The Appaloosa has a bold and colourful ancestry, which can be traced back to earliest recorded time. Spotted horses were depicted in cave paintings of prehistoric man, and many colourfully marked horses appear in art throughout the centuries, but it is in the American ‘melting pot’ that the spotted horse established itself as a true breed.
During 1680 the Pueblos Indians defeated the Spanish settlers and drove them from northern New Mexico. They kept the sheep and cattle and traded the horses to the plains tribes and it is through this movement that the horses made their way east and north and were acquired by the Nez Perce tribe by the early 1700s. In the west the Shoshones from southern Idaho were the most important distributor of horses because of the fine range in their territory and they traded horses on to other tribes including the Nez Perce Indians. The area occupied by the Nez Perce Indians was even better suited to raising horses and was also protected from enemy raids.
The Nez Perce Indians of the Northwest deserve much of the credit for the Appaloosa horses we have today. They were the only Native Americans to selectively breed their horses, and used the best animals to breed from by gelding the inferior stallions and trading off the poorer stock to build up their herds of quality horses. The favoured areas were the fertile sheltered valleys of the Clearwater, Snake and Palouse River in Washington and Idaho, which gave birth to the name Appaloosa. The good year-round keep provided by the habitat encouraged size and growth and contributed to the development of the breed. Early white settlers referred to the Nez Perce horses as ‘a Palouse horse. In time the ‘a’ and Palouse became joined together to form the name Apalousey and then later Appaloosa. Not all the Nez Perce Indians bred horses. Some of the tribe members followed a more conservative life of farming having been taught by the early missionaries how to grow crops and raise livestock. They preferred to stay near their villages safe from attack unlike the more independent members of the tribe who continued to breed their fast sure footed Appaloosas to hunt in the buffalo country.
Quickly they established a superior breed which grew in numbers to thousands of horses in an economy where horses represented wealth and as a result the Nez Perce became known as an affluent tribe. The Appaloosa’s characteristics went beyond their multi-coloured coat patterns, as the Nez Perce bred only the strongest, fastest and most versatile stock.
The US government entered into a treaty with the Nez Perce in 1855 which gave the tribe 7 million acres of land most of which they already considered their territory. In 1860 gold was discovered on the reservation resulting in an influx of settlers establishing a town of some two thousand people in breach of the treaty. Conflict with the tribe escalated as their lands were reduced and eventually a battle at White Bird Canyon on 17 June 1877 marked the beginning of the war.
During the Nez Perce War in 1877, Chief Joseph and his tribe including women, children and approximately 3000 horses eluded the US Cavalry for months during their historic flight to Canada, when they covered over 1,300 miles of treacherous terrain. They were finally beaten by the cruel snow and freezing conditions, having mistakenly halted just 42 miles short of the Canadian border and safety. They surrendered on 7 October 1877 under conditions which allowed them to keep their horses and go home in the spring. However this was not to be and the Nez Perce were sent to North Dakota and approximately 1000 surviving horses were taken from them. The Nez Perce were placed on a reservation comprised of barren land, and their beautiful horses were almost driven to extinction.
Such was the fear felt by the US Government; they prohibited the Nez Perce tribe from owning Appaloosa horses. This law was not repealed until 1991, when the tribe were allowed once more to own and breed Appaloosas. On the Lapwai reservation in Idaho today, the tribe now has a small herd of Appaloosa horses at long last.
The Appaloosa horse would have been lost forever, but for the foresight of Claude Thompson, of Oregon, who started the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) in 1938 with only a handful of stock. Now with over 600,000 registered horses, the Appaloosa is flourishing and registrations exceed 10,000 each year in the USA.
Today, the same characteristics of hardiness and tractability of temperament make the breed more highly sought-after than ever before, with a fast expanding market throughout Europe. Highly adaptable, the Appaloosa excels not only in western riding, but also in many equestrian disciplines. The Appaloosa registered horse will put his heart and soul into the task at hand and is truly the ‘Breed of Choice’.