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They’re unmistakable, the dark horses with white “blankets” on their rumps, often with black spots spilling out across their flanks; the white horses completely covered with black, brown or reddish polka-dots, appropriately called leopard Appaloosas; or the myriad of other colorful combinations that warrant a delicious double take. When one admires a spectacular Appaloosa standing in a pasture or in full Native American costume at a horse show, however, it’s more than just a horse. Appaloosas are unique artifacts of the Old West; living treasures that were nearly lost for good. Every Appaloosa alive today represents both a striking breed of horse and a unique part of Native American culture that was quite literally almost driven into extinction.

The Spaniards that invaded the Americas brought with them the tough, flinty war and work horses of their native land. As the conquistadors and missionaries were driven back from native enclaves, some of their horses escaped and roamed free throughout Mexico and the Southwest. These feral horses were tamed and traded among Native American tribesmen, reaching the Pacific Northwest around 1700. From Florida to California, the Indians quickly recognized and seized upon the value of these large pack and riding animals, but few exploited these animals to their advantage like the Nez Percé.

The Nez Percé are skilled equestrians, and with the help of horses, the Nimi’ipuu, as the tribe calls itself, once roamed an area of approximately 27,000 square miles, encompassing their home territory, the Great Basin of Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington. They ranged as far afield as Montana and Wyoming, following migrations of animals and seasonal foods. The Nimi’ipuu selectively bred the Spanish horses for great endurance, strength, stamina, and the courage in battle. But what made their horses especially unique were the leopard-spotted coats and other distinctive markings scarcely seen among the world’s horses, but present in a small number of the Spanish castaways.

In the Expedition of Discovery, Captain Meriwether Lewis was moved to remark upon the Indian’s horses in a diary entry dated February 15, 1806. The explorer wrote, “They appear to be of an excellent race, lofty, elegantly formed, active, and durable; many of them appear like fine English coursers… and resemble in fleetness and bottom, as well as in form and color, the best blooded horses of Virginia.”

As settlers moved into the region, they began referring to the spotted horses as “Palouse horses,” a nod to the Palouse River in Northern Idaho, which bisects the traditional grounds of the Nez Percé. In time “A Palouse Horse” became “Appaloosa.” When relations between the Nez Percé and the settlers deteriorated, the U.S. Cavalry moved against the tribe. In 1877, the Nez Percé were relentlessly driven across 1,500 miles of territory, from Idaho to Montana. Along the way, the Nez Percé fought pitched battles that gained them respect for their exceptional horses and military strategy, but that ultimately tore the fabric of their millenias-old civilization. Outnumbered and beaten down, the band of Indians were finally entrapped near the Canadian border. Famously, Chief Joseph spoke the words, “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Their horses and cattle were dispersed (some Appaloosas were simply left on the land as the indiginous people were forced away on foot) and the Nez Percé were resettled on government created reservations, never to return to their free-roaming ways. Still, the bloodlines of the proud and fearless Nimi’ipuu horses endured, with a few western ranchers demonstrating an interest in preserving the animals. In 1937, Western Horseman Magazine, already a leader in the western stock horse world, ran an article titled “The Appaloosa, or Palouse Horse.” Author Francis Haines wrote additional articles about the breed, kindling interest in resurrecting this unique horse breed, whose numbers had dwindled into the hundreds. In 1938, a long-time Appaloosa breeder named Claude Thompson convened a group of enthusiastic and dedicated horseman to found the Appaloosa Horse Club.

Appaloosas’ Connection to Western Horseman Magazine

My own history as a writer in the horse business is intimately, though unintentionally, tied up with the Appaloosa breed. In 1981, I took a job at a horse ranch in southern Colorado. Like many outfits, the ranch remuda included Quarter horses, mixed breed Palominos, Buckskins, and Heinz 57 “grade” horses. The heart of the herd, however, was a band of Appaloosa broodmares and a jet black Appy stallion with a snow white blanket named Ben. Missing an eye (lost to cancer), Ben was nevertheless a willing and robust horse, capable on the trail and in the breeding shed, and the stallion produced a beautiful assortment of “Appys,” many with distinctive spotted blankets.

