Ancient art reveals that spotted horses have long been companions of mankind, wherever he has taken up residence. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that there are several possible origins of the Appaloosa horse of the Old West.
The first likely source of the Appaloosa was the Spanish conquistadors, who brought horses with them to search for gold and conquer the Americas. There is historical evidence of spotting among these types of horses, so it is quite easy to believe that Spanish horses introduced the spotting genes into mustang herds. Furthermore, as Pueblo Indians revolted against Spanish rule and fled northward, they used horses to make their escape and later introduced them to other tribes.
But there is another possible origin of the Appaloosa, handed down through Nez Percé oral tradition. Some of these Native Americans believe that the breed of horse which once made their tribe powerful came to them from the shores of Russia. The legend suggests that three spotted stallions came on board a ship and were traded to a neighboring tribe. The Nez Percé then bought the horses for twice their original price. Interestingly, DNA analysis of wild spotted horses in Kyrgyzstan has given additional weight to this story.
However the Appaloosa came into the hands of the Nez Percé, there is no doubt that the horse revolutionized the tribe. The Nez Percé of the Palouse Valley in present-day Oregon were once quiet fishermen, but the introduction of the Appaloosa transformed them into a tribe of skilled horsemen, powerful hunters, and wealthy traders. Their keen powers of observation quickly taught them basic principles of animal breeding. Before long, not only had the tribe established clear goals for their own breed of horse, but they had largely achieved those goals. Horses that were slow, weak, or unattractive were culled from the breeding population through gelding or trading, while useful and distinctive horses were isolated in canyons to be selectively bred. By the time that Lewis and Clark met the tribe, Meriwether Lewis could with due cause exclaim:
…Many of them appear like fine English coursers…and resemble in fleetness and bottom, as well as in form and color, the best blooded horses of Virginia.
But trouble for the both the Nez Percé tribe and the Appaloosa horse breed was looming. The tribe was restricted to a reservation in 1855. Gold was discovered on this land in 1860, and the Federal government urged the tribe to accept a smaller reservation created in 1863. Some bands agreed, while other refused. Among the “non-treaty” Nez Percé was a band eventually led by Chief Joseph. Chief Joseph’s policy was to restrain his warriors from violence against the white settlers, while opening negotiations with the Federal government to find a way to keep the reservation the tribe had originally received. The die was cast, however, in 1877, when several warriors of Chief Joseph’s band murdered four white settlers.
Feeling that the only course left was to take refuge further north, Chief Joseph ordered his band to quickly round up their horses. Unfortunately, most of the horses were allowed to roam across the plains at that time of year, and no time was to be lost searching for every last animal. About 3,000 horses, including both nondescript packhorses and the prized Appaloosas for war and hunting, were collected and the rest left to take their chances.
During the rush to the Canadian border, some of the horses were lost, drowned crossing the Snake River or shot down in conflict with the United States Army. When Chief Joseph surrendered, about 1,100 horses remained. Many of these were confiscated by the Army, contrary to the terms of surrender. The Nez Percé were given draft horses instead, while many of the Appaloosa stallions were shot or gelded to ensure that their strength and power would no longer contribute to the bloodlines of Native American horses.
Fortunately, a few Appaloosas survived. The horses which had escaped Chief Joseph’s hasty roundup continued to live in the wild, while a few ranchers preserved them for working cattle. Buffalo Bill Cody drew attention to the breed by showcasing it in his traveling Wild West Show, but after his time the spotted horses of the Nez Percé were largely forgotten until 1937.
That year, an Idaho student named Francis Haines happened to be studying the Nez Percé tribe. The more he learned about the Indians, the more the horse which had once made them a powerful people captured his imagination. His writing again focused a spotlight on the Appaloosa horse, and that same year an art exhibit featuring Appaloosas generated more enthusiasm. A search for wild spotted horses led to the creation of a registry in 1938.
To minimize inbreeding and to counteract the influence of the draft stallions introduced by the Army, the Appaloosa was crossbred with Arabian horses, also known for stamina. Even so, the future of the breed looked doubtful for a time as World War II took precedence over other interests. But the end of the war brought rapid expansion for the Appaloosa horse. In 1975, the breed became the state horse of Idaho.
Because the Appaloosa has long been and continues to be a favorite mount for Western riding and stock work, crossbreeding with Quarter Horses has been allowed in recent years. While this unquestionably improved the working qualities of the breed, it also created a bit of confusion over the definition of an Appaloosa. Not all Appaloosas have spots any more, since crossbreeding has introduced solid colors. However, solid-colored Appaloosas often carry genes for spotting, since the hallmark coloring involves more than one set of genes, and with judicious breeding their offspring can look like typical Appaloosas.
Today, the Appaloosa is one of the most popular breeds in America, common in every state.
The Appaloosa is typically thought of as a Western mount, used for pleasure, trail riding, ranch work, and Western competitions. However, this distinctive animal is not limited to the Western scene; jumping, dressage, and light harness work are are well within its capabilities.
The Appaloosa has a unique personality. While this horse is frequently described as calm, gentle, and trustworthy, there is nothing lazy or dull about it. The Appaloosa is a bold, smart, trainable horse that truly seems to enjoy a challenge and that hates pointless repetition. A bored Appaloosa may be viewed as stubborn, even though it actually loves to earn its rider’s approval.
Eye problems are a major difficulty in the Appaloosa breed, mainly due to genetic defects. Night blindness appears to be prevalent in horses that carry two copies of the LP gene, one of the genes that controls spotted color patterns in horses. Total blindness is another problem, as is equine recurrent uveitis, characterized by squinting and watery eyes and leading to blindness if untreated.
The unique color pattern of the Appaloosa horse results in unpigmented patches on the skin. These patches are very sensitive to ultraviolet light and can develop skin cancer in some climates. Providing shade is helpful. In intense sunlight, some horses will need sunscreen; any human sunscreen that is safe for use around the eyes will work.
A genetic defect from the influential Quarter Horse Impressive has been introduced to the Appaloosa breed. This defect is called hyperkinetic periodic paralysis (HYPP) or Impressive Syndrome and causes unusually high potassium levels in the muscle. Symptoms range from tremors to collapse and death. The best way to avoid this problem is to test breeding stock for the defect and avoid using any animals which carry it.
On a brighter note, Appaloosas are often structurally sound, particularly in the legs and hooves. Lameness is rare in this breed.
Some Appaloosas shed their manes and tails annually, which can be concerning to owners who are not prepared for this. While it is always worthwhile to look into unexplained hair loss, this condition is perfectly normal in a handful of Appaloosas. In fact, quite a few Appaloosas have hardly any mane or tail at all, since the Nez Percé felt it was a useless encumbrance in an athletic war horse and hunting mount. This is no cause for concern unless the horse appears to be unhealthy or is having a hard time battling flies.
- Suitability for beginners.
- Strong survival instincts.
- Tendency to bore easily.
- Genetic defects.
- Confusion over solid-colored Appaloosas, which can be a problem when selling horses for purposes other than breeding.