“The horse is an icon of Plains Indian culture – an indispensable companion in times of peace, and a fearless ally in times of war”.
– from the book, A Song for the Horse Nation
Upon the introduction of horses by the Spanish during their conquest of North America (beginning in the 14th century), the Native American people quickly bonded with these beautiful, powerful animals and adopted them into their lifestyle. By the 1800s, the livelihood of many tribes, but especially those on the Plains, centered around and depended on the horse.
With their innate sense of design and symbolism, as well as their strong desire to create art and adorn the important with beautiful things, the Native people honored the horse with beautifully made saddles, blankets, and bridles (and other horse gear), special ceremonial dress, powerful war paint, and sometimes, even an elaborately decorated mask.
Although not many examples of the original horse masks survive today, the tradition of masking horses in North America is said to be more than five centuries old. Not all tribes are associated with the practice of masking their horses, but those among the Plains and Plateau regions are some of the most well known.
It is believed the horse masks created by many Plains tribes were inspired by the protective metal plates of armor Spanish Conquistadors placed over the faces of their horses.
Native Horse Masks
The Native made masks were not physically protective, as most were made of buffalo hide or trade cloth and decorated with beadwork, quills, metal bells, paint and feathers…but this did make their horses look intimidating and fearsome on the battlefield. It is also said the masks may have provided spiritual protection – each mask was decorated to reflect the medicine (or power) of the warrior.
Connection to Thunder Beings?
According to the book American Indian Horse Masks:
“For Lakota speaking, Western Sioux people, there is a very strong connection between horses, and the terrifying powers of the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan). Perhaps this was suggested by the drumming rumble produced by a head of running horses; or the beauty of horse tails trailing on the breeze, like rain from an angry sky.
Some believe the decoration often used around the eye openings of the mask symbolize the Thunder Beings by either reflecting light (with metal beads or mirrors) or seeming to radiate light (using paint or fabric) to give the horse the appearance of shooting lightening from its eyes”.