History of the Appaloosa

A Special Breed: The Appaloosa

A horse of many colors and coat patterns.

Many people associate the Appaloosa with the old west and certain Indian tribes, but their relationship with man dates back to a much earlier time. Spotted horses roamed the earth since before prehistoric times when man lived in caves during the ice age. Pictures of spotted horses on cave walls can be found in many caves across Europe. Ancient artists painted these pictures as part of special rites, hoping for successful hunts and plentiful food. As long as 20,000 years ago, the artists drew detailed images of spotted horses in caves which are located in France.

In ancient Persia, Appaloosas were worshipped as the sacred horses of Nisca, the great hero of Persian literature. Rustan rode a spotted horse name RAKUSH. Rakush was chosen from among thousands of horses brought to the regions that are now Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan. He was known as a “Great War Horse” and sired many beautiful spotted foals.

Spotted horses also could be found in China as early as 206 B.C. and before. A statuette of a horse was excavated from a tomb of T’ang Dynasty date at Astana, Turfan by Sir Aurel Stein in the eastern part of Sinkiang Province, China.

Figurines can be found in tombs in China of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 221 A.D.). The statuette of the spotted horse probably dates around the seventh century A.D. It is one of the earliest representations of horses marked with the light hips and spots of the Appaloosa to be found in Asia. Close to the site of the tombs, in the caves of Tun-Huang, a large number of spotted horses appear in a magnificent series of murals and date to the T’ang Dynasty.

Many Chinese paintings from long ago Dynasties, including and displaying the spotted horses of China, can be found in major museums of the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the British Museum of London, and many more.

In western Europe, the spotted horse appears periodically throughout history. The famous Lippizzaner Horses often exhibited spots during the 16th through the 18th centuries. The same spots still crop up to this day, and the Lippizzaner often displays evidence of mottled skin, one of the Appaloosa’s characteristics.

The Spanish explorers introduced the spotted horse to North America. Spanish Andalusians often had spotted coats. Andalusians had been used by the Spanish for their explorations and the native populations stole and traded these horses amongst themselves. Quickly the spotted horse spread northward until most of the Indian populations were mounted (around 1700).

The Nez Perce Indians of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho became highly sophisticated horsemen in the use of their horses, and their mounts were highly prized by other tribes. Unlike most tribes, the Nez Perce carefully selected the spotted horses they were to breed. Only the best horses were allowed to produce offspring. One of the first white men to visit the Nez Perce was an explorer and horseman, Meriwether Lewis. He described the Appaloosa in his journal dated February 15, 1806: Their horses appear to be of an excellent race. They are lofty, elegantly formed, and durable.

The Nez Perce horses performed tasks according to their value. The most precious horses were ridden during buffalo hunting and war. The war horse needed strength, speed, courage, and intelligence. Horses with these qualities and flashy or unusual markings had the most value. Spots helped to camouflage the horse and rider, for the splashy coat patterns helped to break up the horses’ outline and made it difficult to see from the distance. The white settlers called the horses “Palouse” horses or “a Palouse horse” as the Nez Perce lived in Palouse country. Eventually, the name became Appalousey, and finally, Appaloosa.

In the late 1800s, war broke out between the U.S. Calvary and the Nez Perce Indians. The Appaloosa was the reason the U.S. Calvary was deprived of victory for many months, as the Nez Perce fled over 1300 miles of rugged, almost impassable terrain under the guidance of the famed Chief Joseph. The final defeat of the Nez Perce came in Montana. They surrendered their horses, left them behind, or they were distributed amongst the settlers. The proud band of carefully selected horses was gone.

Nothing was done about these strong-willed horses, and they were almost diminished to nothing, as an article by Dr. Francis Haines was published in 1937 in The Western Horseman titled “The Appaloosa or Palouse Horse.” Soon after the release of the article, many people become interested in the breed, and in 1938, farmer and horseman Claude Thompson incorporated the Appaloosa Horse Club for the preservation and improvement of the diminishing breed.

The restoration process was slow and the Appaloosa Horse Club grew at a slow pace. More and more people got interested in the breed, using the Appaloosa as a working horse, for recreational use, and soon there was nothing the Appaloosa wouldn’t do. The breeders and owners had found out how special this breed of horse was: the horse had great color, a will to work and please, a super disposition, a social personality, and the stamina and intelligence to perform any task it is asked. The breed became very popular, the club and its registry grew to the third-largest horse registry in its time.

Today the breed has endured many hardships once more. The uncontrolled outcrossing to other breeds, especially the American Quarter Horse, has caused a severe loss in special conformation, its great disposition, its praised versatility, and most of all, its color. Many Appaloosas are born solid colored and never color later in life. They don’t even display the characteristics that the typical Appaloosa calls its own: white sclera in the eyes (resembling the human eye), partli-colored skin on or around the muzzle or in its soft skin, and vertically striped hooves. Appaloosas lacking the color and characteristics are being shown and exhibited by many breeders and owners in Appaloosa shows, which is” unacceptable”  to the true breeder and owner.

Appaloosa shows 25 years ago were a great happening; people came from all around to watch these horses compete. Racing horse against horse brought the viewers out of their seats. The authentic Nez Perce costumes worn in the costume classes made a picture no one ever forgot, and the show atmosphere captured everyone. All this has vanished from the show ring today: competition is fierce between exhibitors–the Appaloosa doesn’t have to prove himself anymore in its versatility just to become a champion, so the excitement has long left the arena. Expenses have risen to highs that a small breeder or owner simply cannot afford anymore. If a solid “Appaloosa” colored horse is shown against a “colored Appaloosa” and the solid “Appaloosa” places over the colored horse, so his color does not mean anything at the show anymore,  that is just not acceptable to the real Appaloosa breeder. The solid Appaloosa should never be exhibited as a real Appaloosa, as it is not complete, it lacks the color………………….however it should be used as Breeding stock only.

The original founders of the ACBA based their decision to begin the effort to organize the Association on the firm belief that the turmoil which gripped the Appaloosa industry in 1982 and early 1983 would ultimately be extremely detrimental to the very animal the industry has the responsibility to preserve and promote. Any decision to allow a solid colored animal to be considered as a representative of the Appaloosa breed is, to many thousands of dedicated Appaloosa breeders and owners, simply unacceptable.

The Association is fully aware that while we have the responsibility of managing the Association’s business affairs, our future ultimately rests with our membership. We must also realize that the respect the Appaloosa may expect to receive from the horse industry as a whole is dependent upon our ability to provide a consistent, stable basis for its existence.

The horse industry does not owe us respect. We must earn it and be continually aware of our responsibility to maintain our worthiness of such respect.