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Appaloosa Horse

Appaloosa Horse                           Appaloosa Horse


About the Breed known as the "Appaloosa"

Distinguishing features: 

Most representatives have colorful spotted coat patterns, striped hooves, mottled skin and white sclera around the eye.

Country of origin:     United States
Breed standards:
Appaloosa Horse Club:     Stds


The Appaloosa is a horse breed with preferred characteristics that include coat pattern. It is best known for a distinctive leopard spotted coat color, but has other distinctive physical characteristics. The Nez Perce tribe of the American Pacific Northwest developed the breed. They were once referred to by white settlers as the "Palouse horse", probably because the Palouse River ran through the heart of Nez Perce country. Gradually, the name evolved into "Appaloosa".


Roots in Europe and Asia

The earliest evidence of horses with a spotted coat pattern is from the cave paintings dating from the Upper Paleolithic era, circa 18,000 BC found at Lascaux and Peche-Merle in France. Archaeologists have found later evidence of domesticated horses with blanket spotting patterns in the art of Ancient Persia, Ancient Greece, the T'ang Dynasty of China and 11th century France.

Spotted horses in the Americas

Historians are not exactly sure how spotted horses arrived in the Americas. Some scholars believe the Spanish Conquistadors brought some vividly-marked horses with them when they first arrived in the early 1500s.  Others believe that the Russian fur-traders brought them at a later date. Another theory holds that when spotted horses went out of style in late-18th century Europe, large numbers were shipped to the west coast of America and traded to Spanish settlers and the Indian people of the Pacific Northwest, a voyage survived only by the hardiest animals. Each theory has some historical support.

The Appaloosa and the Nez Perce people

What is known is that horses in general had reached the Pacific Northwest by 1700 and the Nez Perce people, who lived in what today is eastern Washington and Oregon, were known as notable horse breeders by the early 1800s. The Nez Perce obtained their original horses from the Shoshone people, and from there took advantage of the fact that they lived in excellent horse-breeding country, relatively safe from the raids of other tribes, and developed strict breeding selection practices for their horses. They were one of the few tribes to actively use the practice of gelding inferior male horses, and actively traded away poorer stock to remove unsuitable animals from the gene pool.

These early Nez Perce horses were considered to be of high quality. Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition wrote in his February 15, 1806 journal entry: "Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are lofty, eligantly  formed, active and durable: in short many of them look like fine English horses and would make a figure in any country." Lewis did note spotting patterns, saying, "…some of these horses are pided with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with black, brown, bay or some other dark color."

By "pided", some historians argue that he meant pied, or pinto. Even if Lewis did refer to leopard-spotted patterns seen in the modern Appaloosa, the Appaloosa Horse Club itself estimates that only about ten percent of the horses owned by the Nez Perce at the time were spotted. It is clear the Nez Perce had many solid-colored horses in the early 1800s, and only began to emphasize color in their breeding program some time after the arrival of Lewis and Clark. In any case, the Nez Perce had many spotted horses by the late 1800s when they once again came to the attention of the rest of the world.

The Nez Perce people were a relatively peaceful nation, many of whom engaged in agriculture as well as horse breeding. The encroachment of gold miners in the 1860s and settlers in the 1870s put pressure on the tribe to give up much of their land, and various treaties between 1855 and 1863 reduced their original treaty lands of seven million acres (28,000 km²) by 90%.

Ultimately the Nez Perce drew the line at the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. While their leader, popularly known as Chief Joseph, was attempting to negotiate a new treaty, a small group of warriors attacked settlers in 1877, leading to a battle in the White Bird Canyon of Idaho and the 1877 Nez Perce War. Joseph then led about 800 of his people, mostly non-warriors, in a remarkable retreat southeast through Idaho and Montana and then back north across Yellowstone National Park, traveling roughly 1,700 miles while first trying to seek refuge with other tribes including the Shoshone and the Crow Nation, then ultimately deciding to try to reach safety in Canada. A small number of Nez Perce fighters, mounted on their fast, agile and hardy Appaloosa horses, successfully held off larger forces of the U.S. Army in several skirmishes, including the two-day Battle of the Big Hole in southwestern Montana.

However, the journey came to an end when they stopped to rest near the Bears Paw Mountains in Montana, 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the Canadian border, thinking that they had shaken off their pursuers. But Nelson A. Miles, then a colonel, led his troops in a rapid march of over 200 miles (322 kilometers) to catch the Nez Perce. After a devastating five-day battle, the battle - and the war -was over. Chief Joseph declared in his famous speech that he'd "fight no more forever."

