Power Of The Plains

Part of the Horse exhibition.

The Native and First Nations people of the North American Plains are known for their matchless horsemanship. In fact, horses shaped nearly every step of Plains life for some two centuries.

The Crow, Lakota, Blackfeet, and other Plains tribes first took up riding around 300 years ago, on horses captured by other tribes from Spanish herds in the American Southwest. In a short time, the people of the Plains learned to travel, hunt, and fight battles on horseback. In this new world of freedom and movement, the power of the horse was incomparable. A fine horse could make a great hunter or warrior, and many horses could make a rich man.

crow horse
Crow Woman's Horse Gear.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

Crow Woman's Horse Gear

In the 1800s, the Crow people of the northern Plains kept some of the area's largest horse herds. The Crow traveled long distances to trade with allies, exchanging horses for other valuable goods. When a band moved camp, a wealthy Crow woman would adorn her horse head to tail with beautifully beaded buffalo or buckskin trappings. Women made their own saddles and bridles, though Spanish bits with dangling trim were traded from tribe to tribe.

Stolen Away

In many Plains tribes, a family's wealth was measured in horses, and some owned more than 100 at a time. A man could win status by stealing a prized horse or a herd from an enemy. Anyone who achieved such a feat might record it with a painting on buffalo hide. This buffalo hide picture from the 1800s shows a Lakota man capturing horses.

Better Together

Horses once played a role in almost every aspect of Native life on the Plains, including courtship. A man who wanted to marry might give handsome horses to his sweetheart's family, or present a horse to the girl herself and ask her to elope. When courting, young men and women often rode double, as shown in this picture drawn by a Cheyenne artist in the late 1800s.

Crow Fair

Horses and riders parade their finery each year at the Crow Fair, a five-day celebration of Crow culture. At a traditional event called a give-away, a man or woman may celebrate an achievement by giving away a spirited horse.