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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Origin of Appaloosas

Updated: May 11, 2023

The Nez Perce are credited with developing this magnificent breed. This colorful horse has a colorful history!

The origin of Appaloosas is....well....spotty. In fact, the history—and the DNA—of Appaloosas goes back millennia and across oceans, cultures, and continents. Their legacy is shrouded in myth, legend, and magnificent adventure. What cannot be denied, however, is that a First Nation tribe, the Nez Perce, brought them to the apex of the breed, lost them, then found them again. Today, they are now back in their full glory.


(#1) The famous Appaloosa Foundation stallion, Pratt Sully Fire, of Deckers Red Eagle Farm in Alvadore, Oregon. He was originally bred by a “grand dame” in early Appaloosa breeding, an elderly widow named Alice Pratt, who raised hundreds of Appaloosas out on her wilderness, land-grant farm near Sweet Home, Oregon.

(#2) Appaloosa adorned in beautiful Nez Perce tribal beaded quillwork created by contemporary Native artist, Angela Swedberg. The Appaloosa shown is her own Cappy! (SEE LINK ABOUT ANGELA & CAPPY BELOW!)

Spotted horses have been admired and sought after by humans since prehistoric times. The famous cave paintings of spotted horses (#7) in the Pech Merle cave in southern France dates back to around 25,000 BC. For years archeologists hotly debated the meaning of the spotted horses. Earlier, the prevailing belief was that such magnificently patterned horses did not exist at the time and that the drawings were the fantastical imaginings of the cave artist. But more recent DNA studies indicate that, indeed, such spotted horses DID exist then and that the drawings were most probably accurate renderings of such leopard-colored horses! The DNA for spotted horses—called the “leopard complex,” or” LP gene”—is a very ancient mutation and used to be widespread.

In Europe, China and the Middle East, spotted horses were all the rage for quite a while. An Etruscan tomb in Italy dating to 800BC depicts spotted war horses. The Chinese emperor Wu TI secured gorgeous spotted steeds he called “Heavenly Horses” from Europe around 100 BC for his royal stud. And, the famous Beato de Fernando manuscript depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (#8) dated 1047AD in Madrid shows a leopard-spotted war horse. Ancient Spain during the time of the Conquistadors was known to breed wildly spotted Spanish Jennets (#9) that were favorites of royals and Conquistadors. Barbs from Morocco, and Andalusians and Jennets from Spain made up much of the Spanish stock brought to the New World.

The history of the horse, and the Appaloosa, (#10) in particular, is a circuitous one. The horse originated in North America about 3.5-4 million years ago and immigrated to Eurasia about 2-3 million years ago. After that a series of major extinctions occurred that wiped out the horse in North America, the most recent one about 13,000-11,000 years ago. Native cultures had already immigrated to the North and South American continents from Eurasia by this time, so it is believed that the extinctions wiped out their horses. It would be another 10,000 years or so before Columbus brought horses to the New World. And what did he bring? Spotted Jennets and Andalusians imported from Spain. Spanish Conquistadors quickly followed with their spotted Jennets and Andalusians and arrived in what would become Florida, Mexico and the Southwest U.S.

In the early 1600s, Sante Fe became a major trading center between the Spanish and Native peoples. Horses were so revered, the Spanish accepted only slaves or gold for them. The Pueblo and Apache, then the Comanche, were the first tribes to trade with the Spanish. They, in turn, traveled north to trade with the Nez Perce, Blackfeet and Shoshone. By the 1700s, nearly all Plains Indians used horses in everyday life. (It is generally believed that wild horses and mustangs today are ancestors of the Spanish and European horses, mixed also with feral horses and mules from mountain men, settlers, and the military. Today, genetic testing on wild horses is yielding fascinating clues to their origins and there are some big paleontological, genetic and taxonomic debates raging right. (WE’LL RUN A POST LATER ABOUT THIS SCIENTIFIC DEBATE AND THE HISTORY OF WILD MUSTANGS.)

The Nez Perce owned the largest horse herds on the continent and were one of the very few tribes to practice selective breeding, which they did with extraordinary success (#3 - #6). Most Native tribes valued unique coloring and coat patterns in horses. They believed that spots held protection in battle and during horse raids and buffalo hunts. Here, the ancient LP gene for spots enters the scene. Since so many Spanish horses were spotted, the LP gene was alive and well among the horses of the Nez Perce. And they bred selectively for this coloring. They learned to castrate all but the most outstanding males, limiting breeding to only the finest stallions. (BTW, the Appaloosa got its name from early fur traders who called the spotted horse “a Palouse” because they were raised near the Palouse River, the ancestral home of the Nez Perce. The word was eventually slurred to become “Appaloosa.”)

