Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 7:1 (Winter 1987). Copyright © 1987 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.


In nineteenth century America the horse was identified with the frontier and served as an image of independence and unrestrained freedom. Western travelers published in their diaries and journals accounts of sighting mustangs, the wild horses of the prairies. Washington Irving's vivid descriptions in his Tour on the Prairirs (1835) were among the earliest. In painting, literature's sister art, however, images of the western horse do not correspond with the written descriptions of the livestock that actually inhabited the area. The artists, rather, painted the ideal Arahian horse, a recognizable type developed throughout the century. The Arahian, considered the oldest pure bred horse, is distinguished from other breeds by its graceful lines and patrician carriage, by its arched neck, large, intelligent eyes, slightly concave nose, high-set tail, slender legs and small hooves, and ivory-hard bone structure (fig. 1), although these features may appear in other breeds of which the Arahiam is a progenitor. History and common sense suggest that the wild horse of the frontier Was a sturdier and more robust animal than the idealized and carefully bred Arabian, and the Arabian must have offered a striking contrast in appearance to its rugged wild relative roaming the prairies and plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Artistic conventions for depicting motion and the iconography of the hunt also inspired artists to depict idealized horses, yet few artists or art historians have questioned the discordant note in the visual record nor attempted to distinguish the real from the ideal.