The aftermath of the Nez Perce War:

When the U.S. 7th Cavalry captured Chief Joseph and the remaining Nez Perce on October 5, 1877, they immediately took over 1,000 of the tribe's horses, sold what they could, and shot many of the rest. A significant population of horses had been hastily left behind in the Wallowa valley when the Nez Perce began their retreat still remained, and additional animals escaped or were abandoned along the way. The Nez Perce were ultimately settled on a reservation in north central Idaho, were allowed very few horses, and were required by the Army to breed what mares they still had to draft horse stallions in an attempt to create farm horses. Thus, though a remnant population of Appaloosa remained after 1877, the Appaloosa breed was virtually forgotten as a distinct breed for almost 60 years. However, a few quality horses continued to be bred, mostly those captured or purchased by white settlers and used as working ranch horses.

The revitalization of the breed:

In 1937, the Appaloosa as a breed had caught the eye of the general public because of a series of articles in Western Horseman magazine, and in 1938 the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) was founded by Claude Thompson and a small group of other dedicated breeders. The registry was originally housed in Moro, Oregon, then in 1947 moved to Moscow, Idaho. The Appaloosa Museum foundation was formed in 1975 to preserve the history of the Appaloosa horse.

The State of Idaho offers an Appaloosa customized license plate.

By 1978, the ApHC was the third largest horse registry in the United States. Today, the Appaloosa breed is one of America's most popular breeds and there are over 670,000 Appaloosas registered by the ApHC. The state of Idaho adopted the Appaloosa as its official state horse on March 25, 1975 when Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus signed the enabling legislation. Idaho even offers a custom license plate featuring an Appaloosa horse,the first state to offer a plate featuring a state horse.

The Nez Perce tribe once again began a breeding program in 1995 to develop a distinct breed, the Nez Perce Horse. Based on crossbreeding the Appaloosa with a Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke, the Nez Perce hope to resurrect their horse culture, a tradition of selective breeding and horsemanship that was destroyed by the 19th century Nez Perce war. The breeding program was financed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe, and the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes tribal business development.

Physical characteristics:

Most Appaloosas are recognized by their colorful spotted coat patterns, striped hooves, mottled skin (most visible around their eyes and on their muzzle) and white sclera around the eye. Appaloosas can have brown, blue or hazel eyes. Sometimes they will have eyes of different colors. However, some "N" registered Appaloosas do not display all of the typical traits and may appear to be "solid" (without spots, visible coat pattern or other characteristics generally associated with the breed.)

While the original, "old time" Appaloosas often had a sparse mane and tail, it was not a predisposition for the breed as a whole; many original Appaloosas had full manes and tails. Today the "rat tail" trait is usually bred away from and most "modern" Appaloosas have full manes and tails.

Modern conformation:

Because the registered pedigree of the Appaloosa is the primary qualification, and Appaloosa coloring a preferred identifying factor, there are several body styles found in the breed, including stock horses, sport (English) horses, pleasure horses, race horses and trail horses. Because of this wide variety, Appaloosas are used in many different disciplines. Other popular breeds with Appaloosa coloring include the Pony of the Americas, the Colorado Ranger, and the Tiger Horse.

The overwhelming majority of Appaloosas seen in the horse show ring today have an athletic build that resembles that of the Appendix Quarter Horse and hunter type Thoroughbred. Excessive heavy muscling is not desired.

The middle of the road "stock horse" build is well suited to western riding disciplines such as cutting, reining, rodeo and O-Mok-See sports such as barrel racing (Camas Prairie Stump Race) and pole bending (Nez Percé Stake Race) as well as short-length horse racing, generally at the quarter-mile distance. The "foundation" or "working" Appaloosa is still sometimes seen, especially on working ranches. This is a slightly smaller, leaner animal considered to be closer in type to the original Nez Perce bloodstock. There are also some Appaloosas that display more of a Thoroughbred or sport horse conformation. The Appaloosa Sport Horse is taller, with longer legs and a leaner build, bred to be used in English riding sports, in particular dressage and Hunter-style events. A similarly spotted breed in Europe, with a sport horse build, is the Knabstrup.

