An American Indian warrior often painted his favorite war pony with the same pattern and colors he used for his own face and body, when preparing for journeys into enemy territory. A painted pony always carried a message about his rider and sometimes about the quality of the animal bearing the marks.
Horses were painted on both sides, each side telling the same story. Painted symbols included circles around one or both eyes of the horse (to improve the horse’s vision) and long zig-zag lines symbolizing lightning (adding power and speed to terrify the enemy.) These combined symbols were understood to build upon each other… the horse’s improved vision giving access to draw upon the lightning’s tremendous power.
The total effect of a painted warrior and his pony was often stunning and made a striking impression upon all those who witnessed them. One such impression comes handed down to us from an aged Crow warrior, who vividly recalls a Sioux warrior he had encountered as a small boy. The Sioux warrior and his horse were completely covered in bright blue paint with white dots. It was a memory the boy carried with him all his life.
Different tribes evolved a few exploit symbols which were uniquely their own, but in many cases shared common symbols painted in different colors. For example, the Sioux Indians used red paint for hand prints while the Crow used white.
Golden eagle feathers were considered sacred and were often tied to the mane and /or tail of a war pony. It was a common plains custom to tie up a horse’s tail when preparing for battle. Horse tails were often tied in a simple knot, but sometimes folded and bound with buckskin thongs or red trade cloth. Fringes and feathers were added for a more spectacular effect.