Path of a Palouse
Five hundred years ago, the Spanish brought horses - some of them spotted - to what's now Mexico. Abandoned or left behind, wild horses soon made their way into New Mexico and Arizona, and spread northward. The Nez Percé - an industrious tribe who'd inhabited areas of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho for nearly 13,000 years - were introduced to the horse around 1700. The horses allowed tribal members to travel great distances for hunting and trading. The Nez Percé became accomplished riders and bred widely admired herds.
Initially called the Palouse Horse after a Northwest river and valley, the breed's name evolved into Appaloosa. In 1806, explorer Meriwether Lewis recorded in his diary that the Nez Percé had the largest horse herds on the continent. "Their horses appear to be of an excellent race: lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable...some are pied by large spots of white...and many look like fine English horses," he wrote.
Sadly, by 1877, the Nez Percé and the United States Cavalry were embroiled in a war over territory. The Nez Percé, led by Chief Joseph, marked some victories, and their horses' speed, courage, and astonishing athletic ability became legend.
The tribe was pursued from Oregon through Idaho and finally to Montana, the site of the Battle of Bear's Paw, where Chief Joseph ultimately surrendered just 40 miles from the Canadian border and freedom. The Nez Percé's cherished horses were confiscated. Many were destroyed. Some were sold under the condition that they wouldn't be bred. Some Nez Percé escaped into Canada; their horses became forbearers of today's thriving Canadian Appaloosa population.
As a child, Lori Fisher dreamed of owning an eye-catching Appaloosa Horse, resplendent with a colorful blanket across his back. "I often thought that if I could just spatter white paint on my black pony's rump, I'd have a perfect miniature version," she says with a smile. "Of course, that was a tough proposition to sell to my parents, so I had to wait until I was an adult to fulfill my dream."
Today, the Arlington, Washington, resident has six Appaloosas, "Horses who are kind, willing, and excellent partners on the trail," she says. "They take care of you. Riders know they won't step off the mountain! And when you're dancing on mountaintops at 10,000 feet, and looking up and down the Continental Divide, it's important to have confidence in your horse."
Fisher has put her horses to the test on a host of challenging trail rides, including 13 Chief Joseph Trail Rides, sponsored by the Appaloosa Horse Club. (See below.)
"In 2002, my two [adult] daughters rode, too, which was very special," Fisher says. "The Appaloosa's calm demeanor, stamina, and willingness to go the distance make him a great family horse."
Today Fisher lives her childhood dream, breeding and raising three generations of Appaloosa Horses - including her leopard stallion. From their backs, she's traveled through the ponderosa pine forests of eastern Oregon, forded rushing rivers in Idaho, and been awed by grizzly marks on trees in Yellowstone National Park. She can't imagine owning any other breed.
And Fisher isn't alone. The ApHC - founded in 1938 - has registered more than 630,000 Appaloosas in the United States and abroad, and many owners are avid trail-riding enthusiasts. Read on to learn more about this colorful breed.
Tough & Trail-Worthy
In 1947, when George Hatley became ApHC executive secretary, the association had 200 registered horses and 100 members. With unflagging enthusiasm, the man who became known as "Mr. Appaloosa" guided the association until his retirement in 1978; that year, registrations topped 300,000.
One of Hatley's best friends is Don Johnson of Walla Walla, Washington. Johnson and his wife, Sharon, have owned and bred Appaloosas since 1960. In 1965, he helped found the Wallowa Mountain Appaloosa Club. "Appaloosas are tough," he says. "You can trust them in the mountains - they're at ease where mountain goats live! They're surefooted fast learners, and have tremendous stamina."
Just over 42 years ago, George Hatley and fellow breed enthusiast Don Imbodin called Don Johnson to talk with him about organizing an annual trail ride that would follow the entire journey from Oregon to Montana that Chief Joseph and his Nez PercÈ tribe made in the late 1800s while fleeing the U.S. Cavalry. (See "Path of the Palouse" on page 46.) And so, one of the country's most historic and popular organized trail rides was born.
Each year, the ride covers a 100-mile segment of the 1,300 mile Chief Joseph Trail. Awards and plaques are presented to riders who accomplish several segments. Limited to 200 riders, every year the roster fills with eager trail enthusiasts. Notes one rider, "It's addictive - bet you can't go just once!"
Today, the ApHC has an active trail-riding program. Its Saddle Log Program is open to all riders aboard registered Appaloosas, as well as disabled riders and drivers. Official Chevron Bars are awarded to equestrians as they complete hourly increments, from 25 to 2,500 hours, says trail program manager Jackie Hartman.
The ApHC also sponsors three week-long "wagon wheel" rides, in which a base camp is the hub, and the daily rides are the spokes. These are the Apache Land Ride in New Mexico, the Land of Liberty Ride in Pennsylvania, and the Sheltowee Ride in Kentucky. All offer spectacular scenery and camaraderie with other Appaloosa aficionados, as well as interesting historical perspectives.