Fans of Western culture and of the horse in general in North America have probably heard of the Appaloosa. This is a very popular horse breed, one of the most popular on the continent, with roots that go right back to the history of our continent.
These horses are best known for the specific pattern of their coats, which always contain a spotted colour. Also known as leopard markings, this pattern is deliberately bred into all horses of the Appaloosa breed.
There is evidence that spotted horses have existed in all populations of the animal, back to prehistoric times. Many cave paintings which include horses depict the animals with spotted coats. Artwork from other cultures in China, Rome, Greece, Persia, and France also shows horses with a distinctive spotted pattern.
As with many of the horses popular in North America, the Appaloosa owes its existence as a breed to the earliest days of the “Wild West”. No one is totally sure how the first spotted horses arrived on the continent. There are theories that some arrived with the Conquistadors, including Cortez. Many more were to arrive in the north and western parts of the continent via shipments from Europe to the Spanish and Native American settlements of the region in the 18th century.
It was on those western coasts that the Appaloosa would become a dominant and recognizable breed. The Nez Perce people of Washington and Oregon were eager to trade and purchase the spotted animals, which they saw as superior to other types of horses. The land occupied by the tribe was ideal horse breeding territory, and the Nez Perce soon became quite selective when it came to breeding their stock.
The Nez Perce were unique among Native tribes, as they would actively discourage the pollution of their stock by gelding or trading animals they judged to be of poor quality. Lewis and Clark noted on their expedition that the Nez Perce horses were of superior stock. Although spotted horses were in evidence, it is believed that the Nez Perce did not actually breed for spots until after their encounter with Lewis and Clark.
The Nez Perce and the United States went to war in 1877 as white miners encroached on what were supposed to be protected lands for this otherwise peaceful people. The US won the fight, and in the aftermath many of these special horses were shot or turned loose.
As with many modern breeds, however, fascination with the Appaloosa would continue through the printed versions of Western culture. The popularity of this horse led to the creation of the Appaloosa Horse Club in 1937. In order to revitalize the population, many Appaloosas were bred with Arabian stock.
The defining characteristic of the modern Appaloosa is, of course, its leopard spot coat pattern. They may also have striped hooves and white sclera around the eyes. Appaloosas tend to be taller than Quarter Horses, although they have the same muscular bodies. The many different animals which contributed to the rise of the breed means that Appaloosas may come in a variety of different shapes and sizes.