Origins of the Appaloosa Horse

It is difficult not to be charmed by the unique look of the Appaloosa horse.  But, there’s a lot more to Appaloosas than cute spots and speckled noses. The Appaloosa horse origin has a rich history both in North America and Europe.  

These horses are most well known for being developed by the Nez Perce Indian tribe during the European colonization of North America.  But, they have a history that stretches back even further than that. In this article, I will be discussing the origins of the Appaloosa Horse and their relationship with the Nez Perce Indian tribe.

Appaloosa Horse Origin Before North America

The Appaloosa’s history can be traced back almost as long as human history.  A type of spotted horse has been seen in various cave drawings throughout Europe, which dates them back to prehistoric times.  These horses may not have been the exact same as the Appaloosa horse that we know today, but they were definitely its ancestors.

Ancient empires such as Greece and Persia also produced artwork and literature detailing spotted horses, which could have been the Appaloosa’s ancestors.  Later, the English and the French left records of spotted horses in the 1100s and 1200s.


But, these spotted horses were not brought to North America until the Spanish conquistadors traveled across the ocean in the 1600s.  Slowly but surely, the Spaniards brought their horses, including the spotted ones, to North America.  Most likely through trade, these horses got into the hands of the Native Americans, and the Appaloosa breed began to make its debut.

What Native American Group Developed the American Appaloosa Horse Origin?

Once the Nez Perce had their hands on a few “spotted horses,” they knew they had found a diamond in the rough.  The Nez Perce recognized that these early Appaloosas were intelligent, smooth to ride, and sturdy over uneven surfaces.

So, they began to carefully breed them.  As time went on, the Nez Perce gelded or traded horses that they didn’t believe would produce foals with desirable characteristics. The end result were herds of horses, though not all with spots, that the Nez Perce could rely on to swiftly carry them into battle, across great distances, and safely home at the end of the day.

The relationship between the Nez Perce and the Appaloosa was first recorded in the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (Lewis and Clark) while they were exploring America.  They found them in present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. In a journal entry from February 1806, Lewis and Clark said of the Appaloosa, “…some of these horses are pied with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with black-brown bey or some other dark color.”


The partnership between the Appaloosa and the Nez Perce was a long and beautiful one. But it was all but destroyed in the late 1800s. Slowly but surely, the Nez Perce were being kicked out of their native lands by the Americans. In May of 1877, the native American tribe took a stand against the Americans. Nearly 600 Nez Perce began to fight in what was later called the Nez Perce War.

Appaloosas and the Nez Perce

The Nez Perce resisted but were ultimately defeated and fled to Canada for refuge.  The native Americans, their livestock and their horses had to cross great distances over rough terrain.  Their Appaloosa horses served them well through this journey, and many made it to safety.

Sadly, the Americans caught up with a group of Nez Perce making the journey while they were resting in present-day Montana while fleeing to Canada.  They took over 1,000 of their horses; they sold the horses that they could and shot the rest

The remaining Appaloosas were later forced to breed with draft horses, as the Americans deemed that they were too light-footed to be good for farm work.  Very few Appaloosas were seen in the decades following the Nez Perce War. Because of their unique coloring, some of them appeared in circuses and traveling shows.  Americans began calling them the Palouse horse, due to the Palouse River where they were first found with the Nez Perce.

Appaloosas Today

Thankfully, in the 1930s, a group of horsemen in Oregon began the process of reviving the Appaloosa breed.  Through hard work and dedication, the breed began to grow again and develop new careers and spread into new disciplines.  

Today, the Appaloosa has been returned to its former glory.  Appaloosa horses can be seen in nearly every state in the USA.  Appaloosa breeding has become increasingly popular. There are Appaloosa breed clubs and organizations.  Also, there are national meetings to discuss the status of the breed and any progressions that have been made.  There are Appaloosa breed shows, where the horses are judged based on their color. Also, they are judged by their resemblance to the original Appaloosa horse. 

Appaloosa Horse Origin Before North America

Appaloosas are also very diverse in riding disciplines. They can be seen in western disciplines such as trail, western pleasure, roping, reining, and barrel racing.  Also, they can be seen in English disciplines such as hunger/jumper, three-day eventing, dressage, and even endurance. They make great family pets and kids’ horses, and they are frequently used as lesson horses for people learning how to ride.  People today love the Appaloosa for its wit and surefootedness. They are sturdy, easy horses to keep and have captured the hearts of people all around America.


The Appaloosa horse has a rich history in America, thanks to the Nez Perce tribe.  The breed would not have developed in America without their careful attention to the horses that they bred. And the measures that they took to preserve them.  I hope this article helped you learn about the history of the Appaloosa breed and its relationship with American history. Please share this article and share with us your experiences with Appaloosa horses!

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