Appaloosa Horse

Appaloosa Horse

Appaloosa Horse

HEIGHT: 14.2–16.2 hands

PLACE OF ORIGIN: Western Washington state and eastern Idaho

SPECIAL QUALITIES: Bold coat-color patterns, striped hooves, mottled skin on nose, lips, and genitals

BEST SUITED FOR: Ranch work, trail riding, Western sports, jumping, and middle-distance racing

The distinctive patterns that North Americans recognize as Appaloosa coloring have been seen and prized on horses throughout the ages and all over the world. The earliest known documentation comes from cave paintings in France that date back twenty thousand years, and since that time, artists in the far corners of the world have continued to portray horses with spots. Spotted coloring was familiar to the nomads of central Asia, who are thought to have acquired horses by about 3500 BCE and ultimately rode them out of the steppes and into what was then the “civilized world.”

Seeing Spots

The spotted pattern appeared in the art of ancient Greece and Egypt by 1400 BCE and that of Italy and Austria by 800 BCE. In ancient Persia (modern Iran), spotted horses were worshipped as the sacred horses of Nisea, and the great hero of Persian literature, Rustam, rode a spotted horse named Rakush, who was chosen from thousands of horses. Rakush was a great warhorse and the sire of beautiful spotted foals. Central Asian nomads introduced the spotted horse to China around 100 BCE. The Chinese quickly recognized that their own horses were no match for the swift horses of the steppes and although they valued all horses, they admired spotted horses most, considering them gifts fit for royalty. Spotted horses appeared in Chinese art by about the seventh century CE.

Horses with Appaloosa coloring appear in this cave painting from southwestern France, dated at 20,000 BCE.

From Europe to the Americas

Although spotted horses have appeared in western Europe throughout recorded history, they were deliberately bred in only a couple of places, notably Denmark and Austria. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, the famous Lipizzan horses often exhibited spots. Spotted horses were also common among Spanish Andalusians, which were transported to the New World.

As trade and warfare brought horses north and west in the Americas from about 1600 to 1800, Spanish horses, including spotted ones, were frequently captured by various indigenous tribes. It is believed that most tribes—eastern as well as western— were mounted by 1710. Of the early mounted tribes, several became great horsemen, but few were accomplished breeders.

The exception was the tribe known to whites as Nez Percé, but who referred to themselves as the Ni Mee Poo. These people came from the region of the Palouse River in what is now eastern Washington and central Idaho. They allowed only their best horses to breed; slow and unattractive horses were traded away. The Ni Mee Poo grew famous for their fast, sure-footed horses with tremendous endurance.

The skin on the Appaloosa’s nose, lips, and genitals is mottled, and the mane and tail are often sparse.



Appaloosas exhibit a wide variety of base colors, though gray is not recognized by the registry.

The very best were warhorses, and of those, the spotted horses were the most valuable. The white settlers of the area began to refer to the Nez Percé spotted horses as Palouse horses. After several permutations, the name became Appaloosey. The spelling in use today was selected by the Appaloosa Horse Club when it was founded in 1938.

Devastation and Rescue

In the late 1800s, the U.S. cavalry was at war with virtually all indigenous peoples, including the Nez Percé. For months the Indians were forced to flee over extremely rugged terrain, traveling some 1,300 miles on their Appaloosas. Recognizing the extreme hardships his people were suffering, and knowing that the United States had broken treaties with them in the past, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé finally surrendered with the elegant, immortal words, “I shall fight no more forever.”

To ensure surrender, the cavalry set out immediately to destroy the Indian horses. Hundreds were shot, stallions were gelded, and mares were bred to draft-type horses both to produce workhorses for settlers and to make sure the offspring weren’t as swift as their parents. The unique Nez Percé breed was almost destroyed. A few escaped, however; some were hidden by local ranchers; and a couple of pockets of horses somehow survived, including a few in western Canada, to which some of the Indians had fled.

Some ranchers and horsemen recognized how good the Appaloosas were, and they set out to save the breed. The Appaloosa Horse Club formed in 1938 to protect and promote the stock that was left. In the early days, breeders brought in Arab blood to minimize inbreeding among their few initial horses while maintaining the breed’s fabled endurance. They also intended for the Arab influence to counteract a tendency toward coarseness that resulted from the crosses with draft horses.

Although the association no longer allows crosses to Arabians, over the years it has continued to permit crosses to Quarter Horses to solidify the stock type. At one point, the famous Quarter Horse Impressive was owned by an Appaloosa syndicate, and he has left his indelible stamp on the breed.

Although the color is the most obvious feature of Appaloosas, their strength and versatility are prized by horsemen. One of the most common Appaloosa patterns is the blanket.

Breed Characteristics

The breed’s color is its hallmark and has attracted many fanciers, but the horses are versatile, strong, athletic, and known for endurance. Although initially attracted by the color, horsemen often stay with the breed for its other qualities.

Appys make good ranch, working, and trail horses, and they excel at “Western” sports, yet they are also frequently used for eventing, foxhunting, and other “English” sports. More than a few are very good jumpers. There is an active Appaloosa racing association. Appaloosas are usually middle-distance racing horses, the most popular distances being 350 yards and four furlongs (a half-mile). In 1989 the Appaloosa Ole Wilson ran 4 ½ furlongs in 0:49 ⅘ seconds, breaking the all-breed world record for this distance. His record still stands.


According to the Appaloosa Horse Club (founded in 1938):

• There are more than 650,000 registered Appaloosas.

• About 5,500 foals are registered each year.

• The highest concentrations of Appaloosas are in California and Texas, although the breed is common in all states and is found in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.


Today’s Appaloosas usually range in size from 14.2 hands to a little over 16 hands. Typical weight is 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. The head should be small and well shaped, with a straight profile and pointed ears. The eyes are typically large, with obvious white sclera. A long, muscular neck connects to moderately pronounced withers. The mane and tail are sometimes sparse, although most breeders do not find this a desirable trait and it is being seen less and less. The back should be short, the chest deep, and the shoulders long and sloping. The croup is usually slightly sloping. The legs are solid and well muscled, with good bone structure. The hooves should have vertical light or dark stripes. The skin of the nose, lips, and genitals is mottled.


There are several recognized Appaloosa color patterns, including snowflake, marble, frost, spotted blanket, white blanket, and leopard, the last being the most immediately recognizable of the patterns. Most solid base body colors are recognized by the association. The exception is gray, because it is genetically associated with fading color. Solid-colored horses that meet registration requirements may be registered. Pinto Appaloosas are not allowed.

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