Horse Collar Ruin

two circular structures with small doorway openings
Horse Collar Ruin

NPS/Jacob W. Frank


Horse Collar Ruin is a major attraction at Natural Bridges, and one of the best-preserved ancestral Puebloan sites in the area. Named because the doorways to two structures resemble horse collars, the site was abandoned more than 700 years ago. Its remarkable state of preservation, including an undisturbed kiva with the original roof and interior, is likely due to the isolation of Natural Bridges: few visitors ever made the journey down these canyons.


Horse Collar site was discovered by non-Indians in the late 1880s. In 1907, an archeological expedition documented the site and later recommended the establishment of Natural Bridges National Monument, which was founded the next year. Sometime thereafter, Horse Collar Ruin seems to have been forgotten. One cold November day in 1936, it was rediscovered by Zeke Johnson, the first curator of the national monument. He wrote:

"I am very much thrilled over a discovery I made the other day. I was working about half way between Sipapu and Kachina Bridges and at lunch time I was in the narrow canyon where the sun does not shine very much at that time of year, but I could see that about thirty feet above me the sun was shining warm and bright on the cliff. I crawled up a broken ledge thinking that it would be nice to eat my lunch there when to my surprise I saw a ledge full of houses, within 80 yards of the trail over which I have walked for more than twenty years. There is one large kiva with the roof almost complete and a fine ladder standing in the hatchway with the small willows still holding the rungs in place. I could not tell how many rungs are on the ladder because of the debris which the pack rats have piled up around its base; only three and a half feet show between the top of the pile and the hatch. Beside the kiva are two well-preserved stone and adobe houses with no roofs but walls which are in a fine state of preservation. A small barrel shaped structure abuts against one of the houses. Six or eight rooms with walls of fine masonry but partly torn down are also on the ledge. There is a lot of broken pottery and flaked stone lying about. I picked up six arrow points and several broken ones. You know, I felt like a foolish kid to have passed so near these ruins for so many years and not know of their presence, but someone had found them before I did many years ago; a few pits have been dug in the ruins but the kiva has not been touched."

Thus, Horse Collar Ruin reentered the world of Natural Bridges. Not much has changed since Zeke Johnson's day. The ladder into the kiva is gone, and much of the debris inside has been removed. Sadly, one can no longer find pottery or arrowheads here anymore--practically everything has been taken away by other visitors. But much still remains here to delight the eye and mind.

The roof of the kiva has not been restored and reveals construction techniques used by the ancestral Puebloans. Large roof beams were overlain by smaller branches, then by reeds and thin sticks. This mesh was then covered by a generous layer of mud-plaster. A ladder once protruded from a hole in the roof but has been removed for safekeeping and to prevent curious visitors from climbing inside and causing damage to the structure. Through cracks in the walls, the original fire pit is visible near the center of the kiva. In front of this is an upright slab of rock which prevented air currents from blowing out the fire. Toward the rear wall is a small hole called a sipapu. In Hopi religion, the sipapu is the gateway through which one's spirit enters and leaves this world.

The round Horse Collar Ruins are also much as Zeke Johnson first saw them. No one knows the exact purpose of these unusual structures. Why are they so perfectly round, and why did their builders not use the back of the alcove as a wall and save themselves a great deal of work? Were they ever roofed? If not, why bother constructing plaster floors? Were they used for storage? If so, why were fires lit inside them? If you come up with a good answer to these puzzles, please note it in the register book or share it with a ranger.

Last updated: August 17, 2016

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