20th century development of Appaloosa conformation

The physical conformation of the original Appaloosa was typical of the range horses found in the western United States. Original or "old style" Appaloosas were highly regarded as hardy range horses and many early ranchers and horse breeders used roan or minimally marked Appaloosas in their programs, particularly in parts of Texas and Colorado. This had an impact on the development of the American Quarter Horse, especially with regard to the Peavy, Roberd and Casement herds. However, a significant crossbreeding used to revitalize the Appaloosa was the Arabian horse, as evidenced by early registration lists which show crossbred Appaloosa/Arabians as making up ten of the first fifteen horses registered with the ApHC. For example, one of Claude Thompson's major herd sires was Ferras, an Arabian stallion bred by W.K. Kellogg from horses imported from the Crabbet Arabian Stud of England. Ferras then sired Red Eagle, a prominent Appaloosa stallion, who was added to the Appaloosa Hall of Fame in 1988. Later, Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse lines were added, as well as crosses from other breeds, including Morgans and Standardbreds. In 1983, the ApHC reduced the number of allowable outcrosses to three main breeds: the Arabian horse, the American Quarter Horse and the Thoroughbred.

Equine coat color:

The base color of the Appaloosa horse can include bay, black, chestnut, palomino, buckskin, dun and grulla. However, it is the unique spotting patterns that most people associate with the Appaloosa horse. These spotted markings are not the same as the "dapples" sometimes seen in grays and some other horse colors. Appaloosa markings overlay the base coat color, and have several pattern variations.

  • BLANKET - white over the hip that may extend from the tail to the base of the neck. The spots inside the blanket (if present) are the same color as the horse's base coat.
  • LEOPARD - A horse whose Appaloosa white patterning is exhibited to an extreme with base colored spots of various sizes covering most of its body.
  • FEW SPOT LEOPARD - This is a horse whose base color is nearly obscured by its Appaloosa white patterning covering up to 90% of its body.  The horse may exhibit patches of color on the heads, knees, elbows, flanks (called "varnish marks"). Some may have as few as only one or two spots.
  • SNOWFLAKE A horses with white spots, flecks, on a dark body. Typically the white spots increase in number and size as the horse ages.
  • VARNISH - dark points (legs and head) and some spots or roaning over a light body. May occur in conjunction with another spotting style and change with age. Often starts out as a solid colored horse that gets more white as it ages, but is not a gray.
  • FROST - similar to varnish but the white hairs are limited to the back, loins, and neck. May occur in conjunction with another spotting  style and change with age. Often starts out as a solid colored horse that gets more white as it ages.

Equine coat color genetics:

Genetic studies by Sponenberg and other researchers suggest that Appaloosa color patterns occur when at least one parent carries the "Lp" gene. While there is currently no DNA test for the gene, it is believed that it is located on a single autosomal dominant locus, and may possibly be a gene-complex rather than a single gene. It should be noted that not every horse with the Lp gene exhibits hair coat spotting. However, even some solid individuals will exhibit characteristics such as vertically striped hooves, white sclera of the eye, or mottled skin around the eyes, lips, and genitalia.

Sometimes, Appaloosas may also exhibit sabino or pinto type markings, but these are not desirable and are discouraged by the ApHC registration rules. The Appaloosa Project, a genetic study group, has also done extensive research on the interactions of Appaloosa and pinto genes and how they affect each other. The genes that create these different patterns can all be present in the same horse. However, because pinto genes, particularly the overo pattern, may "cover-up" or obscure Appaloosa patterns, pinto breeding is discouraged by the ApHC, which will deny registration to some horses if they have excessive white markings.


The preface of the ApHC rule book states that the Appaloosa is "a breed defined by ApHC bloodline requirements and preferred characteristics, including coat pattern." In other words, the Appaloosa is a distinct breed from limited bloodlines with distinct physical traits and a desired color, referred to by breeders as a "color preference." Thus, Appaloosas are not strictly a "color breed" as many people believe. All ApHC-registered Appaloosas must be the offspring of two registered Appaloosa parents or a registered Appaloosa and a horse from an approved breed registry. The ApHC lists Arabian horses, Quarter Horses, and Thoroughbreds as approved breeds. In all cases, one parent must always be a regular registered Appaloosa. The only exception to the bloodline requirements is in the case of Appaloosa colored geldings or spayed mares with unknown pedigrees; owners may apply for "hardship registration" for these non-breeding horses.

