See full article at:
Ryan, L.R. 2005. Horse Trappings. Daruma. Japanese Art & Antiques Magazine. Vol. 48. pp. 28-39.
Author's permission required for use of any text or pictures
Japanese Horse Trappings
Text: Lisa R. Ryan
Photos: Stephen B. Ryan
Japanese horse trappings are works of art. Every single one is different, custom made by an unknown rural craftsman for a specific horse for a specific event. Whether a daughter’s wedding, a festival or a shrine visit, all commemorate a special life event long ago and totally forgotten today. Designs ranged from auspicious symbols, family crests, bright colors to simple indigo.
In this article, I would like to introduce my small collection as well as a few more from private collections. Very little is known of their history and not very much has been written about them. I hope to shed light on these wonderful country textiles.
UMA GAKE literally means, “horse covering” and is the general name I use for all three types I have found. The extremely long trappings are called YUI AGE, which means “tied up”. The trappings that cover the rear of the horse are called SHIRI GAKE, which means “buttocks covering”. The trappings that cover the stomach area are called HARA GAKE, which means “belly covering”. Very few have survived over the years, so collecting them is quite a challenge. In fact, most Japanese are unaware of them and their history.
In researching these unique textiles, I found lots of relevant information from studying the history of horses in Japan and the types of rural farmhouses people lived in that kept horses. So, I will start my article with a brief introduction to these two areas as background information before I talk about the trappings.
History of Horses
Horses came to Japan from Mongolia during the NARA Period (710-794). They were very important and were given as gifts to high-ranking government officers. In Northeastern Japan, horses were worshipped at shrines dedicated to them and festivals were held to thank the horses for their hard work.
During the EDO Period (1600-1868), the DAIMYO (feudal lord) made horse breeding an official policy. Since Japanese horses were relatively small (technically ponies, standing under 147cm), larger “foreign” horses were imported and crossbred with the Japanese horse to try and increase their size and strength.
It wasn’t until the MEIJI Period (1868-1912) that horses were used widely for agricultural purposes. Before this time, they were mainly used as pack animals for travelers. Farmers relied on oxen for their heavy labor. But, when the MEIJI government needed war horses and lots of them, they started encouraging their use in agriculture so farmers would breed more. They also imported larger purebred horses from America and Europe to crossbreed with Japanese horses to create bigger and stronger horses more suitable for the military.
By the TAISHO / SHOWA Period (1920’s-1930’s), war horses for the military were bred in large numbers with thousands of them coming from IWATE Prefecture, Northern Japan. IWATE became famous as the center for horse breeding and horses soon became invaluable workhorses for agriculture and transportation. In addition, their manure was preferred as fertilizer. They transported firewood and charcoal that the farmers sold in the off-season. Horse breeding provided a large source of cash income for farmers. Therefore, the number of horses per household in IWATE was large. Because of lush meadows and alpine pastureland, IWATE Prefecture was ideal for rearing horses and many farmers came to rely on breeding them for their livelihood.
In the EDO Period (1600-1868), almost all farmhouses were divided into two parts: living area and service area. The service area was used as a general workplace, preparing meals, and as a storage area. Outhouses and stables were also part of the service area and, in colder climates, were under the same roof.
Horse trappings date from the EDO Period to the middle of the MEIJI Period (1800’s-1900’s). During this time, I believe they experienced several major transformations, starting with simple indigo and white family crest trappings used by traveling DAIMYO all the way to brightly colored elaborate ones used in festivals and ceremonies.
The first UMA GAKE were probably used on horses owned by the DAIMYO, who by law had to return to the capital EDO (TOKYO) from their province to pay their respects to the SHOGUN every few years. Around the same time, merchants transporting goods from place to place used trappings on their horses as well. I believe the trappings used by the DAIMYO and merchants were the simple indigo dyed family crests ones.
In HIROSHIGE’s famous woodblock prints, “The 53 Stations of the TOKAIDO”, most of the horses have some kind of UMA GAKE trapping.
Like most Japanese country textiles, I believe horse trappings probably had utilitarian beginnings. The trappings could have been used solely as an identification banner for the DAIMYO or merchant transporting goods from place to place, since most banners had family crests. The trappings also may have served as a type of saddle blanket to protect the horse from the abrasion of whatever heavy load it was transporting.
