Indian horses with war paint seen in a painting by western artist Charles M. Russell in 1907.

Indian horses with war paint seen in a painting by western artist Charles M. Russell in 1907.

Indians decorated themselves with war paint. They also marked their horses. (RB)

Indians decorated themselves with war paint. They also marked their horses. (RB)

A painting by Charles M. Russell shows how horses changed the way Indians hunted.

A painting by Charles M. Russell shows how horses changed the way Indians hunted.

Cheyenne Indians and their horses about 1910 (LOC)

Cheyenne Indians and their horses about 1910 (LOC)

Three Navajo Indians on horseback make their way over hilly terrain in 1906. (LOC)

Three Navajo Indians on horseback make their way over hilly terrain in 1906. (LOC)

Horses Were Important to Indians

Posted: December 31, 2018

Indians and horses just go together. But it wasn’t always that way. In ancient times, Indians in America moved from place to place on foot. They carried belongings on their backs. They hunted and went to war on foot too.

It wasn’t until the early 1500s that the Spanish brought horses to America. The Spanish fought native people and took control of the land. They forced Indians to work on their ranches. And even though it was a crime for Indians to own horses, Indians learned to ride and train them as they worked on the Spanish ranches. Eventually, Indians forced the Spanish out and began raising the horses they left behind in large herds. Things changed in a big way! Horses changed the way Indians moved their villages. They changed the way Indians hunted. And they especially changed the way Indians went to war.

Indians painted themselves before going to war. They painted their horses too. Native Americans ground or squeezed pigment from red and white clays, barks, berries, eggshells, charcoal, flower petals, plants, moss, root juice, ashes, and more. Colors and symbols had meanings. Some markings sent messages to an enemy. Others were tallies of victories. And symbols were used to call upon the power of false gods or magic.

Here are a few examples of horse war paint.

  • Circle around eye or nostril: Make the horse’s senses stronger.
  • Lines across nose: Overthrowing a settlement.
  • White dots on chest: Prayer for hail to fall on the enemy.
  • Straight arrow: Symbol of victory.
  • Handprint: A mission carried out successfully. In red: Vow of vengeance against an enemy.
  • Zigzags: Thunder stripes to please the god of war.
  • Circle with zigzag: Symbol of speed and stealth.
  • Square or rounded hoof print shapes: Successful horse-stealing raids.
  • Arrowheads: On hoofs, make horse swift and nimble.
  • Fire arrows: Bad luck on the enemy.
  • Crossed lines: Rider has escaped an ambush.
  • Eagle: Fight until safe.
  • Two triangles nose to nose: Going to battle against an enemy.