The Appaloosa Horse - Expert advice on horse care and horse riding

The Appaloosa Horse

The Appaloosa horse is a breed of horse associated with the Nez Perce Native American culture. Today they are great trail riding horses for horse owners and have several breed registries.
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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.

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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.

The Pony of the Americas

The history of this colorful, diminutive breed began in 1954, when Les Boomhower of Mason City, Iowa, a Shetland pony breeder and attorney, was offered an Arabian-Appaloosa cross mare in foal to a Shetland stallion. The resulting colt was white with eye-catching markings, like black paint spattered all over his body. On his flank, one black smear was in the shape of a hand, so Boomhower named the youngster Black Hand.
The colt inspired Boomhower to gather a group of friends and Shetland enthusiasts to organize a registry for the Pony of the Americas, the name they gave to this new pony breed. The group also set standards that remain today with very little change: a small head, dished like the Arabian; a body muscled like the Quarter Horse; coloring like the Appaloosa, visible at 40 feet; a height of 44 to 52 inches (today, 46 to 56 inches); and a gentle, easygoing temperament.
In 1954, Black Hand was the first POA to be registered; more than 50,000 ponies have been registered since. Eventually, the Shetland was used less frequently in breeding, replaced by larger Welsh ponies crossed on small horses, such as the Mustang and Arabian. Appaloosas have been consistently used to help maintain the pony's distinctive coloration, strength, and versatility.
Sid Hutchcraft, executive director of the Ponies of the Americas Club, Inc., loves to tout the pony's trail-worthiness. "We have a popular POA Horseback Riding Program that offers recognition and certificates for hours in the saddle spent pleasure riding," he notes. "We also have an Endurance and Competitive Trail Riding Program for distance riders, with special medallions awarded annually to riders with the most mileage. We have something for everyone!" (For more information, call 317/788-0107, or visit www.poac.org).

Colorful Keepers

Barbara Allerton of Kuna, Idaho, had horses as a child, but her first Appaloosa was a surprise Christmas present from her husband, Hal. Today, the couple have five Appaloosa Horses, including their matriarch, Lacy, 28.

"As an adult, I learned to ride all over again on Lacy," Barbara recalls. "She taught my husband, and my niece and nephew, and carried all of us with a sweet, tolerant attitude. We learned to pack on her and made every mistake possible. Although most people are drawn to Appaloosas because of their striking color, they keep them because they're simply wonderful to ride and live with."

Allerton, who's ridden the Chief Joseph Trail Ride 23 times, says her most memorable ride was a 1986 passage through Yellowstone National Park. "I admit, I'm a Yellowstone junkie!" she says. "The ride obtained permission to ride historic trails that weren't normally open to the public, and it was amazing country. At night, we'd soak our tired 'trail bones' in hot springs. Some days, we rode through broad valleys; on others, we traversed sagebrush-covered hills, with rivers and bison herds below. It was like riding back in time, into the Wild West."

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A Solid Foundation

Tom Taylor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, loves the Appaloosa Horse. But by 1997, he'd become concerned that the preponderance of Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred blood in the modern Appaloosa was diluting the breed's essence. "I could only find 39 horses with all-Appaloosa pedigrees for the first five generations - and half of them were aged mares and geldings." he says. "I felt something needed to be done."

Taylor and other concerned friends and breeders founded the Foundation Appaloosa Horse Registry, which today has 800 horses on the books and 250 members. To be eligible, horses must have 75 percent Appaloosa blood in the first five generations.

Edna Street is one of FAHR's most devoted foundation breeders, with more than 60 head of Appaloosas at her farm, Rocky Acres, in Rochester, Washington. "Foundation-bred horses avoid some problems that the other breeds bring, like small feet that don't hold up on rocky trails," she says. "It's gratifying to see the growing demand for these great Appaloosas. My favorite rides have been on old logging roads around nearby Mount Rainier - although now, with so many horses, my trail rides are few and far between!"

Technicolor Dream Coats

The Appaloosa is known for its striking color and unique coat patterns. According to the Appaloosa Horse Club, the breed's markings are distinct from the dapples seen in grays and some other horse colors. The base coat can be any color, including bay, black, buckskin, chestnut, dun, gray, grulla, palomino, roan, cremello or perlino. Here's a rundown of specific Appaloosa coat patterns.
Blanket: White over the hip that may extend from the tail to the base of the neck.
If present, the spots inside the blanket are the same color as the horse's base coat.
Spots: White or dark spots over all or a portion of the body (also called "leopard").
Blanket with spots: A white blanket with dark spots (same color as the base coat).
Roan: Lighter colored on the forehead, jowls, back, loin, and hips.
Roan blanket: A roan pattern (a mix of colored and light hairs) over a portion,
but not all, of the body.
Appaloosas have other distinctive characteristics, such as mottled skin,
white sclera, and striped hooves. For more, visit www.appaloosa.com.
Note: A solid-colored horse without color pattern can be registered under the ApHC Certificate Pedigree Option. However, the horse must be DNA blood-typed,
inspected, and proven to be the offspring of either two registered Appaloosas or an
Appaloosa and a horse from another approved registry. CPO horses may be shown
at ApHC events, but have some breeding restrictions.
Top: Blue roan, with white spots over the entire body.
Middle: Red roan, with white spots over the loin and hips.
Bottom: Three horses with varied and distinctive coat patterns. From left, blue roan, with white spots over the entire body; dark bay and white, with spots over loins and hips; red roan, with spots over the entire body.

Spot a Prospect?

Ready to bring a "spotty body" into your barn? Follow these savvy tips from long-time Appaloosa owners.

Become educated. Learn as much as you can about the breed from registry resources, by reading up on the breed, and by talking with Appaloosa owners and breeders.

Find a mentor. Find someone who's experienced with the breed to help you in your search.

Evaluate conformation. Look for a horse with good bone and feet - typical of the breed - and sturdy, balanced conformation.

Evaluate demeanor. Your prospect should have a calm, kind disposition. Appaloosas are natural "people horses."

Invest in a prepurchase exam. Because of their white coloration, Appaloosas are susceptible to skin cancers, which can be treated.

Also, some Appaloosas are afflicted by equine recurrent uveitis (ERU), commonly known as moon blindness. While the cause is unknown, ERU symptoms (red, swollen eyes or squinting) are detectable and maintenance therapy can slow the disease. However, quick treatment is vital to help ward off blindness.

Check tack fit. Owners say Quarter Horse tack is normally a good fit for the Appaloosa, but check prominent withers for rubbing, especially if there's significant Thoroughbred blood in your Appaloosa's pedigree.

Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!