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A man-eating monster from the underworld is bearing down upon you mercilessly. The drumming of hooves pounds in your ears and you are momentarily blinded by what you believe to be lightning hurled from the horned creature’s red-rimmed eyes. As your corporeal enemy rides this beast toward you, testimonies of former victims hang swinging below its gaping muzzle—the scalps and hair from men like yourself. Starburst reflections from the lightning disorient you at the moment his lance begins to pierce your heart. Reflexively, your arms cross defensively before you in a futile attempt to deflect the fatal charge. As you fall, your hands still rest on the breast of the monster, indelibly adding your handprints to those of mortals he has trampled before you.

The supernatural monster above is a Native American war horse, transformed in battle to a deity of the Below World through the use of a little known accoutrement of horse-ware, the Native American Horse mask. Exquisite of detail and renowned of beauty in and of themselves, these horse masks were nonetheless tools of warfare. While their genesis was one of battle, they were also used in ceremonial display to great affect both during eras of conflict and, after the waning of the intertribal wars of the 19th century, in parades and other events. Today, while still used in ceremony, they also represent a rare treasure of Native American equestrian art and craft.

Southern Cheyenne Buffalo horse mask.

This Southern Cheyenne Buffalo horse mask was made in the 1860s for the war leader Hotoa Nako (translated as He Bear, Male Bear or Bull Bear) It was made with buffalo and elk skin, buffalo horns, and molars, feathers and brass shoe buttons.

Cayuse, late-19th century horse mask.

Cayuse, late-19th century horse mask made of wool and muslin cloth, glass seed beads, feathers and human hair. A cluster of imitation sage grouse tail feathers accented with spots of ermine fur and dyed rooster hackles has been added, since the original ornamentation was missing. Private collection.

The masking of horses by Native Americans is thought to derive from the practice of horse armoring, including metal face guards or chanfrons used by the Spanish Conquistadors when they made landfall in North America. Beginning with Coronado’s expedition of 1540-1541, the Apaches and Pueblos would have the first opportunity to observe the utility of horse masks as they defended themselves against attacks by the Spaniards in search of the mythical El Dorado. Native American horse masks appeared soon after, and were customarily fashioned of tanned buffalo leather or fabric and bedecked with fur, horn, feather, metal, bead and quill ornamentation. While not as protective as a metal mask, they would have offered some physical protection to a horse’s sensitive face in battle.

Historical interpretation suggests only the leaders of war parties rode masked horses. A demonstration of stature and power, the masked—facially armored—horses have also been likened to modern day tanks,  i.e. used to furrow through ground troops creating an avenue of attack for subsequent warriors.  Additionally, the horse masks were believed to divine spiritual protection via the inclusion of cosmological symbols and talismans and it is perhaps this psychological element of warfare that imparted the masks greatest value to its owner.

Cheyenne Scouts in 1806” painting by Winfield Coleman.

Motifs used on Native American horse masks were physical manifestations of the spiritual status of the user. Not everyone could avail themselves of the status and protection of a mask adorned with symbolism to invoke providence. The mask and its emblems were part of an ensemble also depicted in a warrior’s headdress, shield, lance and other weaponry. The divine right to employ certain symbols or items, such as the horns of a buffalo or pronghorn antelope, were earned by individuals through extensive vigils, prayer and meditation. Sometimes a vision, dream or event (e.g. a notable storm near birth, etc.) in childhood or young adulthood would bestow such privilege on an individual.  To use such a symbol without the blessing of the power behind it was tempting retribution from the deities. Only in consort with such entities would the leather, cloth, bead, feather, fur and metal insignia manifest into the boom of thunder, the flash of lightning and the invulnerability of horse and rider to the arrows, lances and even bullets of the enemy. Widely represented on horse masks, entities found in the cosmology of many Native Americans included those of the generally benevolent Above World (thunder, stars, sun and moon) and often malevolent Below World (depths of the earth and water and associated monsters). The Above and Below Worlds and the deities that inhabited them were observed, by virtue of the tornadoes, hailstorms and other weather to be in perpetual struggle with one another. A primary deity of the Above World, Thunder, was also known as the Raptor of War, a huge eagle or “Thunderbird.” Below World was inhabited by chimeras of frightening composition, such as fanged, man-eating buffalo bulls, horned serpents and water panthers.

