Decorated Bridles: Horse Tack in Plains Biographic Rock Art

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Decorated horse bridles are probably the most common horse tack shown in Plains biographic art. Painted on robes, drawn in ledgers, and incised or painted as rock art from northern Mexico to southern Alberta, these images illustrate the emphasis placed on horse finery by Plains and Southwestern Indian cultures. Rock art is replete with these decorated bridles. A cursory literature review identified more than 25 sites with illustrated examples, located from northern Mexico through nine of the United States and into southern Canada at Writing-On-Stone, Alberta. Given the number of these rock art images and the wealth of comparative material from historical sources and recently published robe art and ledger drawings, we have identified and described seven distinct types of bridle decorations in Plains rock art. These decorations provide clues to ethnic identity of the artists and illuminate the extent of trade networks and intertribal alliances that extended across the region and into the American Southwest.

Keywords: biographic rock art; horse tack in rock art; Plains rock art; ledger art; robe art.

Decorated bridles are one of the most common pieces of horse tack shown in Plains biographic art. Painted on robes, drawn in ledgers, and incised or painted as rock art from northern Mexico to southern Alberta, these images illustrate the emphasis placed on horse finery by Plains cultures and compose a significant element of the biographic art lexicon, where they were most frequently used to connote a pony dressed up for war.1 At least one of these decorations also served as horse medicine because it was imbued with magical qualities that protected the horse (Wissler 1912:107; Ewers 1955:277-278). In some cases, these decorations also provide clues to ethnic identity of the artists and demonstrate the extent of trade networks and intertribal alliances that linked Plains societies to one another and to those in neighboring regions.

Plains rock art is replete with decorated bridles. A cursory literature review identified more than 25 sites with illustrated examples of this motif, extending from the Mexican state of Coahuila through six of the Plains states and into southern Canada at Writing-On-Stone, Alberta (Figure 1, Table 1). They also occur in the historic rock art of the American Southwest at at least seven sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. First recognized in rock art at Chaco Canyon (Brugge 1976) and at Writing-On-Stone (Keyser 1977:43), decorated bridles have subsequently been noted at sites throughout the Plains and adjacent areas (Schaafsma 1980:330; Keyser 1984:17,1987:57-58; Turpin 1989a:106; Cole 1990:230-231; Klassen 1995; Labadie et al. 1997; Mitchell 1998; Stewart 1992; Brugge 1999; Keyser and Klassen 2001). One particular type-a Blackfeet horse medicine bundle-- was the subject of a short research note (Keyser 1991).

Given the increased number of these recently recognized rock art images and the wealth of comparative material from both historical sources and recently published robe art and ledger drawings (e.g. Maurer 1992; Berlo 1996; Keyser 1996; Afton et al. 1997), it is now possible to recognize seven distinct types of bridle decorations in Plains rock art. These are described and discussed below.

A THING TO TIE ON THE HALTER

Shaped like a large comb or rake and positioned immediately in front of the horse's nose or pendant from its lower jaw, this characteristic bridle decoration represents a horse medicine bundle known by the Blackfeet as "a thing to tie on the halter" (Keyser 1991).2 Discussed and described by Wissler (1912,1913) and Ewers (1955), this medicine bundle was thought by the Blackfeet to give a horse protection from the enemy by increasing its speed and sure-footedness and making it bullet (or arrow) proof. Most of the ten known rock art occurrences have been illustrated (Keyser 1977:77, 1991:264; Keyser and Klassen 2001), but there are a few pertinent additions to the original 1991 article. …