Devotion to the horse is part of Diné craft history. Adornments, for saddles and bridles used for ceremonial and social events highlight the proficiency that was learned from different cultural mentors. Of the many horse related items one that stands out is the intricately woven saddle blankets that boast either simple and complex geometric motifs. These blankets are on display in a long-term exhibit, They Wove for Horses: Diné Saddle Blankets at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Culturally, the Diné honor the horse in traditional stories, songs and ceremonies. Their horseman heritage goes back to the Spanish when horses were introduced to the region in the 16th or early 17th century. Once the horse became a part of Diné lifestyle, hunting, trade, raids and mobility increased. When the Spanish retreated during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, thousands of Spanish barbs were left behind, and the Diné and other tribes increased their herds, which was a sign of prestige.
The blankets that are on display date back to from 1860 to 2002 and are arranged by weaving method that include: tapestry weave, two-faced double weave and twill weaves of diagonal, diamond and herringbone patterns. A variety of yarns were used—natural wool, cotton, angora mohair, unraveled bayeta and Germantown—which weavers added their own personal touch to the designs.
Historically, before the Spanish arrived, the Diné used sheepskin or angora mohair hides as saddle pads or bedrolls. But when the Spanish introduced them to domesticated sheep, they began to weave saddle blankets in tufted mohair style. These early blankets had two warps with woven rows that alternated between natural-colored yarns plain- or diagonal-weaves and tufts of mohair or wool. The result was a pelt-like textile commonly used by women, either on top of a saddle or on the ground as a bedroll.
Later with these plain weave tapestry blankets evolved into geometric motifs—both simple and complex designs. Some of the blankets had two-faced designs. In a Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing by Roseann S. Willink and Paul G. Zolbrod (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1997), the authors wrote that the Diné who examined a two-faced saddle blanket would draw different interpretations from each side. Stripes were viewed as a rainbow against the white background. Geometric designs held various interpretations such as middle motifs might be considered male and female, lifelines or numerical symbols. The straight stems were viewed as childhood and old age intersected by the circular shape of adulthood.
Other examples of Diné craftsmanship for horse trappings include tanned leather embellished with silver ornaments. This technique was most likely acquired from outside sources until the Diné became more skilled and made it their own. Among the leather goods that were improved were saddles. String cinches were replaced with elaborate woven straps with designs as complex as the woven blankets that went under the saddles to provide padding so that the cinches could shift when traveling on rough terrain. For the most part, hand-woven blankets were made more to show-off and placed over the saddles for special events. However, regardless of their artistic evolution and use, saddle blankets were not highly looked upon by historians and collectors as other early Diné woven textiles, such as chief blankets, women's dresses, and sarapes.
Today much of the accouterments specifically made for horses from bridles to blankets are the staple of many Diné artisans’ livelihoods.
For more information, please visit the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture at www.indianartsandculture.org.