What I Learned From the Knowledge Keepers

Picture courtesy of Emily Dickson

BY Emily Dickson

Members of the Apsáalooke (Crow), Pikuni (Blackfeet) and Aaniih (Gros Ventre) tribes gathered at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, MT, to kick off Native American Heritage Month with a storytelling and traditional horse painting ceremony. 

As a lifelong horse person, when I heard about this event only 10 days prior to its start, I was immediately filled with a “full body yes” response. Something in my soul told me that I had to attend, so I booked a flight from Colorado to Montana, amidst the hunting tourists that flood Bozeman this time of year, with my Nikon camera in tow. 

I was prepared to feel awe and learn something new. The Native American tribes have always felt familiar to me, intriguing, and full of mysticism. 

I was unprepared to leave and ask myself “Are we really caring for horses the right way today?”

Let me explain. 

Angelina Toineeta – Picture courtesy of Emily Dickson

The storytelling event opened with event organizer and visionary, Angelina Toineeta, a freshman American Indian student at MSU, explaining that “Horses are our relatives.” She elaborated, and many other American Indians who spoke after her emphasized the same points: Horses are very special creatures, Nature is family, and that horses would take care of us if we take care of them. The underlying message of the day was reciprocity

Other storytellers continued, declaring that the American Indian culture’s survival and resilience comes from the horse. They explained that without good horses, historically, they would not have been able to eat. Their best horses earned the title of “buffalo horse,” and these horses ensured that the people never went hungry. 

The tribes painted their horses as a sign of honor. The Knowledge Keepers were those that held the rites and the privilege of painting the horse. It was not a job for everyone, only for the Horse Keepers, who had learned how to fully bless the animal from their ancestors. 

When warriors went to war or out on a hunt, or even during courtship, the Knowledge Keepers would paint the horse as a blessing for safety, protection, long life, good health, and success. This blessing would also be bestowed over the rider. It was a great honor for you and your buffalo horse to be painted. 

Each symbol and color painted held meaning. There were no mistakes or coincidences. For example, a lightning bolt painted down the legs symbolized strength and agility. The color blue indicated the heavens above. Three stripes were painted on the horses’ legs so that if an enemy was knocked off their horse during war and killed, their spirit could not climb up the horse.

Horses’ eyes were painted with rings to bless them with the gift of clear sight. Ears were painted so the horses could hear enemies and wild animals clearly and quickly. The forehead was painted for mental clarity. The feet were painted so that the horse could see badger holes while riding across the prairie at full speed. 

Each stroke of paint had a purpose and an associated blessing.

When horses were bestowed with regalia, hand beaded by multi-generational families, each piece was designed and crafted as a means of armor and protection. Whether that protection was to provide relief from flies or from arrows being shot, the horse’s tack was all meaningful.  

Regalia was also a way to honor the horse. Families wanted their beloved four-legged partners to look good, as it symbolized care. After all, horses were part of their family. 

Picture courtesy of Emily Dickson

So why do I wonder if we care for horses correctly these days? 

After watching the two-hour demonstration and listening to the stories and wisdom of the Knowledge Keepers, I was filled with so much admiration, not only for these beautiful people, but also for the horse. 

I’m a lifelong horse person, so this is not necessarily a surprise, but even I find myself sometimes taking them for granted. 

When I look at our industry these days, I can’t help but wonder if more and more people are taking the horse for granted. Horses are mostly no longer a necessity for survival. We have motorized vehicles, we hunt without them, they are no longer the means of impressing a girl you are going on a date with (although, I would be impressed). 

I believe this is why the American ranching lifestyle holds so much allure. On ranches, horses are viewed as a partner, they are integral to the daily operations, and the ranch respects this partnership. I believe that horses are so intertwined in our human history that we feel a deep connection to them and when we are reminded of that, our inner barometers of passion are cranked up.

For those of us who ride and show recreationally and competitively, I have to wonder: 

Do we honor these animals as the American Indians do? 

When you win a jumping class, do you thank your horse? Do you bless them? 

Before travel with horses, loading them on the trailer, or asking them to perform, do you adequately prepare them? 

When your horse is ‘off’ or just not having a great day, do you fight with them, or do you honor that sometimes you also have ‘off’ days? 

Do you know the purpose behind each piece of tack that you use? Or are you just using it due to trend or because someone told you to?

When your horses are injured or ill, do you complain about it, or do you care for them with the gentleness that you would offer a family member?

Do you adorn your horses with love and care? Or do you dread the grooming and tacking process? 

Don’t get me wrong, I have room for improvement as well. I’ve certainly had days where I pick a fight rather than honor the process. I’ve had days where I have no business being at the barn because I’m in a foul mood and it rubs off on my horse. I’ve had days where I contemplate if my life would be easier without horses.

Everyone has had those days.

The Knowledge Keepers reminded me that the horse is part of our history and part of our soul. 

So yes, we are human and will inevitably commit imperfect actions. 

I am simply suggesting that we take a cue from the Wise Ones amongst us. 

May we move forward with grace, with care, with love, and with clarity that our sport is so much more than just a sport. 

It is an opportunity to dance with the Sacred: The Horse.