EMA (painted horse) is a prayer tablet offered at shrines to pray for a particular blessing. The blank backside is where the person’s name and request is written. Originally, real horses were presented to shrines when asking a huge favor from the gods but, for financial reasons, substitutes of clay, then carved wood and finally EMA became popular during the EDO period. The reason a horse was offered is because Japanese believed that gods descended from heaven riding on the backs of horses. EMA often depict horses wearing YUI AGE, like the one below painted by local IWATE artist, Tsutomu Sasaki.
I believe that the idea of “belly wrapping” a horse for presentation was part of traditional Japanese culture. Modern Japan is still a culture of gift giving and almost anything that is to be given to another person is wrapped. Wrapping, called “TSUTSUMU” is almost ritualistic in Japan. It suggests not only wrapping something with a covering but distinguishing it as special and sacred. TSUTSUMU comes from the word TSUTSUSHIMI, which means discretion, prudence and modesty. Wrapping is done not only to keep gifts clean and protect them, but also to express the giver’s heartfelt respect to the person they are giving the gift to. TSUTSUMU signifies not just giving a material gift, but also giving feeling from the heart.
Traditional Japanese culture, religion and martial arts regard the stomach, or belly area, as the center of the spirit and source of heat and energy called, “KI”. If the belly is kept warm, then they believe, even to this day, that they will stay healthy. I believe these trappings, particularly the HARA GAKE, could have been used to retain this warmth and energy. At public hot springs in Japan today, you can still see the old grandfather or grandmother taking off these “belly wraps” while undressing even in the heat of summer. Pregnant women also wear these belly coverings, as well as infants and children. In fact, most small babies wear absolutely nothing on their feet in the dead of winter, but have multiple layers wrapping their bellies.
Ceremonies and Festivals
UMA GAKE decorated in auspicious symbols were said to be used in country wedding processions in which a bride would ride on horseback through the countryside to the groom’s home. The horse she was riding, as well as those carrying her trousseau, were decorated in beautiful horse trappings. I am still searching for a photo to verify this. I was able to locate a few photos from a Japanese public library of old rural Japanese wedding processions, but none of these horses were decorated with beautiful trappings. Instead, the bride sat on an old wood and straw saddle on a plain horse, followed by other unadorned horses carrying her belongings to begin her new life. It is possible that the adorned horses were used by the few wealthy rural families, while the vast majority were of the simple unadorned kind.
Horse festivals held in MUTSU (Northern tip of AOMORI), NAMBU (Northern IWATE, Southern AOMORI) and SHINSHU (NAGANO, GIFU, TOYAMA) used horse trappings, although the SHINSHU area is better known today for an unusual culinary “delicacy”: raw horsemeat. Probably the most famous horse festival is the CHAGU CHAGU UMAKKO, held on the second Saturday of June in IWATE Prefecture. CHAGU CHAGU is an onomatopoeic word and refers to the sound the horses with bells make when they walk. This festival, a National Intangible Folk Cultural Asset, marks the end of the rice planting season. Around 100 horses parade single file on a 15km route from SOZEN Shrine in TAKIZAWA City to HACHIMAN Shrine in MORIOKA City. Horses are elaborately decorated and taken to the shrines to pray for continued good health.
According to the Japanese lunar calendar, the fifth day of the fifth month is TANGO NO SEKKU, which means: the first day of the horse. This is also Boy’s Day (May 5th) and for this reason, horse dolls are displayed in homes with young boys to imply manliness, bravery and strength, all desirable qualities for boys. Today this holiday is called Children’s Day.
There is a cute story about the origins of the CHAGU CHAGU UMAKKO that my daughters really enjoyed. It goes like this:
A long time ago, there was a very rich and greedy man who lived in MORIOKA, IWATE Prefecture. He worked his tenant farmers and horses harder than anyone and never let them rest. One day he bought a new strong shiny black horse and named him, “AO”, which means blue. He worked AO hard and didn’t give him enough food or rest so AO became thin and weak. On TANGO NO SEKKU, no one worked, but the greedy man’s farmers and horses. Suddenly AO broke free from the plow and ran away. The farmers started to chase him and when they saw him next, an old white bearded man was riding on his back. The greedy man ordered his farmers to catch AO and the man, but AO ran much faster than them and they couldn’t catch them. Finally they reached a mountain pass and saw AO lying on the ground dying. The old white bearded man had disappeared. They thought that he must have been, “The Horse God”, and felt pity for AO and freed him from the greedy man. AO soon died and they buried his body and built a shrine on top. Every year since then and even to this day, farmers free their horses from work on TANGO NO SEKKU and dress the horses up to pay respects on AO’s grave.
