Horses have been depicted in art throughout out history. Often horses appear in war related paintings or according to their roles as transportation. Contemporary horse art is often focused on past traditions such as those held in historic depictions of Native American or cowboy art of the American West. because horses no longer function as a primary means of transportation, they are not represented in modern art so frequently as they once were. However, the symbol of the horse in Native American and cowboy paintings remains potent.
It is almost impossible to separate the imagery of horses from historic Native American life. Indeed, especially for the Plains Indians, horses were essential components of life. Many Indian tribes incorporated horses into daily living whether during a hunt or for the sake of traveling. As in many other parts of the world, horses were used in battle as well. Paintings depicting Indian battle scenes will almost always include horses. A recurrent theme of Native American horse art is the symbiotic relationship between the horse and its master. The value of Native American people giving honor and respect to nature can be witnessed in many paintings of rider and horse moving in union—whether on the battlefield, during the hunt, or simply trotting through a rocky brook.
Cowboys of the Historic American West and modern cowboys alike are intrinsically linked with horses. The traditional view of a cowboy is a man ready to mount his horse at any moment. Their outfit was designed for horse-riding. Similar to the symbiotic relationship often depicted between an Indian and his horse is the cowboy and his horse. The concept of a cowboy originally meant a cow-herder from the tradition of a Mexican vaquero. Cowboys tended cattle and performed other ranch-hand duties. This picture of a strong and rugged cowboy of course evolved the historic ranch-hand into something much more legendary. Stoic and gritty cowboys played by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne cemented the figure of a super-hero-like cowboy into the public eye. Whether artists are playing off the legendary killer cowboy or something more historical, the cowboy’s horse is as connected to the man as his own shadow.
The horse in cowboy, Native American, or other American West settings often came to represent certain symbolic significance. In battle scenes the horses are captured in striking action poses. The make-up of a horse demands attention to be paid to the musculature structure the beast. The gleaming coat of the horse often highlights the strength and the beauty of bulging muscles. Horses are naturally beautiful and attractive animals, so they often serve to represent strength and beauty. Horses can also function as a link between humanity and nature. For many people in history, the mantra that a horse is a man’s best friend, fits better than their canine counterparts. Because their livelihood depended on it, Indians and cowboys alike developed intense bonds with their equine partners. Horses were tamed and trained by humans. Subsequently the horse in art can represent both the human or domesticated part and the wild natural part.