They Wove for Horses:

Diné Saddle Blankets


Before the arrival of the horse, foot travel was a constant challenge for the Diné and other tribes in the vast Southwest. When horses were introduced to the region by Spaniards in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, the lifestyle and culture of the Diné dramatically changed. Horses came to provide not only mobility but also increased opportunities for hunting, trade, raiding, and advancement. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Spanish colonizers retreated and left behind thousands of Spanish-bred horses—primarily Spanish barbs—in the Rio Grande area. This was an opportune time for the Diné and other tribes to increase their herds and their standing. For men, owning horses meant added prestige, as well as an important means to better provide for and defend families or extended clan families.Oral history demonstrates the impact of the horse on the Diné way of life. The Diné have honored it in traditional stories, songs, and ceremonies that recognize the ways the horse has sustained and benefited the Diné people for centuries. The horse also required and inspired the production of innovative, beautiful, and practical tack, accoutrements, and adornments.

Diné saddle blankets

Before saddle blankets, sheepskin or angora mohair hides were used as saddle pads and bedrolls. As the Diné acquired domesticated sheep from Spanish colonists, they began to weave saddle blankets, first in a tufted mohair style. These early blankets had two warps with woven rows that alternated between natural-colored yarns in plain or diagonal weaves and tufts of mohair or wool. The result was a peltlike textile commonly used by women, either on top of a saddle or on the ground as a bedroll.

In time, plain-weave tapestry blankets evolved into geometric motifs, and designs ranged from simple, as in banded patterns, to complex, as in the various twills and double and two-faced weaves, and patterns with elaborate borders and geometric and pictorial motifs. The blankets were woven with a variety of materials including Germantown yarn from Pennsylvania, Bayeta yarns created from Bayeta trade cloth imported from Mexico or Spain, and yarn from Diné flocks.

Yet despite their artistic evolution and widespread use, saddle blankets have not been as highly regarded by historians and collectors as other early Diné weaving, such as chief blankets, women’s dresses, and serapes.

Diné horse trappings

Early nineteenth-century accounts indicate that bridles used by Diné horsemen at the time consisted of tanned leather embellished with silver ornaments. These likely were obtained from outside sources until silversmithing techniques became part of the Diné repertoire. Soon, the Diné surpassed their peers, becoming proficient in crafting and trading horse trappings, and renowned for creating elaborate harnesses with silver headstalls and bits.

Atsidi Sani is often referred to as one of the first of the Diné to learn the trade, in the mid-nineteenth century. Atsidi Chon is also recognized for crafting some of the earlier examples of Diné bridles in the 1870s. When the Diné obtained handmade saddles, improvements again were fast to come. They replaced simple string cinches with elaborately handwoven straps with designs as intricate as those on saddle blankets and throws. The cinches, whether woven before being attached to the cinch ring or on the ring from the start, were often of handspun and hand-plied yarn that would reduce chafing. For added comfort, handwoven saddle blankets were devised to go under saddles and provide padding so that cinches could shift as horses navigated diverse terrain. Today, with more than 300,000 tribal members in the Navajo Nation, Diné weavers continue to weave blankets reflecting the spiritualism and tradition of the horse culture. The continuum of traditional stories, songs, and ceremonies will also prevail for generations to come.They Wove for Horses: Diné Saddle Blankets is on view at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture through August 18, 2013.

Joyce Begay-Foss, Diné, is director of education at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture.