American Paint Horse Origin and Characteristics

The American Paint Horse is a breed that features Pinto-type patterning with light and dark coat colors, while at the same time exhibiting the characteristics of a Western stock horse. It is a breed that was developed with Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse lineage, but with spotted versions of both breeds.

The popularity of this breed has led to its association, the American Paint Horse Association, to become one of the largest breed registries in the Americas.

What Is the History of the American Paint Horse

The history of these spotted horses in the Americas can be traced to the Colonial Era of the early 16th century. Hernando Cortes is believed to have brought at least two horses from Europe that had Pinto-type patterning. As colonies established themselves, the popularity of the breed soon made these horses the preferred riding horse of the native tribes throughout the continent.

Up until the 17th century, horses that had Paint or Pinto attributes were very popular. When it became less socially acceptable to own this type of horse, many owners shipped them over to the new colonies, where they were just released to fend for themselves. This helped to establish the feral herds that continue to roam the western United States and parts of Canada and Mexico.

The native tribes would capture the horses with the loudest color patterns and work to tame the horse. Once “domesticated,” the Paints would be used for a variety of purposes, including as a war horse. The Comanche tribe was especially fond of the Paint Horse because of its demeanor and desire to support a rider.

There was also a component of reverence within the native tribes for the Paint horses. The various shapes and patterns became powerful symbols of what the horse could do. Many tribes would add painted markings to these horses to connect with them on a spiritual level. 

Throughout the 19th century, when settlers continued to make their way to the western lands beyond the borders of the United States, the tribes would create art that reflected their victories and showed them riding these athletic horses.

Some of the Pinto-type horses that were brought over from Europe escaped or were let loose and joined with the feral herds that ran free during the 16th and 17th centuries. This helped to preserve the population of the American Paint and spread its influence throughout the various tribes. As settlers moved west, the strength and athleticism of this horse captured the hearts of homesteaders as well, making the horse become part of western society in the southwest.

Historically, a Paint horse was defined more by its appearance than its genetics. With modern DNA testing and lineage tracking, however, the American Paint has specific requirements that must be met for it to become a recognized member of this breed.

The American Paint Horse may come from a common ancestry with Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, but for several generations, they were kept separately from these breeds. Even when there was a preservation effort in 1940 to ensure stock horses could survive and have conformity with their body type, Paint horses were excluded from those efforts.

It wouldn’t be until 1965 when supporters of the spotted stock horses would come together to preserve the American Paint Horse as a separate effort.

What Are the Characteristics of the American Paint Horse?

Almost every Paint Horse has a combination of white and another coat color that is displayed in a variety of patterns. Tobiabo, Overo, Sabino, and Tovero horses can be found within this breed. Some registries even allow for solid-colored American Paint Horses if the lineage can be proven within the breed.

American Paint Horses are often referred to as “Pintos,” but there is a lineage difference between the two terms in the equine world. Pinto horses can be any breed or combination of breeds and have the spotted patterning. A Paint must have Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, or American Paint Horse parents for it to qualify.

There are no height requirements that have been published by the American Paint Horse Association, but most Paints stand between 14.2-16 hands. Most American Paints weight less than 1,500 pounds, but have good strength and stamina.

There are three basic types of American Paint Horses and each has unique physical features that help to separate it from the other two groups.

  • Stock-type American Paints feature good physical characteristics, stand taller than the other two types, and is a good all-around general purpose horse.
  • Saddle-type American Paints are a little smaller and lighter, but have more speed. Their temperament tends to be a bit calmer than the other two types as well.
  • Athletic-type Paints feature more of the Thoroughbred characteristics within their personality and build. They can be temperamental, but are also highly competitive, performing well in several different events

Although the breed has a hotblooded history built into its lineage, most American Paint Horses tend to be calm, mild-mannered, and extremely willing. In many ways, they are closer to draft horses in their personality than a sporting horse. This means most of the horses that belong to this breed are easy keepers, train well, and make for an excellent recreational horse. They are an ideal first horse or an addition to a larger herd.

American Paint Horses are also quite versatile in what they look to do for work. They can go from dressage or driving to ranch work, then finish the day off with a nice trail ride. Add in the unique coat coloration and each horse feels like it can bring individual qualities to every experience and that is one primary reason why this horse is so popular in the equine world today.

Why Are Paint Horses Paired Based on Pattern Type?

There are genetic problems that creep up with the American Paint Horse because of the patterning genes that are present within the breed. Pairing the horses based on pattern typing helps to reduce the chances of a serious genetic condition occurring. It also adds more variation to the markings that are present within the breed.

Of particular concern is the pairing of two Overo-type Paint horses. The most common type of gene for this pattern, called “frame,” has the capability of producing Lethal White Syndrome. This syndrome results in a foal that cannot survive once born because their colon does not function properly. Within a few hours after birth, the signs of colic begin to appear and the foal typically dies within a few days.

With modern breeding practices, the American Paint Horse has become a popular horse because it is helpful, friendly, and visually beautiful. Their lack of popularity in Europe turned them into one of the Americas greatest contributions to the equine world.