The breed goes back to the late seventeenth century, to the northwestern corner of North America and specifically into the huge area that covered what is now a part of the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. This was the land inhabited by the Nez Percé American Indians, and it’s to their forward-thinking horsemanship and breeding practices that the Appaloosa owes its success.
Though the Nez Percé developed this spotted breed, the history of spotted horses is a long one, with pictures of spotted horses emerging in ancient European cave paintings from around 17,000 B.C.E. Spotted horses-in particular the Austrian Noriker and the Danish Knabstrup – were extremely popular in Europe and were in good demand from the nineteenth century to do from the increasingly popular Riding Schools. Lots of the hallowed Spanish horses, also, including the revered Andalusian, once exhibited spotted coat colorings.
Horses introduced into the Americas by the Spanish conquistadores carried the powerful spotted coat gene, which spread up into North America as the Spanish continued their explorations. The Shoshone tribe from southern Idaho became great horse traders, and it was mostly from the Shoshone the Nez Percé, whose territory was further west and north, obtained their stock of horses. The Nez Percé’s property, with its fertile plains and sheltered areas, was highly acceptable for raising horses, and the tribe immediately established a substantial breeding stock. Unlike lots of the American Indian tribes, the Nez Percé set about implementing breeding programs to specifically improve their horses. Only the best horses were kept as stallions, whereas those of poor quality were gelded. The tribe kept the best of its breeding stock and got rid of the weaker horses through trading with other tribes. The quantities of their horses rose rapidly, and the Nez Percé became an affluent tribe based on their massive stock of horses. From the early 1800s, the American explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) described the Nez Percé’s horses as”of an excellent race; they’re elegantly formed, active, and durable.”
Shade was a significant consideration for the Nez Percé, not just for ornamentation and decorative purposes but also for camouflage. However, their primary concern when breeding was to develop an all-around horse of great stamina, speed, and endurance, and one that managed to survive on lean rations. Their horses became famous for those qualities and were as capable of pulling a plow as they had been of covering enormous distances at speed with a rider. The most prized of the horses were used during warring campaigns and were swift, agile, and smart, and the most revered of these were the ones that were spotted.
The name Appaloosa was not given to the strain until 1938 with the formation of the Appaloosa Horse Club, established to preserve the breed. Some fifty years earlier, however, the plucky, spotted breed was all but wiped out during the Nez Percé War fought between the American Indians and the U.S. government in 1877. The Nez Percé managed to outwit and outrun the U.S. cavalry for more than three months and around 1,300 miles (2,092 km) of treacherous terrain, solely due to the fortitude and endurance of the Appaloosa horses. The Nez Percé were undefeated in battle but eventually surrendered to stop further hardships to the people trying to weather the frigid Montana winter. The conditions of their surrender stated that they be allowed to return to their lands in the spring with their horses, but instead they were sent to North Dakota and many of their cherished and prized animals slaughtered. Some escaped, and others were rounded up by ranchers and used or sold.
After this, some of the horses that had survived were quickly dispersed at auction and obtained by a few private individuals and ranchers who recognized their innate qualities and started to breed them. In 1937, the magazine Western Horseman printed an article on the Appaloosa written by Francis Haines, sparking public interest in the breed. The next year, Claude Thompson, a breeder of the spotted horses, combined with several others and established that the Appaloosa Horse Club to preserve and promote the horses. By 1947, there were two hundred registered horses and a hundred members. Just three years later, under the direction of George Hatley, the team had a phenomenal figure of more than 300,000 horses registered, which makes it the third-largest light-horse breed registry. In this regeneration of the Appaloosa there was some introduction of Arabian blood and considerable influence in the Quarter Horse, which can be seen in the muscular frame of the modern Appaloosa.
In 1994 the Nez Percé tribe now based in Idaho began a breeding program to develop the Nez Percé horse. The aim of this program, which relies on breeding old Appaloosa stock with Akhal Teke stallions, is to create an elegant, tough, versatile, and agile horse that’s equal in its qualities to the horses of the Nez Percé. Some, although not all, of those horses exhibit the spotted coat pattern of the Appaloosa heritage, though they generally stick to the sleeker, finer frame of the Akhal Teke. Today, Appaloosa is considered as one of the most beautiful horse breeds