Materials and Methods Used
During the time of horse trappings, cotton was the main material used for clothing, although ASA (bast fiber) was still being used in the Northern rural areas. Horse trappings made from ASA are usually, but not always, older than the cotton ones. Some horse trappings were even made with a combination of both bast fiber and cotton. In the Northern rural areas bast fiber was readily available and cheap while cotton was harder to come by and expensive. Cotton was preferred because it was softer and warmer than bast fiber.
The main dye method used for horse trappings was “TSUTSUGAKI”, which means “tube drawing”. In this resist dye method, rice paste is spooned into a cone shaped tube that looks like an icing tube, and then squeezed out over the pattern already drawn on the cloth. Rice bran is then sprinkled on the paste and it is dried. When it is completely dry, a soybean extract is painted on and the entire piece is lightly dampened with water before being dipped. Once dipped in a vat of dye, the pasted lines remain dye free. In the end, the paste is washed away revealing the beautiful free hand design.
Another method used for horse trappings was “KATAZOME”, which means “stencil dye”. This method required a stencil, which was put on top of the cloth and then brushed with rice paste. Just like the TSUTSUGAKI method, when dipped in a vat of dye, the pasted stencil pattern remained dye free until it was washed out to reveal the beautiful stenciled design.
Most all horse trappings have a large family crest either predominately in the center or on each long end. Crests were important family “markers” and showed pride. Auspicious designs are also common, such as:
KOI (carp) symbolizes perseverance and success by overcoming difficulties. It was derived from a Chinese legend that carp who swam upstream though fighting strong currents turned into dragons.
KAME (turtle) is the symbol of longevity and Japanese believe that the gods often descend on the backs of turtles.
TSURU (crane) is the symbol for long life, victory in battle and happiness. It is also considered to be a messenger of the gods.
SHO CHIKU BAI (pine, bamboo, plum) symbolizing long life, strength and bravery.
BOTAN (peony) is the symbol of nobility and considered to be the “king” of flowers.
KIKU (chrysanthemum) symbolizes superior character, the light from the sun, long life and virtue. It is the family crest used by Japan’s Imperial family.
USAGI (rabbit) and wave design has many meanings. Japanese legend says that a female rabbit will conceive if she runs on the waves. Japanese mythology tells the story of INABA, a very sly white rabbit that tricks sharks to form a bridge so he can cross the sea. A NOH play called, The Island of CHIKUBU, has a monk heading to the island by boat, imagining the rabbit running on waves. The island is home to one of the Seven Lucky Gods who insures longevity and good fortune.
RYU (dragon) symbolizes success because although it lives underwater, it also ascends to heaven.
SARUBOBO (monkey baby) symbolizes happiness and good health and is famous in GIFU Prefecture. In the classic Chinese story, Journey To The West, the Jade Emperor appoints the monkey to the position of “Protector of Horses”.
UMA (horse) is the symbol for strength and bravery.
SHISHI ni BOTAN (lion dog and peony) symbolizes bravery and elegance, and thought to represent the spirit of the SAMURAI. Legend has it that the lion dogs loved to eat the flowers from the peony tree, so these are often together.
KARAKUSA (arabesque) is a very popular pattern of leaves and vines.
KIKKO (tortoise shell) is a pattern with a well-balanced and striking shape and comes in combinations with flowers and other figures.
ICHIMATSU (checks) is named after an EDO period KABUKI actor who always wore checked robes. It is also called ISHIDATAMI (paving stones) symbolizing the pattern of stones used at SHINTO shrines.
SHIMA (stripes) come in all kinds of varieties and were first used by nobility.
Horse trappings also sometimes have KANJI characters written on them. The most common is 踏馬御免 (FUmiUMA GOMEN), which means: “pardon the passing horse.” Another, with a very similar meaning, is 荒践馬御要心 (ARASENUMA GOYOJIN), which means: “Be cautious of the untamed horse.” Another is 大津東町 (OTSU HIGASHI MACHI), which was the location of a shrine devoted to horses. Another is 忠馬 (CHU UMA), which means: “faithful horse”. Other KANJI readings are usually a family name or merchant’s shop.
Types and Varieties
I have been able to identify three different types and eleven different varieties of horse trappings. Some of them are very similar, while others are very different. They also come in sets of two and, on rare occasions in sets of three. It is unclear whether or not these have always come in sets of three and later lost or broken up into smaller sets.
