A guide to the meaning of symbols painted on horses
Since so many people here on Spirit Source have Native American horse characters, I figured this article might be helpful. However, I would like to stress that my only source of information is the Internet, so I’m fully aware that some of what I write may be inaccurate. That being said, I still feel that some degree of research and information into this topic is better than nothing at all, so hopefully this may be of some help to people, even as a starting point for further research. What’s more, if you have more knowledge in this area, please feel free to offer more information or correct inaccuracies in the text in the comments below.
Ok, so I thought it would be helpful to have a handy guide about Paint Symbols on Native American horses. Please note; there is a lot of ambiguity about the specific meanings of many symbols, and the meanings vary between tribes and peoples. Since 98% of the Native American horses here on SS will be Lakota horses, I’ve tried to focus my research on Lakota symbols.
Why Paint Horses?
When the Native Americans painted symbols on their horses, they weren’t doing it just to make their animals look attractive. Each symbol had a different meaning, and many of them were meant to help the horse in battle/hunting etc. The symbols often had magical or spiritual significance.
There are many reasons why Native American tribes painted symbols on their horses. The most common reason is warfare. The horses would be painted before battle with symbols to make them faster, stronger, braver etc, and they would be painted after battle to show their rider’s victory/defeat, where the horse was wounded, how many enemies were killed etc.
But war isn’t the only reason they painted their horses. Some horses were painted with medicine symbols. Others were used for hunting, so they were decorated with symbols to ensure a successful hunt.
War Horse symbols
These symbols were often painted on war horses before or after battle. All of the information below in “” is quoted directly from this website.
“A circle around the horse's eye and nostrils for alert vision and a keen sense of smell.
Arrow points in a line which brought victory.
Thunder stripes in the horse's front legs to please the Indian's god of war.
Arrowheads on all four hooves made the horse swift and nimble-footed.
Fire Arrows would cause trouble for the enemy, which in turn would add strength to the warrior.
Right/left hand prints were outlined upon the horse's chest, which showed that he'd knocked down an enemy.
Hail Stones 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 were drawn on the horses and stood for the number of horses captured in raids.
The horse's Battle Scars (always painted red) and the Pat Hand Print (left hand drawn on the horse's right hip) were the highest honors. The Pat Hand Print was always reserved exclusively for the horse who had brought his master back home from a dangerous mission unharmed.
For the men who would be going on a do-or-die mission, the Upside-down Handprint would be used. It was the most prized symbol a warrior could place on his horse. “
This information is quoted from this website.
“The long zig-zag lines symbolize lightning to add power and speed to the horse."
Meaning of Horse War Paint Colors
"There were so many tribes of Native American Indians it is only possible to generalise the most common meanings of the colors and patterns of Horse War Paint, Body Paint or Face Paint.
- Red Color Symbolised war, blood, strength, energy and power
- Black was used to symbolize victory and might be applied to the horse before returning home to the camp
- White Color Symbolised mourning but might also mean peace
- Blue Color Symbolised wisdom and confidence
- Yellow Color Symbolised the color of death. Yellow indicated that the wearer and horse were brave and were willing to fight to the death
- Green Color Symbolised endurance, and is seen as a great healing power and believed to improve vision - green circles might be painted around the eyes of a horse
- Purple color symbolised power, mystery and magic”
For more information about War paint on Native American horses, visit these websites:
Hunting Horse symbols
Native American horses weren’t just painted up for warfare. They were also painted for hunting. The following information is quoted directly from this website.
“Since the Indian hunting horse had different duties than that of a war horse, a different set of symbols were used to aid the hunting horse and his rider.
Designed to help the Indian hunter in finding the buffalo herd, many of these symbols also brought favor from the Great Spirit. The Indian hunter's wife had the privilege of painting his hunting horse, and if he was unmarried, that privilege was his mother's.
Sun of Happiness, a most important symbol, was used to insure blue skies. Indians never hunted during a rainstorm because they considered it unfair to the Great Spirit and to the buffalo.
Circle of Vision was the symbol painted around the horse's eye to give keen sight and let him be the first to see the distant buffalo.
A Fence symbol was placed on the horse's jaw to help keep in the good luck.
The Sacred Buffalo symbol was to show the Great Spirit that the hunter was thankful for his past kills.
An Arrow of Swiftness was painted on the horse's legs to give him speed.
Buffalo Tracks were painted over the horse's hips symbolizing other good hunting times.
And After placing her hunter's symbols on the hunting horse, the woman would draw a "secret" prayer on the horse's hindquarters. This prayer was never explained prior to the hunt, and if her hunter came home successful, she proudly would tell the meaning of her symbols. “
For more information, and to see pictures of the symbols mentioned above, go to this website: