Pinto Horse Origin and Characteristics

Pinto horses are not an independent breed. They are a “color” breed, which means they can appear in several different horse breeds around the world. For a horse to have a pinto coat, there must be large patches of white and then a “solid” coat color which complements it.

Some cultures have selectively bred their horses over the years to obtain pinto patterning on the coat. It can also occur naturally because of lineage and genetics within certain breeds.

Pinto horses, or “colored” horses in some cultures, are one of the most popular coat types in the world today. Some breed registries will accept horses based solely on the patterning of their coat. The coat pattern is distinct from other spotting genetics.

A pinto horse is sometimes called a “Paint,” but this is inaccurate. The American Paint Horse is the true paint, which is a pinto-type horse that has bloodlines from a Thoroughbred or an American Quarter Horse.

What Is the Origin of the Pinto Horse?

“Pinto” in Spanish can mean “spotted,” “painted,” or “dappled.” The coat coloration has not yet been officially identified through DNA typing, but the history of spotted horses goes back to the earliest days of documented human history. Cave art, pottery, and other artifacts from antiquity have shown that spotted patterns on horses date back thousands of years.

Objects from Ancient Egypt, Russian, and the Roman Empire all show evidence of coat spotting that is similar to the pinto pattern. 

In the first days of horse domestication, the spotted patterning in a coat may have been one of the first traits that was selectively bred. This popularity continued for centuries, but peaked in the 17th century when Europeans found spotted horses to be particularly attractive. When that trend ended, however, there were large numbers of horses that were no longer valuable.

That is when the pinto horse came to the Americas. Many of them were turned loose because of the costs of caring for them. Some were sold and breeding for the spot patterning continued. The native and First Nations tribes were particularly attracted to the pinto horse and several groups created their own breeding programs as well.

It is because of this history that the United States currently has the largest population of pinto horses in the world today.

What Are the Color Patterns of a Pinto Horse?

There are several descriptions that are used for the coat coloring that is found on a pinto horse. Color combinations and spotting combinations may each have their own terminology. Here are some of the common terms for the colors that can be found.

Piebald: These horses have a black base coat, but any pinto pattern. This creates a spotted horse that is black and white.

Skewbald: These horses have any other base coat color except black and may have any pinto patterning. Most horses within this category are either bay or chestnut, but any other color than black fits into this terminology.

Colored: This term is used for both skewbald and piebald horses. It is a general term used in Europe, especially in Britain, for pinto horses.

Tricolored: Some pinto horses may have three coat colors instead of two, including the white coloration from their spotting. These horses are typically classified as skewbald, but are sometimes separated into their own group.

There are also 4 distinct patterns that are recognized with pinto horses.

  • Tobiano. This is the most common type of pinto horse. The spotting is down the back and legs, with a vertical look to the pattern. The ideal tobiano horse would have a 50% pattern distribution.
  • Overo. This pattern incorporates any pattern that is not recognized as being tobiano. Splashed white, sabino, and frame horses are included in this category. The spotting is jagged instead of rounded, with crisp edging. The head, neck, and body have spotting more so than the withers.
  • Tovero. This pinto horse pattern combines tobiano and overo pattern traits. Multiple spotting genes are often found with horses like this, which creates very unique coat spotting patterns.
  • Dominant White. Some white-spotting patterns are so dominant on some pinto horses that their coat is dominated by the spot coloration. These horses are not true white animals, nor are they albinos. Up to 20 different known variations of this coat pattern have been discovered since 1900 and they have all originated from a lineage where the parents did not have white coats.

Where the spotting occurs on the coat of a horse also has some related terms that are worth noting. The most common term used is to describe a pinto horse as being “chrome.” This indicates that the white markings on the horse looks good.

Some pinto horses do not have a visible spot pattern on their coat. They may have minimal spotting that cannot be seen at first glance. These horses are referred to as being “solid” pinto horses.

One pattern that is unique and quite popular creates a large white spotting pattern down the neck and around the face. This leaves the top of the head and the ears a darker color, created the look of a hat. This is referred to as a “medicine hat” pinto horse.

Some pinto horses have “shields,” or a large, dark patch that covers a majority of their chest. Surrounded by white coloration, it can sometimes be found on medicine hat horses.

When a pinto horse has a spotted pattern, but was foaled from two parents that had a solid coat color, the horse is called a “cropout.” It is usually a negative term because the foal does not meet the breed standards for coloration, but is still a purebred horse.

Why Is a Pinto Horse Different from a Paint Horse?

Pinto horses may occur in any breed. Paint horses do have pinto coloration, but have a verifiable pedigree to Thoroughbreds or American Quarter Horses. A separate registry has been created, the American Paint Horse registry, to track the pinto coloration on these specific bloodlines.

Technically, that means all Paint horses are pinto horses, but not all pinto horses can be Paint horses. 

For a horse to be registered as an American Paint, it must have at least one parent who is registered with their breed association. Both parents must be from Thoroughbred, American Quarter Horse, or American Paint Horse bloodlines.

A horse should therefore only be referred to as a Paint if the ancestry is known. If not, then the correct terminology to use would be to call the horse a pinto.

Pinto horses are often treated as crossbreeds, especially when a breed association does not accept “excessive” white coloration of the coat. Pinto horse associations may represent several breeds instead of just one, but it also gives these cropout horses a place to go.

Spotted horses have always been popular and if you ever get to meet a pinto horse, you’ll likely fall in love with them too.