YUI AGE Type
I have been able to locate four varieties of YUI AGE. These were all worn with the middle of the trapping covering the belly and the ends brought up to the back and tied with the decorative ends hanging down. The lengths of these all vary. The differences in the four are:
1. Number one consists of two 13” wide panels sewn together in the middle with triangular gussets to allow spreading with equal length long ends.
2. Number 2 is similar in that all the long ends are of equal length, the difference being a small 2” wide extra piece of cloth in the middle allowing for a wider space between the long ends.
3. Number 3 consists of a single 13” wide panel.
4. Number 4 is similar to the first two, but lacks the triangular gussets and extra cloth. A notable difference is that one panel is shorter than the other making the long ends uneven.
HARA GAKE Type
I have been able to locate three varieties of HARA GAKE. These were all worn with the help of rope inserted in the hoops along the edges. Numbers 5 and 6 were worn with the middle of the trapping coving the belly, while I believe number 7 was worn on the back. The differences in the three are:
1. Number 5 consists of two 13” wide panels sewn together in the middle with an upside down T shape cut along one side making two equal length panels. Three hoops for inserting a rope are on each end.
2. Number 6 is similar in that it also is made from two 13” panels and has six hoops.
3. Number 7 consists of two 13” panels sewn together half way only where a square piece of cloth is then sewn between the panels. It has eight hoops for inserting rope, four on each end. This is the only one of its kind I have found, and I believe it is worn on the back with the square piece at the base of the neck to allow freedom of movement.
SHIRI GAKE Type
I have been able to locate four varieties of SHIRI GAKE. These were all worn with the middle of the trapping covering the rear with the panels hanging down secured via rope, possibly to the saddle. All four of these vary greatly in size and shape. The differences in the four are:
1. Number 8 is unique because the end panels are long and narrow compared to the other three.
2. Number 9 is similar, but the end panels are the same width as the middle piece.
3. Number 10 consists of two 13” wide panels of slightly different lengths completely sewn together.
4. Number 11 is very similar to number 10, but the panels are not sewn together completely, only in the middle.
Conclusion: My Thoughts
Most city people like to idealize life in the countryside. The same thing can also be said of the way we like to glamorize life in the old days. In researching this article, I found many people who claimed that the reason for horse trappings was the great affection people had for their horses, which went so far that they even lived with them under the same roof. I think this is what we would all like to believe because it paints such a nice image in our minds. But, I believe that the truth is a matter of practicality borne of necessity. Because of the long winters and heavy snow fall, snow drifts were very deep, making it a simple matter of necessity to have a stable incorporated with the main house. I believe that Iwate people did value horses, but more as a means to make a living than as a loving family pet.
Because there were so many horses per household, owning a horse did not necessarily imply wealth. I believe that the parades and festivals provided the perfect opportunity for horse owners to display their wealth via the horse trappings. Back then, having a colorful TSUTSUGAKI trapping custom made for your horse for a festival or ceremony was an expensive undertaking. However, I believe it wasn’t merely for the love of the horse, but as an indirect way of saying, “Look at me, I’m successful and well-to-do.”
Life in rural Northern Japan was harsh. The winter was bitter cold and required a lot of preparation to keep warm and have enough food to eat until spring. People had very little time for fun. For this reason, festivals were a very important part of life and rural people went all out to celebrate, which is evident in all of the wonderful textiles used in these special life events.
About the author
Lisa Ryan is a permanent resident of Japan and an antique dealer and owner of Chidori Antique Gallery in Northern Japan. She specializes in Japanese antique folk textiles and lives in YAMAGATA with her husband, Steve, and three daughters. You can view the gallery’s webpage at www.chidori.com.
