Appaloosas are the quintessential spotted horses made famous by Hollywood Westerns. The polka-dot patterned horses are highly coveted today, but not totally unique. Equines with dots have been around since prehistoric times. There are cave paintings in Europe depicting horses with leopard spots. There’s artwork which shows horses with spotted patterns from Ancient Greece as well as the Han Dynasty in China. Horses with attractive spots were frequent gifts between European royal families in the middle ages.

Today Appaloosas are just one of six popular horse breeds renowned for their spotted coats. Other famous spotted breeds include the Knabstrupper, the Farabella Pony, the British Spotted Pony and Noriker, and the Nez Perce Horse to which the Appaloosa is directly related.

Breyer Appaloosa horse

Pam Fowler Grace’s dressage horse, Pay N Go as a Breyer model – 2003.

Celebrity Appaloosas have widened the appeal of the breed. Cojo Rojo, a black-blanketed Appaloosa ridden by Marlon Brando in the 1966 movie “The Appaloosa,” and Zip Cochise, who was ridden by John Wayne in the 1966 movie “El Dorado” are two of the breed’s best-known stars. Pam Fowler Grace’s dressage horse, Pay N Go, who gave the performance of his life at the request of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney during a memorial service for his wife, Linda McCartney, in New York City in 1998, would be another all-time great Appaloosa. This horse became a Breyer model produced from 2000-2003.

The Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) was established in 1938 with a mission of preserving, promoting, and enhancing the Appaloosa breed. ApHC is an international breed registry and is one of the world’s leading equine breed registries with more than 670,000 Appaloosas registered.

Origins of the Appaloosa Horse

Spanish conquistadores brought their best horses to the Americas in the 1500s and those who found freedom spawned wild herds which rapidly migrated north through the Great Plains. The Nez Percé tribe who lived along the Palouse river in the Pacific Northwest soon evolved into excellent horsemen.

The Palouse River is a tributary of the Snake River in Washington and Idaho, in the northwest United States. It flows for 167 miles southwestwards, primarily through the Palouse region of southeastern Washington and Idaho. The name Appaloosa is derived from “A Palouse Horse” referring to this unique geographic area. This was the home of the wild appaloosas (and there are still feral horses there today).

The Nez Percé were careful horse breeders, creating herds of strong, good-looking animals of which an estimated ten per cent carried the genetic makeup resulting in various coat spotting patterns.

Appaloosa horse with spotted patterns in snowy pasture

Bob Langrish photo

The indigenous peoples in the Northwest required their horses to negotiate the treacherous trails from their winter quarters in the Wallowa Valley of eastern Oregon through the Rocky Mountains to the summer encampments on the Plains. The horses were fast enough to catch a bison and smooth-gaited enough to allow a hunter to fire with accuracy from a full gallop. The Nez Percé War against the US Army was fought over land rights in 1877, and the conflict saw the tribe’s horses captured, abandoned, sold and shot. Some remained on reservations or escaped into the wild.

At the end of the Nez Perce War, the US Army recognized the advantage the horses gave the Indians, and destroyed their horses to remove their military power. Chief White Bird got away, however, slipping across the Canadian border with women, children and some of their prized spotted horses.

The Appaloosa breed was virtually forgotten until an article in Western Horseman magazine in 1937 renewed interest in preserving the breed and led to the formation of the Appaloosa Horse Club in 1938. Since then the appreciation for this distinct breed has only grown steadily stronger. Folk singer Fred Small’s 1983 song “The Heart of the Appaloosa” describes the events of the Nez Perce War, highlighting the Nez Perce’s skillful use of the Appaloosa breed in battle and in flight.

How big is an Appaloosa horse?

The Appaloosa is a mid-sized horse which stands between 14 hands (56 inches) and 16 hands (64 inches), though some can be a bit larger. Its average weight ranges from 950 to 1,200 pounds. Body types vary depending on more modern influences such as Quarter Horse, Arabian or Thoroughbred blood, but generally they’re well-muscled with powerful hindquarters which give them speed, stamina, and agility. Some breed variants have less-than-usual mane and tail hair.

How fast is an Appaloosa horse?

Appaloosas are fast horses. The Nez Perce tribe bred their horses for speed including favouring those specimens with short tails to prevent tangling and snagging in the brush. With the infusion of Quarter Horse genes (after the Nez Perce War) the breed’s speed has only improved.
When it comes to horse racing, Appaloosas excel at middle distance races, typically between 350 yards and half-mile long tracks. In 1989, an Appaloosa set an all-breed record for 4.5 furlongs (approximately 990 yards) race, a record that still holds today. The purses for Appaloosa horse racing are usually a lot smaller than they are in regular horse racing and only a small number of races are held each year.

What colour is an Appaloosa horse?

