Favourites on Friday - The American Indian Horse - Medicine Hat and War Paint

The ‘medicine hat’ horse is a predominantly white horse with colour on the ears and top of the head; the colour can be brown, black or roan, which gives the horse the appearance of wearing a hat.  Sometimes the horse may have a few other coloured patches on the body, but is usually white, with pink muzzles and pink skin around the eyes.

'The Medicine Hat' ~ John Phelps

Native American tribes, especially the Plains Indians, referred to the pattern as a ‘medicine hat’ or a ‘war bonnet’.  They believed a horse with this pattern to be a superior one.  Some tribes believed that the rider of a ‘medicine hat’ horse would never be hurt; that the horse would warn its master of danger; that it would be able to find game regardless of the terrain.

If the ‘medicine hat’ horse had blue eyes, it was even more highly prized, the blue eyes giving the horse a ghostly, otherworldly appearance.  Their white hides were perfect for displaying the magic or power symbols that were often painted on.  Because a ‘medicine hat’ was considered to be especially lucky, by having it wear a magic symbol, the horse embodied the magical qualities of the tribe.

‘Medicine hats’ were closely guarded, for losing a ‘medicine hat’ was considered to be an ill omen, which would affect the whole tribe; the good magic would go wherever the horse goes.  Because of this, tribes would try and steal a ‘medicine hat’ of another tribe to obtain the horse’s good luck, and to deprive that tribe of said good luck.

Every tribe had war horses, and each war horse was held in high regard by its owner.  To honour and protect his horse, the Indian would paint tribal symbols on the animal’s body. 

'Crooked Lance' ~ Martin Grelle

Each power symbol had its own specific meaning and purpose, determined by the nature of the perilous task the war horse was asked to do.  The war or power symbols were carefully chosen to give the horse protection; to indicate the troubles which lay ahead … some spoke of the horse’s courageous heart; of the horse’s affection for the warrior …

While preparing for battle, the warrior would apply his personal honours on his war horse.  The symbols he painted depicted enemies killed and ponies stolen.  He would weave a Medicine Bag into the bridle, and braid Coup Feathers into the war horse’s forelock and tail.  He would then knot up the horse’s tail to prevent the enemy from taking hold of it and using it to pull him from his horse.  He would also gather the mane into clusters and tie it, to prevent entanglement in his bow and arrow during combat.

Each tribe had its own interpretation of the symbols used and the meanings behind them, but there were some symbols that were common to most tribes. 

A circle around the horse’s eye and nostrils was for alert vision and a keen sense of smell.

Arrow in a line brought victory.

Thunder stripes on the horse’s front legs were to please the god of war.

Arrowheads on all four hooves made the horse swift and nimble-footed.

Fire Arrows to cause trouble for the enemy, which would add strength to the warrior.

Right/left hand prints outlined on the horse's chest to show he had knocked down an enemy.

Hailstones were a prayer for hail to fall on the warrior's enemy.

Two crossing bars meant that the horse and his rider had escaped ambush.

Hoofprints drawn on the horse stood for the number of horses captured in raids.

For the warrior going on a 'do-or-die' mission, the Upside-down Handprint was used; the most prized symbol a warrior could place on his horse.

The Pat Hand Print (left hand drawn on the horse’s right hip) and the horse’s battle scars (always in red) were the highest honours. The Pat Hand Print was reserved solely for the horse that had brought his master home, unharmed, from a dangerous mission.  The legends about this handprint come from the Apache and Comanche tribes.  They tell of a furious battle in which a warrior was fatally wounded.  Before he died, he patted his horse on the right shoulder, leaving his bloody handprint on his horse.  When the horse returned to camp, the handprint served as his ‘message of death’ to his people.

'Painted for Battle' ~ Kate Bolia