In 1806, the Nez Perce found the Lewis and Clark expedition starving and freezing to death in the mountain wilderness, eating their dogs, horses and candles made of lard. The expedition spent 114 days with the Nez Perce convalescing. The two explorers were immensely impressed with the Nez Perce. Captain Meriwether Lewis wrote on May 1, 1806: “I think we can justly affirm to the honor of these people that they are the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”

They had particular admiration for the tribe’s horses. Lewis, who was an excellent judge of horseflesh, wrote in his journal of February 15, 1806: “Their horses appear to be of an excellent race: they are lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable …some of these horses are pided with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with… some other dark short many of them look like fine English horses."

The explorers tried to trade their horses, two for one, with the Nez Perce but the tribe was reluctant. So, the expedition decided to geld their fractious stallions in hopes they would be more manageable. The Nez Perce showed them their own process of castration, which Lewis and Clark were shocked to discover was so superior, Meriwether Lewis noted in his journals, that horses gelded by the Nez Perce recovered quickly with none of the swelling or oozing infections attendant with traditional white methods.

The Nez Perce nursed the expedition back to health, refurbished their supplies and helped them build dugout canoes, and point them down the Columbia River which, the tribe counseled, would lead them to the ocean and the Northwest Passage. Their white “discovery” would open the floodgates of white expansion to the western half of the continent and bring the millennia-old lifestyle of Native tribes to an end.

Seventy-one years later, on the Bear Paw Battlefield, 30 miles from the Canadian border and freedom, Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe finally surrendered to the U.S. army and their fate was sealed. On that battlefield was a blond, blue-eyed Nez Perce warrior, an old man named Daytime Smoke. He was the son of the white explorer, William Clark, and had fought for his people’s freedom with Chief Joseph. It was one of the strangest ironies in history.

The white army and white settlers confiscated all the Nez Perce prized horses. Some that were lame or starving from the killing 1,500-mile trek through the roughest land on earth were shot. Others were cast to the winds of white whim. Chief Joseph would never be allowed to have an Appaloosa stallion again.

In 1889, the former aide-de-camp to General Howard, who accepted Joseph’s surrender at the Bear Paw, asked Joseph if his son, Erskine, could stay with Joseph for a summer to learn to fish and hunt and Indian ways. Joseph abided. Before the 14-year-old boy left at the end of the summer, he asked Joseph how they could repay him. Joseph asked for an Appaloosa stallion he could breed to his mares. For whatever reason, Joseph’s request was never answered. And Eskine, on his deathbed at age 104, told his granddaughter, Mary Wood, that the major regret in his life was that he had not helped Joseph.

Mary Wood was a law professor and Indian-law scholar at the University of Oregon and decided their family promise needed to be fulfilled. Finally, in 1997, the Wood family gifted a pure-blooded three-year-old Appaloosa stallion to the Nez Perce tribe of the Colville Reservation. Chief Joseph’s great, great-grandson, Keith Soy Red Thunder, accepted the stallion on behalf of the tribe. Fittingly, the Appaloosa would be used for a Nez Perce youth program teaching the horse-riding expertise of their ancestors.

(#5) On of the few images of Chief Joseph astride an Appaloosa, the beloved breed the Nez Perce developed. This photo taken in 1903 in Nespelem Creek, Okanagan County, Washington, by Edward H. Latham. Joseph is wearing spectacular Nez Perce ceremonial dress: a feather headdress, beaded moccasins and leggings, and holds a staff and shield. His horse is painted in war markings with beaded martingale (chest strap), and a beaded serape lined with eagle feathers.

(#11) Appaloosas have become popular around the world! Shown is the Kondos Appaloosa Stud in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa. ( The Nez Perce had the largest horse herd on the continent in the 1800s. When they began their long, bitter exodus to Canada in 1877, Joseph's band alone had a massive herd of more than 3,000 horses. It must have been a spectacular site to see so many horses cross the prairie and ford the many rushing mountain rivers during their flight.

You may also enjoy these related posts:

-The Comanche and The Horse

-The Awesome Native Art of Angela & Her Appy

-For the Love of Horses (& Mules!)

"The Origin of the Appaloosa" was originally published on Facebook and on July 24, 2019.

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©2022 Notes from the Frontier

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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