The base colour of the Appaloosa can be red roan, blue roan, bay roan, gray, palomino, chestnut, cremello / perlino, dun, buckskin, black, brown, dark bay, bay or grulla. Facial colors and patterns include bald, blaze, snip, stripe, and star. On the legs, you might find eel, pastern, ankle, half-pastern, coronet, stocking, half-stocking, and lightning marks.

Solid-colored Appaloosa horses may be ‘appendix registered’ because they can carry the gene for a coat pattern but do not exhibit that particular pattern themselves. Solid-coloured horses must be blood-typed to verify their Appaloosa parentage if they are going to compete in recognized for competitions, raced, or bred.

Although Appaloosas are known for their colorful coat patterns, they have other distinctive characteristics including mottled skin, striped hooves and white sclera in their eyeballs.

Mottled skin is a speckled combination of skin with both light and dark pigments, and is usually found on the skin around a horse’s muzzle, eyes, and genitals. Striped hooves only occur on solid-colored legs, so horses with four white leg markings will never have striped hooves

The appaloosa has white sclera in their eyes. Most horses have completely dark eyes, meaning there are no whites around the iris and pupil. Appaloosas, on the other hand, have eyes more like humans with the white area (called the sclera) around the iris and pupil. This is rare in horses, but a common feature in the Appaloosa breed.

The Appaloosa’s color pattern is of interest to those who study equine coat color genetics, as it and several other physical characteristics are linked to the leopard complex mutation, the name given to a distinct group of genetically-related coat patterns in horses. These patterns range from progressive increases in interspersed white hair similar to graying or roan to distinctive, Dalmatian-like leopard spots on a white coat. Appaloosas are prone to develop equine recurrent uveitis and congenital stationary night blindness; the latter has also been linked to the leopard complex.

What‘s the difference between Appaloosa and the Nez Perce Horse?

The Nez Perce Horse is a variation of the Appaloosa breed, and some would say the essence, or the foundation strain of the breed. Nez Perce Horses are the original horses bred by the indigenous people which only became Appaloosas sixty years later and with draft and Quarter Horse bloodlines.

Nez Perce horses do not come in as many colours; they are usually either buckskin or palomino, with Appaloosa characteristic such as mottled skin, a blanket and or spotting.

Compared to the modern Quarter Horse infused Appaloosas, the original Nez Perce is a longer and leaner horse, with a longer back end and narrower shoulders. The Nez Perce horse is often described as looking like a “lean runner”.

Appaloosa horse being exhibited by Nez Perce tribe in Washington State

Bob Langrish photo

Appaloosa Coat Patterns

A number of different coat patterns are recognized by the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC).

Leopard: The body is mainly white with dark spots. Leopard complex is the proper name of the genetic sequencing responsible for this Appaloosa pattern. These patterns range from white patches or progressively lighter hair similar to graying or roan all the way to the other end of the spectrum which is Dalmatian-like leopard spots on a white coat.

Blanket: The haunches are all white, or they are white and speckled with dark spots. The “classic” blanket pattern (also known as a “snowcap”) has a completely bare rump — no spots. A rump that’s mostly white with some spots is technically known as a “spotted blanket” pattern.

Snowflake: The body is dark with white spots or flecks, especially over the haunches. While most Appaloosa coats have dark spots on a light background, the Snowflake coat pattern is the opposite: it features light spots on a dark background. The horse’s “base” coat will usually range from chestnut to black. The spots will be small, white, and well-spaced apart, like individual snowflakes falling in darkness.

Varnish: Varnish roans typically begin life with either a very small amount of white roaning in the region of their hindquarters and/or face or no white at all. With age, this white roaning spreads, producing an effect that is sometimes confused with greying or true roan.

What are Appaloosa horses used for?

In the 1800’s, the Nez Perce tribe bred Appaloosas for transport, hunting, and battle. That conditioning remains today and makes the modern Appaloosa an extremely versatile horse. Owners and riders of all levels, including children, prize their Appaloosas for their easygoing dispositions and their reliability as ranch horses, or as the family horse.

Appaloosas are widely perceived as a Western breed, but the horses are used for both British style and Western riding. Western events you are likely to see Appaloosas include barrel riding, roping, cutting, and reining. They’re frequently seen in British events such as eventing, show jumping, and fox hunting. They’re are eager to please, which makes them a great horse breed for equestrians of all experience levels.

Appaloosas are best suited to pleasure riding and are good horses for long-distance trail rides, working cattle and rodeos. The breed is frequently seen in film and television where their distinctive colour patterns steal scenes. Appaloosas are friendly, gentle horses whose loyalty makes them especially enjoyable companions.

For more information:
Appaloosa Horse Club
Appaloosa Horse Club of Canada