American Paint Horse

HEIGHT: 14.2–16.2 hands

PLACE OF ORIGIN: The American West

SPECIAL QUALITIES: Striking color patterns, stock-type conformation, versatility, athleticism, gentle temperament

BEST SUITED FOR: Western competition, ranch work, and trail riding

That colored horses have always attracted attention is well documented in the art of many cultures. Egyptian tombs dating from the fourth century BCE contain representations of horses colored like today’s Paints. The nomadic tribes of the Gobi Desert drew paint-colored horses and made many references to such horses in the oral history they passed down from generation to generation. Early statues from Chinese burial mounds document familiarity with paint coloring, as does the art from some ancient sites in India. Similar coloring can also be traced in horses that were brought with the Huns and other barbarians during invasions of the Roman Empire around 500 CE.

The influence of colored horses was particularly prevalent around the Mediterranean basin and in Spain. By 700 CE, Spain had many colored horses with both the tobiano and the overo color patterns. In Europe, paintings from the sixteenth century on indicate that paint-colored horses were highly prized by the wealthiest individuals. Later, colored horses fell out of fashion in much of western Europe. When this happened, more than a few were put on boats that were headed for North America. When they showed up in colonial New England, they were primarily traded off, often to Indians or Canadian trappers, because the Puritans thought the colors were too flashy.

According to historians, the first documented arrival of a paint-colored horse on North American shores was in 1519, when Cortés landed in Mexico. Seventeen horses, both mares and stallions, accompanied him on the voyage. (A stallion died shortly after arrival; one mare foaled on the ship.) A record was kept of type, sex, and color. There was a tobiano with white stockings on his forefeet and a dark roan with white body patches. This indicates that both the tobiano and the overo color patterns landed with Cortés. Once colored horses arrived, they continued to attract attention.

As horse numbers boomed first in Mexico and then farther north, various Indian tribes quickly developed horse cultures. They often sought the paint-colored horses during trading and stealing ventures and deliberately incorporated them into the breeding herds. Most Indian tribes were not goal-oriented horse breeders the way we think of breeders today; they kept the ones they liked and traded the ones they didn’t like. Because they kept herds of mares and stallions together, over time they ended up almost inadvertently selecting and breeding for type and color.

Paint-colored horses were more easily camouflaged than other colors, yet another reason for their appeal to Indians living on the plains. They reportedly rode horses that blended in with the natural and seasonal coloring of the country they were riding through. Duns, light roans, and light sorrels, as well as pinto horses with these base body colors, matched the colors of the prairies and were ridden in summer and fall. White, light gray, and palomino horses, and pintos of these colors, were ridden in winter. In sagebrush country, blue roans were favored. Painted horses with less-than-perfect base body colors could be temporarily altered with a little mud, ocher, or other natural pigment to fit the occasion. Paints were also often used to show off. The Comanches particularly favored very loud-colored Paints.

Colored horses came to North America with Cortés and have been extremely popular ever since.

Indians weren’t the only ones who admired colored horses. Old songs mention them: for example, “Old Paint” and “Goodbye Old Paint,” both of which were well known before the 1870s. Early Western artists such as Frederic Remington painted them. Because they were both attractive and plentiful in Mustang herds, a major source of cheap horses for early cowboys and settlers, painted horses were ridden everywhere. They were used on ranches, and they made appearances in Wild West shows, trick acts, and parades.

When cattle ranches began to take up the land used by wild horses, and every attempt was made to eradicate all Indians and all remnants of their culture, millions of Mustangs and Indian Horses of all colors were sent to slaughter or shot for “sport.” At this time there was also a significant but little-discussed element of racism involved in horse selection. Many white men carefully avoided having anything to do with colored horses, largely because they were favored by Indian, Mexican, and Spanish horsemen. Despite the racial undercurrents, there were always horsemen interested in loud color who prized beautiful painted horses.


Some Indian tribes considered colored horses and particular color patterns to be magical. The Comanche and the Cheyenne particularly revered Medicine Hats — white horses with color only on a “bonnet” over the ears and on a “shield” over the chest. Only warriors who had proved themselves in battle were allowed to ride them. Among the Comanche, a warrior who rode a Medicine Hat into battle was considered invincible.

Registry History

As horses came to be used more and more for pleasure, interested individuals saw the need to organize an association and registry to document bloodlines and ultimately to create a true breed of stock-type colored horses, the American Paint Horse.

In the early 1960s, there were two organizations, the American Paint Stock Horse Association and the American Paint Quarter Horse Association. In 1965 they merged to form the American Paint Horse Association (APHA), which continues to the present day. The APHA represents a breed of colored stock horses based upon and regulated by restricted bloodlines. Outcrosses are limited to Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. The APHA does not recognize gaited breeds, draft horse breeds, or pony breeds in its pedigrees.

Blue eyes are common on Paints.

Breed Characteristics

This attractive breed has become very popular in North America and has also made its mark in European, Central and South American countries, and Australia, as well as in South Africa and Japan. Paints are found in virtually all working and pleasure disciplines. They particularly excel in “Western sports,” from Western pleasure to roping, reining, cutting, and contesting, but also in English show classes, the hunt field, events, and pari-mutuel Paint races, and on trails.


The American Paint Horse is a solidly built stock horse, compactly made but refined. They range from 14.2 to 16.2 hands. Typical weight is 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. The head has a straight profile, large eyes, and pricked, average-sized ears. The neck should be nicely formed and muscular. The shoulder is sloped, the back short and strong, and the legs solid and well muscled, with strong joints and tendons.


There are two main color patterns within the breed, gradations between the main patterns, and some less common patterns.


The first main color pattern is the tobiano. The face of a tobiano horse usually has markings like those of any solid-colored horse: a blaze, stripe, star, or snip. The tobiano often has four white legs, at least below the hocks and the knees. Spots are regular and distinct, often appearing in oval or round patterns that extend down over the neck and the chest. White may extend across the back. Tobianos tend to have a dark color on one or both flanks, and the tail may be multicolored.


The second main color pattern is the overo (o-VAIR-o). Overo horses rarely have any white extending across the back between the withers and the tail. Generally, at least one leg, and often all four, is colored. The head markings often include a bald or bonnet face. The body markings tend to be irregular, scattered, and splashy. Usually the tail is one color.


According to the American Paint Horse Association (APHA) (founded in 1965):

• The APHA originated with about 3,900 registered horses.

• As of 2005, there are more than 600,000 registered horses.

• In 2000 alone, 62,000 new foals were registered.

• The American Paint Horse is the fifth largest breed in the world, and has one of the fastest-growing breed associations.

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