“The horse is an icon of Plains Indian culture – an indispensable companion in times of peace, and a fearless ally in times of war.” – taken from the book ‘A Song for the Horse Nation’
At the beginning of the 14th century, during the Spanish conquest of North America, horses were introduced into the country and the Native American people quickly bonded with these powerful animals, adopting them into their lifestyle. Fast forward a few centuries later and by the 1800s, the livelihood of many Native American tribes, especially those on the Plains (such as Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Kiowa, Crow, Comanche, Cheyenne and Sioux), depended on the horse.
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 some of the most well known tribes are those among the Plains and Plateau regions. With their innate sense of design and symbolism, the honour and value Native Americans gave to their horses was evident in the way they adorned them with woven blankets, beaded harnesses, painted symbols indicating ownership, bloodlines and accomplishments, and of course elaborately decorated masks. It is thought that the horse masks crafted by many Plains tribes were inspired by the Spanish Conquistadors and the protective metal plates of armour they placed over the faces of their horses.
Most Native horse masks were made from buffalo hide or trade cloth and decorated with beadwork, quills, metal bells, paint and feathers. So while they were not going to protect a horse physically, these masks did make the horses look intimidating on the battlefield. It is also believed the masks may have provided a spiritual protection, with each mask being decorated to imitate the power of the warrior.
I’m curious to know, globetrotters, have you ever dressed your horse in a mask for a fancy dress parade? We would love to hear about it (and see photos) so please share below!
If you would like to see further examples of these incredible masks, please head over to National Geographic.
Kiowa horse mask from Oklahoma (Credit: Horse Collaborative)