• Notes From The Frontier

Indian Warhorse Paint


In Native American cultures, horses meant power, wealth and survival. To paint a horse for battle or for a buffalo hunt was a sacred act, believed to enhance power for both horse and rider—spiritually and physically. It was serious business and could mean life or death.

Although the symbolism of war horse painting was not monolithic across native cultures, there were some prevalent themes. The most common link was the belief of kinship with nature, the earth and all its animals, and the conviction that nature imparted a vital power in the paints themselves and the symbols too, brought power to horse and rider.

Symbols were usually drawn from nature. A handprint meant vengeance against an enemy or, sometimes, indicated success in hand combat. Zigzags represented thunder that symbolized speed and stealth, or sometimes indicated harmony with the war spirits in the sky, who foretold Native victory on the ground. Hail markings predicted the enemy’s defeat and misfortune. Circles around the horse’s eye or nostril strengthened its senses for battle. Painted horse hooves symbolized successful raids or sometimes the number of horses stolen. A cross meant the rider had escaped an ambush. Slashes of color across a horse’s face indicated the successful defeat of an enemy village.

Paints were derived from animal, plant, or mineral sources. Colors held significant meanings:


RED symbolized strength in battle and hunting, power, success. And because hunting and success in battle meant survival of the tribe, it also symbolized happiness and beauty. Red paints were made from iron oxides, roots, berries, beets, and ochre.


BLACK, made from charcoal mixed with bear grease or other liquid, was the color of battle and meant strength, coup in battle, and returning to camp victorious. The Crow blackened their own faces and sometimes the faces of their horses to show the fire of revenge had been vanquished with their enemy.


WHITE was the color of peace, prosperity, safety. But it could also mean mourning. Made from gypsum, limestone, clay, eggshells or seashells. Pawnee painted their faces white to acquire the hunting power of the wolf and sometimes painted their horses’ faces, too, for protection and survival in battle.


GREEN, not surprisingly, was the color of nature, of harmony, of survival, and healing. Made from moss, flowers, berries, algae, or copper ore.


BLUE was associated with the sky and water, and evoked wisdom and confidence, hope. It was created often from duck manure, but also sunflower seeds, flowers, or oxides.



YELLOW had different meanings. It could mean death and that the warrior was willing to fight to the death. It also symbolized intelligence, a strong heart and that the warrior lived a good life. In the Southwest, yellow was created from the Bixa shrub near Mexico. Plains Indians used buffalo gallstones to produce yellow.


PURPLE was associated with magic, mystery, and spiritual power and was not generally used for battle, but by shaman and medicine men and women for spiritual ceremonies. Blueberries, coneflowers, and wild hibiscus were used for purple pigments.



Very early on, native tribes began to trade with fur traders and valued certain pigments that they could provide. The Osage Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw traded in the mid-1600s near St. Louis for Chinese vermilion, a very bright mercury sulfide paint.


Horses were painted for battle, buffalo hunting and celebrations of victorious battles and successful horse raids or hunts. It was not only a sacred ritual, but a means of creative and artistic expression. Fearsome warriors and their mighty warhorses in brilliant splashes of color were spectacular sights to behold and some U.S. soldiers of the Indian Wars wrote in their journals of the pomp and color that bedecked the enemy warriors and their mounts on the battlefield.

There are few archival photographs capturing Native Americans on their painted war horses. But Native ledgers of battles have documented warriors and their battle mounts in full regalia.


Paint was power and the act of painting a war horse was a sacred act, like a prayer to the creator or a behest to nature to unify strength and spirit and galvanize horse and warrior as one in battle. It was a prayer for survival too.

For related posts, see:


• In Honor of a Magnificent Warhorse

• For the Love of Horses

• The History of Appaloosas

• Angela’s Awesome Art


© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

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  • Notes From the Frontier