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by Jil Wiedemann
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The Appaloosa Horse is a striking breed with a spectacular spotted coat pattern. It developed as a breed in the USA and is now one of the world’s most admired horses. It’s interesting that it is considered a relatively modern breed with its origin in the nineteenth century. In fact, horses with these types of colorful coats have existed for thousands of years. 

Appaloosa Horses – History and Origins

The spotted Appalossa is quite a modern breed. But they have their origins thousands of years ago. Researchers now know that the Lp gene that creates the spotted coat exists in the DNA of very ancient horses. This confirms that the spotted horses shown in cave paintings that are 20,000 years old and more are intended to show the coats of real animals. 

The lively little Dappled Horses of Pêch-Merle, for example, most likely really had the spotted coats that are shown in the paintings. Their coloring is not simply a product of the artistic imagination. While evidence for spotted horses is sparse, it’s clear from the few images that do exist that these were highly prized animals. An ancient Persian myth tells of the great hero Rustam and his spotted mount, Ruksh. Spotted horses were very popular as elite riding horses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The artist Johann Georg von Hamilton painted several examples of horses with spotted coats that are also very like modern Baroque breeds. Several of these noble spotted animals were Lipizzaners. 

Portraits of spotted horses show that they were popular throughout Europe in von Hamilton’s day. By the nineteenth century, there was even a European spotted breed of horse, the Danish Knabstrupper. The Austrian draft horse called the Pinzgauer also exhibits a spotted coat. When Europeans began to settle in North America, spotted horses were among the stock they brought with them. It was after this that the story of the horses with spotted coloring changed forever.

What are Appaloosa Horses used for?

When it comes to Western classes, from trail riding to reining, these spotted wonders can be real stars. In fact, these willing, smart horses will turn a hoof to just about anything, and look spectacular while they do it!

Appaloosa horses for sale

The Nez Percé and the Trail of Tears

Before the arrival of European settlers, the Nez Percé people lived in parts of what is now Oregon and Idaho. They named themselves the Niimíípu, pronounced “Ni Mee Poo,” which simply means “the people.” They had obtained horses by about 1730. Their great fortune was to live in a region that was ideal for raising horses. Taking advantage of this, they became famous for the quality of their animals. They maintained this high quality by gelding lower-quality horses and selling them as riding stock, which also ensured an income. The better horses were kept for breeding. While the Niimíípu horses were of various colors, the explorers, Lewis and Clark noticed in the early 1800s that many had colored coats. 

Since the Niimíípu lived close to the River Palouse, it’s believed their horses took their name from the river, becoming Appaloosas. In the 1860s, the Niimíípu came into conflict with settlers and miners, when the territory originally allocated to them was greatly reduced. War followed, and many of them took their stock and headed to Montana. Pursued by the U.S. Army, they tried to get to Canada and safety. However, freezing in winter and starving, they were forced to abandon their plan under threat of attack before they reached the border. 

Their horses were taken from them. Amazingly, spotted horses continued to be used, though the important contribution of the Niimíípu was nearly lost until the 1930s. Then, interest was revitalized in the spotted horse as an important heritage breed of America. By 1938, the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) had come into existence. The breed quickly became popular and firmly associated with America and the Western tradition. 

While other breeds sometimes have spotted individuals, the Appaloosa breed has a strong identity due to its spotted coat colors. Today the breed registry has 600,000 registered horses and many enthusiasts worldwide. Thus, the sad story of this beautiful, hardy horse and its breeders has a happy ending. In the 1990s, the Niimíípu began a new breeding program using spotted horses and Akhal Tekes to produce the Nez Percé Spotted Horse. There is also a move to recreate the spotted Baroque horses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, using Appaloosas and Spanish horses. The importance of the Appaloosa is now recognized with its own museum.

Appaloosa: Trotting on a meadow

Leopard spotted horses have white coats with dark spots distributed all over.


What marks the Appaloosa out from spotted individuals of other breeds is its distinctive conformation. They are powerful and muscular, yet fast and agile. They are frequently described as compact horses, as they have short, strong backs. Their legs are muscular and solid, often with striped hooves. Their heads usually have straight profiles, and their eyes are notable for showing the white sclera

Their excellent hooves can be solid-colored (usually blue-black) or striped. The skin around the muzzle, eyes, and dock area is often pinkish in color. Their manes and tails tend to be thin and wispy rather than full and flowing.

What is the temperament of an Appaloosa Horse?

On the whole, they have great temperaments – kind and willing to please. As individuals, some are smarter and more reactive than others.

Characteristics of Appaloosa Horses

There are several types of coat coloring and they are all very attractive! These include blanket spot or spotted blanket. In this color version, part of the horse (usually the forehand and belly) is dark, and the rump has a light-colored blanket speckled with dark spots. Leopard spotted horses have white coats with dark spots distributed all over. There is also a rarer, very beautiful, snowflake version with a dark coat with light spots. Further variants include frost, raindrop, and marble. The base coat colors include roan, bay, brown, black, and, more rarely, chestnut.

 It has been suggested that the Niimíípu particularly prized the spotted coloring because it provided camouflage when taking part in raids. In terms of temperament, Appaloosas are generally good-natured, intelligent horses with a willingness to participate in many different activities. They are extremely hardy and can be very fast. They can also be gaited. There are now several gaited types with Appaloosa coloring, including the Tiger Horse, the Shuffle Horse, the Colorado Rangerbred, and the Pony of the Americas.


Video of Appaloosa Horses

Appaloosa Horse – Breeding and Uses

In the twentieth century, other breeds had an influence on Appaloosa Horses, including the Arabian and the American Quarter Horse. Today, in order to be registered with the ApHC, a horse must either have two registered Appaloosa parents, or be the offspring of one registered ApHC parent, plus a parent from an ApHC-approved breed registry. These are the Arabian, Quarter Horse, or Thoroughbred. The Arab cross has become so popular that it has its own name and organization – the AraAppaloosa.

There are still some unknown factors in how the genes work to produce Appaloosa coloring. The Lp gene is an “autosomal incomplete dominant mutation” that has been identified in horses. This means that in order to show leopard spotting, a horse must have inherited at least one version of this gene. However, precisely how the patterning genes work to produce so many lovely variations in coat color is still to be discovered.

Appaloosas are versatile horses that take part in every kind of equestrian activity. They are particularly popular in Western classes. They are great trail riding horses, being sure-footed and intelligent. Gaited individuals are particularly good for traveling long distances.

Appaloosa: Walking in nature

Appaloosas are powerful and muscular, yet fast and agile. They are frequently described as compact horses, as they have short, strong backs.

Diet and Nutrition

Being tough and hardy, a good Appaloosa generally needs no special diet and will thrive on ordinary grazing with plenty of exercise. To maintain the horses’ well-being, and in particular the strength of their hooves and limbs, it’s important to keep them in as natural conditions as possible

Is an Appaloosa Horse good for beginners?

Like all horses, they are individuals and each will have its own unique character. Generally though, being easy to keep and versatile, they can be a great choice for a beginner.

Health and Behavior

Appaloosas are generally very healthy horses. However, they can be prone to some serious genetic issues. One of these is Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU). They are far more at risk to this than any other breed. It’s been estimated that a quarter of all horses that suffer from this unpleasant eye condition are Appaloosas, especially those with reduced pigment around the eyes. Since this can result in blindness, it’s important to get any eye issues checked out with the vet.

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