The Appaloosa horse is distinctive with its spotted coat patterns. Speed, intelligence, athleticism, and versatility make the horses beloved by all who know and ride them. The Appaloosa horse population has over 500 million registered horses. Working western disciplines, trail, and jumping, as well as anything else an equestrian wants to pursue, are all places we find the breed.
The leopard and blanket spotted coat patterns of Appaloosa horses make them easily recognizable and distinguished amongst their equestrian peers. The Nez Perce Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest developed the breed as war horses, and consequently, the same characteristics that made them valuable to the Nez Perce have kept them a popular breed today.
History of the Appaloosa Horse
Early civilizations that lived 20,000 years ago in Europe painted spotted horses in their caves. Ancient Greece and China also have evidence of spotted horses in their art. The Appaloosa horse as we know it today originated with the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
The Nez Perce began selectively breeding their horses and developed distinct breed characteristics, including the spotted coat pattern, that made their horses the envy of all. The Palouse River flows through the area of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington where the Appaloosa horse originated. When the settlers arrived, they started referring to the Nez Perce’s horses as the Palouse Horse, and this eventually became Appaloosa.
Appaloosas are a stock-horse type. Height ranges from 14 hands to 16 hands; they do not register ponies and drafts. Weight is proportional to height, and the range is 950 to 1,250 pounds. Overall, they have a muscular and compact body with clean legs and a low-set tail.
Naturally, there are distinguishing characteristics in addition to the coat pattern. First, Appaloosas have striped hooves. Almost all Appaloosas have this characteristic, although it is seen in some other breeds too. The white of the eye is usually not visible in other breeds, but with the Appaloosa, you usually see some of that white sclera at all times.
The Nez Perce bred their horses to be smart and fast. Appaloosa horses are incredibly intelligent and given their early history, this makes sense. They are also independent horses, and I think this must be part of their early survival mechanisms. But most also try really hard to please their riders and handlers; Appaloosas attune to the people they are with. In fact, they also make excellent horses for children because of their reliable temperaments.
Coat patterns start with a solid color; horses are either bay, bay roan, chestnut, dun, red roan, grullo, or dun. Then, they also have a coat pattern; these include spots, snowflake, leopard, blankets with spots, a marble or varnish roan, and frosted roans.
The most commonly recognized and referenced are the leopard and blanket coat patterns. The leopard coat pattern is a horse with lighter base color and dark spots evenly distributed across its body. A blanket is a horse with a darker base color, and then a white blanket with dark spots on its rump and hindquarters. Usually, the spots are the same color as the base color on a blanket Appaloosa.
Interestingly enough, the coat pattern can change throughout the life of the horse. You won’t see a horse go from a blanket to a leopard, but you will see differences in the coat pattern. Horses without spots can be registered. However, they must have some of the other unique breed characteristics, like the striped hooves or white sclera.
Unfortunately, challenges and threats to their survival were a continuous theme in the history of the Native American tribes in the United States. The Nez Perce War was fought against the United States Army in 1877. The tribe lost after several months and fled 1,300 miles under the leadership of Chief Joseph. They also lost most of their horses in the process – to the U.S. Army and local settlers.
The breed nearly became extinct, except that a few dedicated breeders kept going. Then, the Appaloosa Horse Club was formed in 1938. It has the infrastructure that has perpetuated the breed. It’s safe to say that they have rebounded from this threat, with over half a million horses registered with the Appaloosa Horse Club. The club hosts a Chief Joseph Trail Ride each summer over the course of four days to honor the memory.
The Appaloosa Horse Today
Today, the Appaloosa Horse is a beloved animal. Its spotted coat pattern makes it easy to recognize. Equestrians appreciate their temperament and athletic abilities. Appaloosas are predominantly used in western riding disciplines, although they are versatile and can be found in dressage arenas, jumping, driving, and in other disciplines as well. The registry maintains an open studbook, and outcrosses with Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and Arabian horses to strengthen the breed. The Nez Perce Horse, Pony of Americas, and gaited horse breeds all have Appaloosa horse bloodlines.
Furthermore, the Appaloosa is the official state horse of Idaho, and there are many other famous members of the breed. One of these is Pay N Go, a 16.2 hand leopard Appaloosa and dressage horse that performed inside the church at Linda McCartney’s funeral; she was the late wife of Paul McCartney, one of the Beatles. Matt Damon, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando all rode Appaloosas in one of their movies too.
Wherever they are, Appaloosa horses are sure to delight all that meet them. The breed is etched into the hearts of equestrians and the fabric of our lifestyle through art, history, and the iconic dream of riding a horse.
Sources: Appaloosa Horse Club, Appaloosa Museum, Oklahoma State University, and Pam Grace.