1 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted TAKANOHA (hawk feathers) family crest and KATAZOME stencil paste resisted vertical stripes. Indigo dyed handspun cotton. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
2 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted UMEBACHI (plum blossom) family crest and chrysanthemum framed border. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted horizontal stripes. Indigo dyed ASA with painted brown and gray pigments. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
3 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KASHIWA (oak leaves) family crest and KARAKUSA (arabesque). KATAZOME stencil paste resisted KIKKO (tortoise shell pattern) with cherry blossoms in the center. Indigo dyed handspun cotton. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
4 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted TSUTA (ivy) family crest and KATAZOME stencil paste resisted checks. Indigo dyed cotton / ASA blend. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
5 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted GENJI GURUMA (GENJI cart) family crest with a peony and arabesque framed border. Carp swimming up a waterfall with a pine branch and clouds above. Indigo dyed cotton with painted red, green, brown, black and gray pigments. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
6 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted GENJI GURUMA (GENJI cart) family crest with a peony and arabesque framed border. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted arabesque, flowers and checks. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted red, yellow and green pigments. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
7 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted HOSHI (star) family crest with a peony framed border. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted KIKKO (tortoise shell pattern) with Chinese flowers in the center. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted orange, green and gray pigments. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
8 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted RINDO (gentian) family crest with arabesque, horizontal stripes above the KANJI characters “MIYAZAKI KIFUNE”. Indigo dyed cotton / ASA blend. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
9 YUI AGE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted OMODAKA (arrowhead) family crest and KATAZOME stencil paste resisted KIKKO (tortoise shell pattern) with rhombic flowers in the center. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted gray pigment. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
10 SHIRI GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted FUJI (hanging wisteria) family crest, chrysanthemums in the corners and rabbits on waves design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted orange, green and yellow pigments. Faded red cotton border with seven brass bells. Indigo cotton ties to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
11 SHIRI GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted MEYUI (square eyes) family crest, arabesque, diagonal stripes and dots design. Indigo dyed ASA with painted orange, green, brown and yellow pigments. Faded brown cotton border with two SARUBOBO attached to the crest. ASA rope ties to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
12 SHIRI GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KASA (sedge hat with bamboo) family crest, peony and arabesque design with the KANJI “FUmiUMA GOMEN”. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted orange, green, brown, black and yellow pigments. Natural white cotton border. Two cotton ties to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
13 SHIRI GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted GENJI GURUMA (GENJI cart) family crest, KANJI “FUmiUMA GOMEN” surrounded by a peony and arabesque framed border. Dragons, waves and clouds design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted orange, green, black, gray, brown and yellow pigments. Faded indigo cotton border. Two loops for a rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
14 SHIRI GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted HOSHI (star) family crest, KANJI “FUmiUMA GOMEN” surrounded by a peony framed border. Lion dog, peony tree and waves design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted orange, gray, brown, black, green and yellow pigments. ASA rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
15 YUIAGE and SHIRI GAKE Set. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KASA (bamboo encircled sedge hat) family crest, KANJI “ARASENUMA GOYOJIN” with chrysanthemums and arabesque. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted vertical stripes design on ends. Indigo dyed handspun cotton. Natural white cotton border on SHIRI GAKE with two indigo cotton loops for a rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
16 YUIAGE and SHIRI GAKE Set. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KATABAMI (wood sorrel and swords) family crest, KANJI “FUmiUMA GOMEN” with chrysanthemums, peony and arabesque. SHO CHIKU BAI, crane and turtle design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted reddish orange, brown, black and green pigments. SHIRI GAKE has two cotton loops with ASA rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
17 YUIAGE and SHIRI GAKE Set. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted horses. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted vertical stripes design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted orange, black and gray pigments. Red cotton border on SHIRI GAKE with two indigo cotton loops and ASA rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
18 YUIAGE and SHIRI GAKE Set. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KASHIWA (oak leaves) family crest, KANJI “FUmiUMA GOMEN” with chrysanthemums, arabesque, turtles and waves design. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted checks design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with brown and orange pigments. Natural white cotton border with four triangular weights on SHIRI GAKE. Two ties to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.
19 YUIAGE and SHIRI GAKE Set. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KANJI “CHU UMA”. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted vertical stripes design. Indigo dyed handspun cotton. Red cotton border on SHIRI GAKE with two triangular weights. Two indigo cotton ties to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
20 HARA GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted KASHIWA (oak leaves) family crest, HIRAGANA characters “MO TO NA” with chrysanthemums in each corner. Indigo dyed handspun cotton with painted red and yellow pigments. Natural white cotton border with six cotton loops for a rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
21 HARA GAKE. TSUTSUGAKI freehand paste resisted TAKANOHA (hawk feathers) family crests. Indigo dyed ASA with six cotton loops and ASA rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Author’s collection.
22 HARA GAKE. KATAZOME stencil paste resisted diamond design. Indigo dyed ASA with loops for a rope to secure on horse. MEIJI Period (1868-1912). Private collection.