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Photo courtesy of lifeonwhite.com.

Dramatically spotted horses (appropriately called leopard Appaloosas), and solid horses whose rumps sport white “blankets” (with or without spots) can be found throughout history.

Appaloosas have enhanced the art and armies of many kingdoms, from the paintings and tapestries of medieval France (both Louis XIV and Louis XV demanded to be portrayed on spotted horses) to the “Celestial” horses of ancient China, to “Rakush,” the spotted Persian warhorse of 400 BC, revered by many as the ancestor of all Appaloosas.

It was in the Palouse region of the Northwest United States, however, that “A Palouse Horse” of superior standards and modern characteristics was bred by the Native American Nez Perce tribe.

The historical lands of the Nez Perce, including the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho, were well suited to raising horses. Though many Nez Perce resisted the assimilation of horses into their traditional culture, another faction became skilled at horsemanship and selectively bred the Spanish stock they obtained from the Shoshone through trade or other means.

By gelding inferior stallions and trading away undesirable mares, the Nez Perce developed fine, fast, and flashy mounts that we now know as Appaloosas. These horses excelled at racing, hunting buffalo and tribal warfare. When the United States Government began to encroach upon the land rights of the Nez Perce, a process that was escalated by the discovery of gold in their region, the more mobile, equestrian Nez Perce left on horseback with their women and children.

In a story known across the West, time and trust betrayed the Nez Perce. Despite the agreed-upon conditions of their surrender, the tribe’s 1,000 horses, including survivors of the Chief Joseph band, were taken from them. Many horses were destroyed. In their urgent departure, however, the Nez Perce left many fine Appaloosas on open range lands, where they were eventually rounded up by enterprising cowboys and sold off to ranchers. Soon, the cherished Appaloosa bloodlines so expertly engineered by the Nez Perce were unceremoniously diluted throughout the West.

The Appaloosa breed was “lost” until 1938, when the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) was founded, and selective breeding resurrected and celebrated the Appaloosa’s distinctive characteristics.

In addition to remarkable coat patterns, “Appys” also exhibit striped hooves, white sclera around the eyes, and mottled skin. Still, the refinement of the Nez Perce horse breeding may yet to be achieved. Even when breeding two loudly colored horses to one another, a solid colored foal may result. Nevertheless, more than 630,000 Appaloosa have been registered since the ApHC’s inception.

True to their heritage, Appaloosas are extremely versatile working horses, found on racetracks, cattle ranches, dressage courts, hunter/jumper competitions, western pleasure rings, and perhaps most appropriate—given their lineage—in endurance riding. The most beloved Appaloosas, though, may be the memorable recreational horses whose spots and spirit add a dash of style to any equestrian outing!

For more information, contact the Appaloosa Horse Club, 208.882.5578, or visit appaloosa.com.

(Originally published in the January/February 2010 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).