In addition to the spotting patterns previously mentioned, certain other characteristics are used to determine if a horse receives "regular" registration, including:

  • Mottling, spotted skin which is apparent around the lips, eyelids, and genitalia. The Appaloosa horse is the only horse to have this   characteristic, and therefore mottled skin is a very basic and decisive indication of an Appaloosa. Mottled skin is different from pink (flesh colored or non-pigmented) skin in that it will normally contain small, round, dark spots (pigmented skin)
  • Sclera a white ring around the eyes
  • Striped hooves

Appaloosas which are born with visible coat pattern, or mottled skin and at least one other characteristic, are registered with "regular" papers and have full show and breeding privileges. A horse that meets bloodline requirements but is born without the recognized color pattern/characteristics can still be registered with the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) because registry is based upon the pedigree of the horse reflecting a recognized Appaloosa bloodline. These solid colored, "non-characteristic" Appaloosas are registered with an "N" prefix on their registration papers, indicating the horse does not show the preferred Appaloosa color or characteristics. N-registered Appaloosas may not be shown at ApHC events unless the owner DNA parentage-verifies the N-registered horse and pays an extra fee to enter the horse into the ApHC's Performance Permit Program (PPP).24 PPP horses can be shown in ApHC approved events; however, all solid non-characteristic Appaloosas do have breeding restrictions and can only be bred to a regular (#) papered Appaloosa. A (N) registered horse can be upgraded to regular registration at any time if the horse begins to show a color pattern and/or required Appaloosa characteristics.


Color and registration

Any horse that shows Appaloosa markings carries the "Leopard" or Lp gene, which must be present in at least one parent. During the 1940s and 1950s, when both the Appaloose Horse Club (ApHC) and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) were in their formative years, minimally marked or roan Appaloosas were sometimes used in Quarter Horse breeding programs. At the same time, it was noted that two registered Quarter Horse parents would sometimes produce what was called a "crop-out" -- in the Quarter horse world, a term referring to an Appaloosa or Paint-colored foal, one with too much white in the "wrong" places. For a considerable time, until DNA testing could verify parentage, the AQHA refused to register such horses. However, the ApHC accepted "crop-out" horses that exhibited proper Appaloosa traits, and "crop-out" Paints became the core of the American Paint Horse registry, the American Paint Horse Association. Famous Appaloosas who were "crop-outs" included Colida, Joker B, Bright Eyes Brother and Wapiti.

Later, in the 1970s, the color controversy went in the opposite direction. The ApHC generated considerable controversy by a decision to allow solid or "non-characteristic" Appaloosas to be registered with the "N" prefix system. Prior to the implementation of the rule, a foal of Appaloosa parents who did not have sufficient color was often denied registration. However, the non-characteristic Appaloosas were allowed into the registry primarily for two reasons; evidence showed that solid Appaloosas could throw a spotted foal in a subsequent generation, at least when bred to a spotted Appaloosa, and in addition, many horses with a solid coat nonetheless exhibited secondary characteristics.

Drug rules:

In 2007, the ApHC implemented new drug rules which will allow Appaloosas to show with the drugs Acetazolamide and Lasix. Acetazolamide ("Acet") is used for treating HYPP horses to prevent seizures (Acetazolamide is not to be confused with Acepromazine ("Ace"), a tranquilizer, which is illegal in all forms of competition). Lasix is used to prevent horses who bleed from the nose when subjected to strenuous work from having bleeding episodes when in competition, and is widely used in horse racing. Both drugs are controversial in part because they are considered drug "maskers" and as diuretics which can be used to make it difficult to detect the use of other drugs from the horse's system. For these reasons, and also due to lack of membership notice and comment, this rule change has generated controversy.  On one side, it is argued that both the USEF, which sponsors show competition for many different horse breeds, and the FEI, which governs international and Olympic Equestrian competition ban the use of Lasix. On the other side of the controversy, several major stock horse registries that sanction their own shows, including the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, and the Palomino Horse Breeders' of America, allow Acetazolamide and Lasix to be used with 24 hours of showing under certain circumstances; suggesting that use of these drugs on show horses within the stock horse breeds may be an "industry standard."


Appaloosas have an eightfold higher risk of developing spontaneous equine recurrent uveitis (ERU), which can, if not treated, lead to blindness, which occurs in Appaloosas at four times the rate of the general horse population. As many as 25% of all Appaloosas may develop ERU, the highest prevalence in any horse breed. Current research at the University of Minnesota is attempting to detemine if there is a genetic factor involved; and may have identified a potential gene region that may be linked to the condition.

Popular culture:

Appaloosas are often used in Western movies as mounts for both cowboy and Native American characters. Examples include the Clint Eastwood film Pale Rider, and the Marlon Brando film The Appaloosa. [1]


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