Known for their elegance and distinctive coat, appaloosa horses are an American horse breed often with a spectacularly spotted coat—usually speckled with black, white, or brown patches. This beautiful breed stems from multiple other breeds.
But there’s much more to this iconic horse that you might not know about. Today we’ll look at five of the important facts you might not know about this incredible breed.
1. Appaloosas’ Spots Are the Result of a “Leopard Complex”
Ever wonder what causes the distinctive spots that so many appaloosas have? Interestingly enough, the spots are not an “add-on” to the horse’s underlying color. In fact, according to Good Horse, it’s the opposite. “Appaloosa patterns are simply a type of white pattern. The dark spots on a full leopard are not spots on white but holes in the white, revealing the horse’s coat color ‘underneath,’” the website states.
They add that “a genetically black horse will have black ‘spots’ and a palomino will have yellowish ‘spots.’” The controlling gene is the “Leopard Complex LP allele,” which if present, will result in spotting. Regardless of the spotting, appaloosas come in a wide variety of colors and range from light to dark.
2. Appaloosas Were and Remain Big Stars in Hollywood
Whether or not you’ve encountered an appaloosa in person, you’ve almost surely seen them on the silver screen. Most recently, Matt Damon rode an appaloosa named Cowboy in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 film “True Grit.” According to The Horse, he was chosen in part for being unfazed by the sound of gunfire.
John Wayne himself rode a beautiful white appaloosa with black spots named Zip Cochise in the 1966 classic “El Dorado.” And 1966 western “The Appaloosa” featured Marlon Brando as a buffalo hunter trying to get back his beautiful horse, which has been stolen by a bandit. Cojo Rojo was the name of the horse Brando rode, and he became an equine celebrity of sorts.
3. Appaloosas Shaped the History of the Region
The Nimmiipuu people (incorrectly named “Nez Perce” by French trappers) were the first nation to inhabit North-Central Idaho. The Palouse River, which runs through their ancestral lands, was originally their main source of food and economic activity.
But this tribe of expert fishermen, who lived in stone houses by the river, would be changed forever when horses arrived in the region in the 1700s. They gradually became expert breeders, riders, and hunters, and went on to create the appaloosa horse. While their old stock of horses was nearly destroyed by the U.S. government in the 19th century, since 1994, the tribe has run a breeding program to restore the appaloosa to its true glory.
4. Appaloosas Have Pronounced Whites in Their Eyes and Striped Hooves
The sclera, or whites of the eyes, is the part that surrounds the colored iris. The Appaloosa Breeding Club notes, “All horses have sclera but the Appaloosa’s is white and usually more readily visible than other breeds.” This makes their irises stand out and gives them an intense gaze.
While it can be hard to look away from their beautiful eyes and coats, appaloosas also have striking striped hooves. These stripes run vertically and often alternate between lighter and darker colors.
5. The Appaloosa Is Idaho’s Official State Horse
In 1975, the Idaho legislature adopted the appaloosa as one of the symbols of the state. According to the Idaho Secretary of State, “Historians believe the Nez Perce and Palouse tribes of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were the first tribes to breed horses for specific traits—intelligence, speed, and endurance.”
The Secretary’s website says that white settlers called these horses “Palouse” horses, and that evolved into appalucy, appalousy, and eventually into the standard name appaloosa. While this breed is known for its spots, the site explains, “The coloring of the appaloosa coat is distinct in every individual horse and ranges from white blanketed hips to a full leopard.”