The samurai caste was born from the mounted archers who let the Kyoto emperors match and eventually push north the Emishi, who populated large parts of the main island of Honshu. Military developments made their role develop over time, but horsemanship remained a valued skill even at the threshold of the modern era.
This means that you'll probably eventually want to get some cavalry if you collect a samurai army, be it a group of mounted Kamakura era archers, an elite spear-wielding hatamoto cadre crossing the fields outside Sekigahara, or just a single mounted shinsengumi captain leading his gang through the streets of Edo.
This guide is not a technical guide about how to paint horses. Instead I will cover some things that are specific for Japanese horses, or more specifically those ridden by samurai, so that you can find some inspiration for how to get them to look both impressive and historically correct.
A Different Breed
The native Japanese horses were small and sturdy, related to the hardy ponies that enabled the Mongols to cover vast areas in their conquests. These sure-footed horses were perfectly suited for navigating the many hills and mountain passes of Japan, as well as serving as solid platforms for mounted archery, but the lack of speed and mass meant that they could not provide the same shock charges as the Western knights. The samurai would also ride stallions, instead of geldings, preferring the extra aggressiveness as they'd kick, bite and trample their way through a melee.
When the Meiji restoration opened up Japan for international trade the army undertook an agressive breeding program to replace these small horses with much larger breeds. This program included mandatory gelding (castration) of stallions, making most of the native breeds extinct within decades - so if you're making a WW1 or WW2 cavalry force you should pretty much ignore this guide. During much of the 20th century the native breeds were almost wiped out. This means that pretty much every mounted samurai you've seen in movies or TV shows have been very anachronistic, and even modern reenactors are most likely to ride an imported breed.
However, eight native horse breeds have survived with limited crossbreeding. In the case of the Kiso breed thanks to a single stallion being excluded from gelding due to it being dedicated to a shrine. In other cases it has been due to living on isolated islands, or being of a very specific use like the Hokkaido workhorse. From them, archeological finds and contemporary paintings we can tell a lot about what a horse ridden by a samurai could look like.
The horses would be rated as ponies today - a Kamakura (1185–1333 AD) horse would typically be about 110 to 140 cm in withers. To put that into perspective, the modern boundary for ponies is 147 cm, and an average thoroughbred will be about 160-165 cm. If you imagine a small icelandic horse, you're pretty spot on.
Japanese Horse Colours
One of the main differences between modern horses and the native Japanese horses is that facial markings were unusal or non-existing in Japan. I'm honestly less sure about white socks, but I can tell that they are more or less non-existant in both contemporary pictures and in pictures of the surviving breeds.
That's not to say that I can swear that there was never a single horse with markings before 1868 - but if you want to stay on the safe side, don't put markings on your horses. As you can see on the picture above, you can still vary the colours by painting the lower legs and muzzles darker than the rest of the coat.
As for the actual colours of the coats, here's a gallery with pictures of sengoku period horse colours. Some breeds would be more likely to have some colours, but as long as you base your horses on these you should be safe. Click on the pictures for bigger versions:
Japanese Tack ("The Stuff You Put on Horses")
Some parts of the traditional Japanese tack is the same as the Western ones, but some parts of the construction is different. Here are some descriptions and details that hopefully can help you when you're painting it.
It's important to keep in mind that when you see pictures from surviving items in museums, they are not necessarily very representative. They are typically made in the Edo period, after the major wars. At this time wargear tended to become less and less made for actual use, and more as to showcase the social status of the owner. The older items that have survived are more likely than not those of immensely rich and powerful owners, as they would be preserved as family heirlooms.
As such, the surviving items in museums generally tend to be more decorative and elaborate than the gear you would see an average samurai use on the battlefield. So don't feel bad about skipping the elaborate designs and gold patterns if they feel scary! Plain leather and solid colours will work fine as well.
The japanese saddle, or kura, is made of several parts. This means that you can go for a very colourful look, and if you enjoy painting patterns you'll be able to go hog wild.
The core of the saddle is the kurabone, a wooden structure typically made out of red oak. Wealthy riders would be able to have it lacquered or even elaborately decorated with patterns in gold or other expensive materials.
The rider would not sit directly on the kurabone, but on a small leather saddle called kura tsubo or basen. It had holes for chikaragawa, straps holding the stirrups. In between the kurabone and basen could be an additional pillow called kura zabuton. Leather details could be either plain leather coloured, painted or decorated with patterns, sometimes in gold. I've found that lining the edges in a different colour like in the example above looks great and is relatively easy to do.
To protect the back and sides of the horse, there would be two sets of leather pads underneath the wooden kurabone. The horse's back was protected by a hadazuke or shitazuka, and lower down the horse's sides would be a set of pads called aori to keep the stirrups from scratching the horse. Again, these would be either in natural leather colours, painted or elaborately decorated depending on the wealth of the rider.
Closest to the horse would be a saddle blanket, kiritsuke, for a final protective layer. These can be plain or very elaborate, just like any cloth details on the rider.
Other Main Parts of the Horse Tack
The saddle and headgear would be attached by a set of cloth straps called sangai. These would typically be in a single colour such as red, purple, blue or yellow. They could have long tassels, which would be in the same colour. In the picture above, it's the red pieces in the back and front of the saddle, as well on the head of the horse.
The reins, tazuna, would be cotton cloth. A common version seems to be a printed striped patterns of white and another colour, often blue. But they could also have just a single plain colour.
The stirrups, abumi, would typically be of cast iron or wooden, and lacquered in black, brown or red. Again, a wealthy owner could have them decorated with gold patterns, or they could just be plain coloured.
Some Complete Sets
Hopefully this will cover most of the basics when it comes to samurai horses. Of course there are more details and several smaller details of the tack, but depending on scale of the miniatures you might not need to sweat over those parts. Below are some more pictures that can be an inspiration.
Now get out there and paint some mounted samurai!
The Renaissance Blog
What started as a blog about Renaissance gaming in general quickly turned into a blog about samurai miniatures.