My favorite horse in the band was a mare named Bright Eyes, then a 22-year-old that not only threw impressive colts and fillies, but who possessed lightning speed and the ability to “cut” horses and cows by turning on a dime. Once Bright Eyes committed to a chase down the fence, one quickly learned to grab the saddle horn.

After six years of ranch life, I migrated down to Colorado Springs, then the home of Western Horseman Magazine. I remember Publisher Dick Spencer sitting at his big carved desk with a pipe in his mouth, smoothly overseeing the authenticity of the revered stock horse publication. Like Will Rogers, Spencer never met a man he didn’t like. We killed an hour chatting about horses, and I suspect I got my first writing assignment because Spencer was enthusiastic about my background with the Appaloosa breed.

Mr. Spencer was a crucial advocate of the Appaloosa, and a frequent guest of the Appaloosa Horse Club’s annual Chief Joseph Trail Ride. As a descendant of Native Americans himself, Dick was typically called upon the recite the Lord’s Prayer in Indian sign language as part of the annual trail ride festivities.

In the hallway of the southwestern styled editorial offices of Western Horseman, hung a black-and-white portrait of Joker B, an Appaloosa stallion foaled in 1941, and revered as a sire of superior performance rodeo horses and cutting horses. Today, both Dick Spencer and Joker B are honored in the Appaloosa Museum in Moscow, Idaho.

It’s fair to say that, without Western Horseman’s original interest and devotion to the breed, along with the handful of supporters who saw the animals through difficult days, the Appaloosa might have been lost to the sands of time.

Appaloosas Today

While the sturdy but narrow Appaloosas of my youth seemed ideally suited to the demands of mountain travel—and probably bore a close resemblance to the horses used by the Nez Percé—the breed has been greatly improved with the infusion of blood from outstanding Quarter horses, Arabians, and even Thoroughbreds.

Early breeders were savvy enough to recognize that outcrossing to other great stock horses was the most reliable and rapid way to improve their herds. The pedigrees of many famed and cherished horses, whose bloodlines continue to resonate in Appaloosas to this day, were enhanced with lineages from other breeds.

Take, for instance, Prince Plaudit, a stallion credited by many as ushering in the “modern” Appaloosa horse. Foaled in 1963, Prince Plaudit—a legacy of legendary stock horse breeder Hank Weiscamp—was a fiery red leopard stallion, with prominent dots across his primarily white coat. Prince Plaudit’s dame was one of Weiscamp’s good Quarter horse mares, Princess Rita and Plaudit had the balanced, powerful conformation that Weiscamp horses were famous for, as well as the trainable temperament that was also a Weiscamp trademark.

Prince Plaudit was purchased by Carl Miles as a replacement for his aging stallion Joker B (The same horse whose portrait hung in the Western Horseman offices). Miles also bought 40 brood mares from Weiscamp as the foundation for his breeding program, and then successfully campaigned Prince Plaudit hard, winning countless Grand Champion Sire titles at stock shows from Colorado to Texas. Miles sagely kept the horse in the public eye, advertising the stallion in every issue of the Appaloosa Journal from August 1967 to February 1984, missing only one issue. During the 1960s, a Plaudit foal brought an average price of $7,500—roughly twice the value of Appaloosas at the time.

When Prince Plaudit was finally sold in a dispersal sale in 1974, he brought a princely sum indeed—$260,000! It was a record that not only rocked the Appy horse world, but the entire world of western stock horse breeds.

Needless to say, horsemen specializing in the Appaloosa breed, as well as American Quarter Horse breeders, took note. Subsequently, a pattern of outcrossing to outstanding horses from other breeds helped the Appaloosa to expand, diversify and excel. Appaloosas proved capable of winning horse races, cutting and cowhorse competitions, and blue ribbons in the show ring, a legacy that continues to this day.

Photography courtesy of the Appaloosa Horse Club.

(Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).