Appaloosa Horse Origin and Characteristics

An Appaloosa Horse is almost instantly recognized because of its unique appearance. Many within the breed have visible spot coating. Most have coat color variations along their hindquarters and face as well, which emphasizes the spotting. 

Not every Appaloosa has this characteristic, however, but a close inspection of the horse can show that it is still from this breed. With a solid-colored Appaloosa, you can still see vertical striping on the hooves, mottled skin around the eyes, and white sclera of the eye.

Today, the Appaloosa is used for many different riding disciplines. They are particularly adept at rodeo competitions, particularly cutting, roping, and reining. Show jumping is another strength for the breed, as is endurance racing. An Appaloosa horse holds the speed record for a 4.5-furlong race as well.

Hollywood loves the looks of an Appaloosa. This breed is often used in Western show and movies and has a strong influence on modern Americana.

The Origin of the Appaloosa Horse

Appaloosa Horses have an established place in human history. Artwork that has been found in ancient European caves has depicted horses that look remarkably like the modern Appaloosa. This includes the leopard spotting that is the trademark of the breed. Chinese artwork has also reflected the trend of spotted horses throughout history.

As for the modern horse, the Appaloosa comes out of the Pacific Northwest in the United States and Southern Canada. From horses that were brought over from Europe, Native tribes and First Nations people, particularly the Nez Perce, developed the Appaloosa through specialized breeding of their tribal horses. Specific characteristics were desired and this helped to refine the breed. Records were even kept about their activities.

During the initial settlement period of Americans and Europeans into the region, the popularity of the horses was immense. An ordinary horse could be purchased for less than $20 at the time. In comparison, the Nez Perce were turning down settler offers of over $600 for a single Appaloosa horse.

In modern money, a common horse could be purchased for about $250, while the Appaloosa was selling for over $10,000. 

Initially called the Palouse horse after a river in the region, the name eventually evolved into “Appaloosa” after the events of 1877.

That was the year of the Nez Perce War. The tribes lost many of their horses during the conflict and this caused the breed to fall into a steep decline. The US Army took more than 1,000 of their horses, sold the ones that they could, and killed the rest of them. A significant feral herd was left in the region, however, and an effort in the 1930s to preserve the breed led to the founding of the Appaloosa Horse Club.

Characteristics of the Appaloosa Horse

Multiple breeds have influences the Appaloosa Horse, which means there isn’t one standard body type within the breed. They can be anywhere from 14-16 hands high, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds, or weigh as little as 900 pounds.

Because the leopard complex gene is part of the Appaloosa breed, body types can vary because of the individualized genetic profile of the horse as well. To help limit large variations in sizing, the Appaloosa Horse Club does not allow ponies or draft breeding within its registration.

Those restrictions have allowed for a somewhat average sizing standard, but there is no color standard. Base coat colors are overlain with several different possible spotting patterns. Most horses have a variable spotting pattern within this breed, which makes it difficult to create specific categories, but there are several different types of spots that have been identified within the breed.

  • Snowcap Spotting. This patterning offers a body that is solid white, but has a hip area that has a contrasting base color and a visible spotting pattern.
  • Blanket Spotting. This pattern has a dark base coat color and then a lighter area around the hips where spotting is pronounced.
  • Leopard Spotting. In most circumstances, this will be a white Appaloosa which has dark spots over their entire body. Some dark coat color horses may have white spotting over their entire body as well, but this is quite rare.
  • Few Spotting. This is a variation of the Leopard Spotting pattern, but with fewer spots. Most of the spotting tends to be focused around the neck, head, or flank.
  • Snowflake Spotting. This is a variation of the dark coat Leopard spotting. As the horse ages, the number of spots and the size of the spotting increases.
  • Marble Spotting. This is another variation of the Leopard Spotting pattern. It mixes the lighter and darker coat colors together to create a look that is reminiscent of a roan coat. There are usually darker areas around the eyes, the face, and around the hip.
  • Mottled Spotting. This is a variation of the Few Spotting pattern, which has solid-color appearance, but the skin shows the mottled appearance that is a trademark of the Appaloosa horse.
  • Blanket Marbling. This coat has the roan patterning around the hips or the croup and is usually limited to that area. Some horses may have spots within their blanket area as well.

The genetic profile also means that Appaloosas have a higher than average risk for certain genetic conditions and diseases. They are eight times more likely, for example, to develop equine recurrent uveitis, which can cause blindness. Stationary night blindness is another issue that affects the breed, especially when the leopard complex gene is present. 

Two Appaloosa Associations with Different Missions

In the early days of the Appaloosa Horse Club, there were Quarter Horses that were allowed to register as Appaloosas. This was because certain foals from Quarter Horse parentage would have what is known as a “croupout” coat. The foal would appear to be white, but have spotting or marbling that was like to the Appaloosa. These foals, which were often not allowed to register as a Quarter Horse, could be registered for breeding as an Appaloosa.
Cropouts that had pinto characteristics would help to provide the foundation of the American Paint Horse Association. 

In the 1970s, the Appaloosa Horse Club decided that allowing solid-color Appaloosas into the registry was appropriate. This caused a split within the breeding community, with some breeders deciding to form the American Appaloosa Association in 1983 so that only “characteristic” Appaloosas could be registered.

Appaloosa horses may have been imported during the Colonial Era, but the breed is one that is distinctly North American in style. With herds established as early as 1750 with selective breeding practices, it could be argued that the Appaloosa is the first true American breed of horse.