Farrington Springs, Colorado.
Photograph: Peter Faris, May 2002

Drawing of armored horse, Farrington Springs, Colorado.

For any student of rock art who wishes to study the subject of horse armor worn by Native Americans one excellent source is the painting on hide known as Segesser I displayed in the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe. This painting shows in detail horses wearing leather horse armor.

Segesser I hide painting, Museum of New Mexico.

On June 16, 1720, a Spanish expedition set out from Santa Fe to reconnoiter French activity on the northern Plains. “They had camped in tall grass near the confluence of the Platte and Loup rivers in present-day eastern Nebraska, six hundred miles northeast of Santa Fe. The force numbered forty-some presidial soldiers, sixty Pueblo auxiliaries, and a few citizens and servants, all well outfitted.” (Kessell 2002:210) The Spanish expedition had been following the tracks of a large mixed group of Pawnees, Otos, and others. “A message in French had brought an unintelligible response. The populous camp of Pawnees, Otos, and others whose tracks the Spaniards had picked up, appeared not especially welcoming, so the Spanish column had  turned back. According to angry critics later, Villasur made careless decisions that determined the expedition’s fate: he chose an indefensible site for the camp; pastured the horses at some distance, which left his people afoot; failed to post sentries; and went to sleep as casually as if they had reposed in Santa Fe. At sunrise on August 13, while the men were busy catching their unsaddled horses, a horde of gaudily painted Natives who had silently encircled the camp fell screaming upon it. – Only thirteen Spaniards and some forty Pueblo auxiliaries escaped.” (Kessell 2002: 210-11)

The relevance of this Spanish defeat to our subject is that two contemporary paintings were done on elk or buffalo hide, one measuring 17 feet long by 4½ feet high was produced to illustrate the disastrous defeat described above. This colorful illustration was probably created by a mission-trained artist who was informed by the survivors but today the creator is unknown. This remarkable artifact, now known as Segesser II, was shipped in 1758, by Jesuit missionary Felipe Segesser von Brunegg, to his brother in Switzerland, and in 1988 was purchased by New Mexico where it is now displayed at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. (Kessell 2002: 211) 

Riders on armored horses, Segesser I, detail.
Hotz, The Segesser Hide Paintings.

A companion painting measuring 13½ by 4½ feet, known as Segesser I, shows a battle between two tribal groups, with the attackers possibly accompanied by a Spaniard. The painting shows hills and cliffs with deciduous trees populated by bison, deer, and pumas. It is theorized that it represents an encounter between Pueblo Indians and Plains Apaches. Such skirmishes occurred between 1693 and about 1719. ( Illustrated in this battle two of the attackers ride leather-armored horses. “The attackers’ horses wear neck protectors, like the collars worn by horses in jousting contests, and rawhide armor reaching almost to the ground. – Both of these riders, confined in the long horse armor, remind one of Eskimos in their kayaks.” (Hotz 1970:23)

“They are a later version of the medieval covers worn by horses used in jousting contests. Such coverings for horses were common in seventeenth and eighteenth century America and served as protection both from enemies and from thick underbrush and cactus. They are shown in Spanish drawings on the walls of Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona. The Padouca Apaches are supposed to have adopted them and to have glued sand on the outsides for reinforcement.” (Hotz 1970:55) In the examples shown in Segesser II the legs and hips of the riders are inside the leather cover which comes up to fasten around their waists.

There is considerable disagreement as to the tribes involved in various depictions of hide-armored horses, but Lewis and Clarke did describe hide horse armor among the Shoshone so examples from the Plateau and the northwestern part of the Great Plains may well be Shoshone. Farther east and south the issue becomes cloudier as many references exist that say the armored horses were ridden by Padoucah warriors, and the identity of the Padoucahs is not agreed upon. The great George Bird Grinnell identified the Padoucah with Plains Apache groups early after the contact period (Grinnell 1920) while others associate the name Padoucah with Comanches, although, as seen above the Museum of New Mexico identifies the portrayals in the Segesser I as Plains Apache. Either of these groups could have been responsible for the two armored horses at Farrington Springs. This is an area that both Plains Apache and Comanches passed through, and these figures represent a fascinating part of the history of the west.

NOTE: For pictures of most of the armored horses currently known in rock art check out the Mavis and John Greer’s site at


Grinnell, George Bird
1920    Who Were The Padoucah?, American Anthropologist, Vol. 22, No. 3, July-September 1920.

Hotz, Gottfried
1970    The Segesser Hide Paintings, Masterpieces Depicting Spanish Colonial New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

Kessell, John L.
2002    Spain in the Southwest, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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