In the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves, I want to examine the symbolism behind the markings plains Indians painted on their horses. It is commonly believed that Indians only painted their horses for battle, but they were also painted before buffalo hunts. Specific symbols were reserved for hunting to display a horse's past achievements, and bring protection and good luck to the horse and rider. Watch this clip on YouTube that features the character John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) riding with the Lakota warriors to a buffalo hunt, and pay attention to the symbols painted on the horses.
On Dunbar's horse, named Cisco, there were zig-zag patterns painted on his legs. These symbols represented lightning bolts that gave honor to the lightning god and were believed to give the horse greater speed.
Kicking Bird's horse, the white horse in the group, had a ring painted around its eye and blue patches with white dots on its shoulder and rump. The ring around the eye was meant to enhanced the horse's vision while the blue with the dots represented the buffalo tracks in the ground, which indicated the horse had participated in successful buffalo hunts in the past.
Wind in His Hair's horse, a dark bay, had horseshoes on its hind quarters and a hand print on its shoulder. The horseshoe symbols showed how many other horses this horse helped steal from rival tribes and European settlers. It was common for plains Indians to steal horses to enlarge their own tribe's herd. The hand print on the shoulder meant that the horse brought its owner back from a previous dangerous mission.
Other hunting symbols that could be painted on horses were a circle around the nostril to enhance the horse's sense of smell; a fence painted on the jaw to keep the good luck from escaping from the mouth; a buffalo painted on the shoulder gave thanks to the Great Spirit for past kills; yellow triangles on the hooves made the horse more sure-footed and nimble; and the sun was to wish for good weather as it was dishonorable to hunt during bad conditions.
Paint colors did have some meaning to individual tribes, such as red for the color of blood and blue for the color of wisdom, but individuals would use what ever colors were available at the time with no special meaning. Colors were usually made out of different colored soils, charcoal, and flowers; and then were mixed with something to help it stick, such as animal fat or urine.
Here are some fun facts about the buffalo hunt scene in Dances with Wolves:
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.