- United States
Artist not known, Crow Tribe
Denver Art Museum Collection
Saddle Blanket 1985.108, Rope 1985.178, Small Rawhide Case 1985.84, Gift of the Estates of L.D and Ruth Bax
Saddle 1950.66, Bridle 1945.249, Crupper 1950.66, Large Rawhide Case 1940.163, Formerly in L.D & Ruth Bax Collection
Collar 1936.81, Girth Strap Fringe 1965.424
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
- Mixed media
About the Artist
These elaborate horse trappings were decorated by an unknown Crow woman. The Crow are an American Indian tribe who originally lived on the Great Plains, an area roughly between the Rocky Mountains and the Missouri River, from Texas up to southern Canada. Beadwork is one of the dominant Crow decorative art forms. Various design elements distinguish the Crow style of the late 1800s from designs used by other tribes. During this time, Crow beadworkers used mostly geometric forms including rectangles, diamonds, and triangles in their art. The isosceles triangle (with two sides equal in length) is a hallmark of their style. This shape appears either alone or as two triangles joined at the tip, forming a shape that looks like an hourglass. Beadworkers used a wide range of colors and often outlined solid shapes with beads of a contrasting color. The woman (or women) who decorated these horse trappings, for example, outlined the shapes with white beads. Black was very rarely used in Crow beadwork.
What Inspired It
Horses were re-introduced in North America by the Spanish in the 1500s, and the Crow began acquiring horses through trade in the 1700s. The arrival of horses allowed nomadic tribes to carry heavier loads and travel greater distances, covering more ground when they hunted. As horses became increasingly appreciated, functional horse trappings, like saddles and bridles, evolved into beautifully decorated costumes for show at parades and celebrations. Horses were outfitted in costumes like these only on special occasions. Though the Crow developed their own style for decorating horse trappings, ornamental gear continued to bear some resemblance to Spanish trappings from the 1600s.
Beads were also acquired through trade with Europeans beginning in the early 1700s. Crow women used the beads to decorate everything from clothing to horse trappings, and they became well-known for their skillful beadwork. They developed their own unique style, which changed over the years from more geometric patterns (like those seen on this horse costume) to floral-based designs. Beading revolutionized American Indian art, allowing for tremendous variation in design and color.
The first glass beads came all the way from Venice and Czechoslovakia, where they were manufactured. Beadwork was popular among the Crow, and women excelled at creating beautiful, colorful patterns.
The isosceles triangle is one of the hallmarks of Crow beadwork from the late 1800s and can be found throughout the entire horse outfit. White beads outline the triangles, separating the various bright colors that were used. Notice how the triangles appear in many different sizes.
When the Crow traded for horses with the Spanish, they sometimes received horse equipment as well. The form of this saddle was inspired by the construction of Spanish saddles.
The Crow painting style of the 1700s greatly influenced their geometric beadwork. The painted designs on the two cylindrical containers that hang off of the saddle are made up of isosceles triangles, similar to patterns in the beadwork on other parts of the outfit. The triangles are outlined by areas of the surface that were left unpainted. These containers were used to store and carry special possessions. The long fringes attached to one of the containers added to its attractiveness when it was suspended from a saddle, as seen here.
The ropes are made of out leather and bison hair and are used for securing loads onto pack horses. Notice the decorative ball-shapes at each end of the rope.
Once the horse was saddled and the rider was in position, only the ornamental bands on this saddle blanket would be visible.
The Crow used woolen trade cloth extensively, both for practical purposes and as a design element. Pieces of cloth were often integrated into beadwork designs to save time in dealing with large areas and to provide variation in color and pattern.
The bridle is covered in more geometric beading. Attached to the bridle is a circular piece that lies on the forehead of the horse. This piece is also decorated with beads and is edged with stiff horsehair. A triangular section made of tassels falls above the horse’s nostrils. The metal fringe that hangs down below the horse’s mouth shows a Spanish influence.
The forked pommel tells us that this is a woman’s saddle.
Women sometimes added ornamental flaps to the outside of their stirrups, while men’s stirrups were typically not decorated—more evidence that this horse gear was made for a woman.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Horses were an important part of the Crow people’s everyday life. Have the students think of an animal that is important to their own life and have them make an outfit for that animal as if it were going to be in a parade.