The breed dates back to the late seventeenth century, to the northwestern corner of North America and specifically to the large area that covered what is now part of the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. This was the land inhabited by the Nez Percé American Indians, and it is to their progressive horsemanship and breeding practices that the Appaloosa owes its success.

Although the Nez Percé developed this spotted breed, the history of spotted horses is long, with images of spotted horses appearing in prehistoric European cave paintings from around 17,000 BCE. in Europe and was in demand from the sixteenth century to perform at the increasingly popular riding schools. Many of the sacred horses of Spain, including the venerable Andalusian, once displayed mottled coat colors.

Horses introduced to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors carried the heavily spotted coat gene, which spread across North America as the Spanish continued their explorations. The Shoshone tribe of southern Idaho became major horse traders, and it was largely from the Shoshone that the Nez Percé, whose territory was farther north and west, obtained their horse stock. The land of the Nez Percé, with its fertile plains and sheltered areas, was well suited for raising horses, and the tribe quickly established a substantial breeding stock. Unlike many of the American Indian tribes, the Nez Percé began implementing breeding programs to specifically improve their horses. Only the best horses were kept as stallions, while those of poor quality became geldings. The tribe kept the best of their breeding stock and got rid of the poorer horses through trade with other tribes. The number of horses rose rapidly, and the Nez Percé became a prosperous tribe based on their vast stock of horses. In the early 19th century, the American explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) described the Nez Percé’s horses as “of an excellent breed; they are elegantly formed, active and durable.”

Color was an important factor for the Nez Percé, not only for ornamentation and decorative purposes, but also for camouflage. But their primary concern in breeding was to develop a versatile horse with great endurance, speed and toughness, and one capable of surviving on meager rations. Their horses became noted for these qualities and were as capable of pulling a plow as they were of covering great distances at speed with a rider. The most prized of their horses were used during warring campaigns and were swift, agile and intelligent, and the most revered of these were the Spotted.

The spotted horses belonging to the Nez Percé were described as Palouse horses by white settlers, who took their name from the Palouse River that flowed through Nez Percé territory. Later the horse became known as “a Palouse”, then as an Appalousey. The name Appaloosa was not given to the breed until 1938 with the formation of the Appaloosa Horse Club, established to preserve the breed. About fifty years before this, however, the brave spotted race was nearly exterminated during the Nez Percé War fought between the American Indians and the US government in 1877. The Nez Percé managed to outwit and outrun the American cavalry for more than three months and over 2,092 km of treacherous terrain, solely due to the strength and endurance of their Appaloosa horses. The Nez Percé were undefeated in battle, but eventually surrendered to prevent further hardship for the people trying to weather the freezing Montana winter. The terms of their surrender said they were allowed to return to their lands in the spring with their horses, but instead they were sent to North Dakota and many of their beloved and prized animals slaughtered. Some escaped, and others were later collected by ranchers and used or sold.

After this, some of the horses that had survived were quickly dispersed at auction and acquired by a few private individuals and ranchers who recognized their innate qualities and began breeding them. In 1937, Western Horseman magazine published an article about the Appaloosa written by Francis Haines, which sparked public interest in the breed. The following year, Claude Thompson, a breeder of the spotted horses, joined with several others and established the Appaloosa Horse Club to preserve and promote the horses. In 1947 there were two hundred registered horses and one hundred members. Just three decades later, under the leadership of George Hatley, the club had a phenomenal number of registered more than 300,000 horses, making it the third largest registry for light horse breeds. During this regeneration of the Appaloosa, there was some introduction of Arabian blood and considerable Quarter Horse influence, 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 goal of this program, which is based on breeding old Appaloosa stock with Akhal Teke stallions, is to produce an elegant, tough, versatile and agile horse that is similar in qualities to the original horses of the Nez Percé. Some, but not all, of these horses display the mottled coat pattern of their Appaloosa heritage, although they usually stick to the leaner, finer frame of the Akhal Teke. Today, the Appaloosa is considered one of the most beautiful horse breeds (reference) in the world!

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