The trappings of horse masks were carefully constructed to harness these supernatural powers. Historians have identified several key elements on many masks and determined or inferred their meanings. Representing lightning, vibrant zig-zag lines often originating at the eye and sometimes terminating in a forked “talon,” are common features of many surviving horse masks. Native Americans observed that lightning emanated both from the ground up and sky down, something photographic stop-motion film would later clearly confirm. As such, both the Above World Thunderbird and Below World creatures could hurl lightening from their eyes in “glances of death.”

Fully beaded mask of the Lakota.

Fully beaded mask of the Lakota (ca. 1905). All of the beads are of Venetian origin. The mask is made  with a single piece of smoked buffalo skin entirely covered in lane stitch beadwork. Usually flag stripes are shown as straight lines, but here the artist has sought to create the effect of cloth rippling in the wind. For the photograph, a cluster of stripped turkey tail feathers has been added to show the mask more as the artist originally intended.

In other masks, stylistic triangle beading conveys this same lightning glance. The attachment of small decorative mirrors, shiny brass buttons, small hawk bells, and even larger sleigh bells served multiple means. Decorative and showy in themselves, when animated by a horse’s movement they glinted and shone, throwing light in unpredictable patterns that could momentarily disorient or blind an opponent. Often affixed around the eyes, the bells and buttons created a theatrical effect approximating the ejection of ocular lighting by Above and Below World entities.  The larger bells also mimicked the sound of approaching thunder on a moving horse, a meaningful effect and widely understood precursor to a deadly lightning strike.

Bullets were likened to particularly powerful hail, the latter another weapon of the Thunderbird. Dots or circles of fabric, bead or paint as well as metal disks or buttons symbolized hail on many horse masks. This appliqué “hail” was perhaps employed to fashion from one’s own steed a genuine Thunder Horse, a power of the Above World impervious to the deadly hail of the enemy’s bullets. Metallic adornments representing hail may be vestiges of the Spanish chanfrons or other metal tack of the Old World.

In addition to metal “hail” mask embellishments, heavily silvered headstalls were also used by Native Americans, the reflective nature valued both metaphorically and physically in battle. Perhaps also initially inspired by Spanish tack, it is interesting to note the popularity of silver adorned tack to this day in casual and, notably, competitive western equestrian events. How many of today’s western pleasure riders are aware that their silver bridles originated in tack developed to offer both physical and talisman-induced protection from enemies as well as a competitive advantage in conflict! Further, any observer of western pleasure and equitation events is aware that the more competitive the event, the more silver-laden is the show tack!

Close up detail of fully beaded mask of the Lakota.

Another common element of larger horse masks with neck drapes are human handprints, the number of which denoted the enemies the horse had trampled and killed in warfare (handprints were also regularly painted on unmasked war horses). Brightly colored and placed on the breast and neck of the horse, such handprints and the message they imparted would no doubt have intimidated an enemy even before contact. Were this not enough, scalps and hair of vanquished enemies were hung below the lower jaw of the warhorse, invoking the power and presence of the man-eating Below World beasts.

Though male warriors employed horse masks in fighting, women are thought to have been the artisans that envisioned and crafted these early works of wearable art. A wife or sister’s handiwork would serve to both protect her beloved rider as well as bring him success in battle by empowering his mount with spiritual guardians. Like other Native American beading done by women, including that found on horse collars and bridles, a particular woman’s signature style of beadwork or penchant for a shape or pattern are discernible in many of the surviving masks, though sadly very few can be attributed to a specific individual. As their utility diminished in warfare, mask use became more exclusively ceremonial, routinely observed ornamenting parade horses. More recent mask design seems to reflect this more decorative use, as some elements—such as lighting strike motifs—became more stylized and abbreviated, though no less stunning in composition. There is some evidence that women of high status through marriage, and perhaps their own wherewithal, gained the privilege of masking their riding horses.

Painting by Winfield Coleman.

Though Native American horse masks may be deconstructed through study to bear the fruits of scholarly understanding, the masks represent art in its purest form—the interpretation of which is unique to one’s individual experience, emotions and cultural milieu. As such, these artifacts may never reveal to modern experience the full expression of their historical significance or emotional content. Nonetheless, the masks are a treasure to those seeking to understand and appreciate the history of horses in North America and their place in Native American culture. Today, lucky observers of western heritage events may still see Native American men and women riding mounts adorned with traditional tack, including the spectacular Native American horse mask.

This article was both inspired and directly informed by American Indian Horse Masks by Mike Cowdry and Ned and Jody Martin with contributions by Winfield Coleman, Hawk Hill Press, 2006.

(Originally published in the March/April 2012 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).