At first glance, the Appaloosa looks more like a Rorschach than a horse. A paint-splattered testament to how genetics determine appearance, it possesses the leopard, or LP gene code, that gives it the dappled pattern and spots that have become so identifiable with the breed. It is an enigma of sorts, floating in a composition of spots that comes in 13 base coat shades of brown, black, roan (red or blue flecked with gray), buckskin (gold) and gray, and six different spot configurations that are constantly re-imagined into each horse.
Some of the more famous Appaloosas include Cojo Rojo, a black-blanketed Appaloosa ridden by Marlon Brando in the 1966 movie “The Appaloosa,” or Zip Cochise, who was ridden by John Wayne in the 1966 movie “El Dorado.” But perhaps the horse with the highest celebrity status would be the 16.2-hand (a hand is four inches) bay leopard Appaloosa and Grand Prix dressage horse, Pay N Go, who gave the performance of his life at the request of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney in 1998 during memorial services for his wife, Linda McCartney, in Manhattan, New York.
Under the direction of his owner and rider, Pam Fowler Grace, Pay N Go entered the sanctuary of the crowded Manhanttan church, performed a Spanish walk (an exaggerated motion where the horse extends his leg in front of him with each step), completed a one-and-one-quarter pirouette, bowed and saluted. Upon receiving a standing ovation, horse and rider exited the church just as gracefully.
Pay N Go was the first inductee into the Appaloosa Sport Horse Hall of Fame and became forever immortalized by model horse makers Breyer as a toy replica and striking example of the leopard spot pattern.
But as varied as its cloak of colors and markings is the Appaloosa’s career as a sport horse. The “Appy” can just as likely be found setting records on racetracks as he can herding cows on the open plains—take, for example, 1936 Kentucky Derby winner Bold Adventure, who then went on to sire the colt Assault, who won the Triple Crown in 1946 (a feat only 11 horses have captured in the over- 100-year history of the sport). No accident of nature, the horse evolved out of a breeding program begun by the Nez Perce tribe more than two hundred years ago.
But the Appaloosa’s story begins much further back in time. While still debated in some circles, a commonly held belief among historians is that the Spaniards brought the Andalusian horse, many of which were spotted, to the U.S. through Mexico in the late 16th century. A cross between an Arab-Moorish and a Vilanas (a coarse Western European horse), the stippled Andalusian was an athletic and powerful cavalry horse with an easy gait, making it a great riding horse. The predominant theory is that the Andalusian, mixed with a helping of mustang, is the predecessor to the modern-day Appaloosa.
But it took nearly a century from the time the spotted horse stepped onto American soil before it arrived in Idaho. New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians began trading Spanish horses they’d won in the Pueblo War of 1680 to the Shoshone tribe, who subsequently brought the horses to Nez Perce territory in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wyoming. It was along the Palouse River that white settlers first saw the spotted animal and dubbed it “a Palouse horse,” or “Appaloosey.”
The importance of the breed to the Nez Perce, or Nimi’ipuu (which means “the people”), cannot be understated. It was the horse of the people, and in their hands, the Appaloosa, or Ma’amin, became a gifted athlete, warrior, hunter and friend. Selective breeding allowed the Nez Perce to preserve traits they most valued: speed and agility; a kind temperament balanced with exceptional nerve on the battlefield and the buffalo hunt; and endurance to carry their people across their land (nearly 17 million acres of mountainous terrain). The Nez Perce would cull inferior horses by trading or gelding them, and by the late 1800s they had amassed vast herds of strong, healthy, and superior horses.
But all that was about to change. The Nez Perce saga played out like a scene in a Hollywood Western, minus John Wayne or a happy ending. Despite attempts made by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to broker an alliance between the Indians and the U.S. government in the early part of the 19th century, life in the Palouse became increasingly difficult as gold brought white settlers en masse onto their lands. An 1855 treaty allowed the tribe to keep most of its ancestral land, while yet another in 1863 shrunk their acreage by 90 percent.
Heinmot Tooyalakekt, or young Chief Joseph, as he was known, and his Wallowa band were among the factions of Nez Perce suspicious of government overtures, refusing to sign treaties shrinking their rights and thus becoming a “nontreaty band.” In 1877, Joseph feared an impending attack by the cavalry and moved over 800 tribe members on horseback toward Canada. While the tribe left some horses behind, they took 1,800 head of cattle and horses, crisscrossing 1,300 miles while attempting to sidestep the military.
After almost four months of hardship, the Nez Perce’s ordeal ended in a six-day standoff in Bear Paw, Montana, less than 40 miles from the Canadian border. Chief Joseph surrendered and told his captors: “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The surviving members of the band were moved to reservations and their horses seized, destroyed, or sold to cattlemen, settlers and the odd Wild West show. The cavalry encouraged crossing the Appaloosa with draft horses in an attempt to vanquish the breed’s prowess as a warhorse, diluting it to near extinction.
The Appaloosa horse was nearly lost.
It took a Western Horseman magazine story written in 1937 by Francis Haines, a history professor from the North Idaho College of Education, to shine a light on the plight of the Appaloosa. An authority on Northwestern tribes, Haines interviewed Nez Perce tribal members, photographing them and the few remaining horses on the reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. The story caught the eye of a farmer named Claude S. Thompson in Moro, Oregon, and within a year, the piece kick-started a movement to restore the Appaloosa breed.
The Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) was founded as a breed registry by Thompson in 1938, and with a handful of other Appaloosa enthusiasts, he began his quest to locate horses with three traits deemed to be singular to an Appaloosa: a visible white sclera around the iris of its eye, striated hoof patterns and mottled skin around its nose, eyes and genitalia.
By the 1970s, the ApHC was the third largest horse registry for light horse breeds, and on March 25, 1975, Idaho Governor Cecil B. Andrus signed a bill naming the Appaloosa as the state horse, in large part due to the efforts and lobbying of a man by the name of George Hatley, who became known as “Mr. Appaloosa.”
George Hatley’s parents put him on his first Appaloosa when he was just a boy. Each morning, they’d slap the horse on the hips and off it went, delivering young George to the Irene Country School, a one-room schoolhouse he attended near his home in Union Flat Creek, Washington. That Appaloosa left an impression on Hatley and, years later, after completing a stint in the Navy, he hitchhiked from California to Oregon to meet Thompson at the newly formed ApHC and talk horses. Shortly thereafter it was decided that Hatley, at only 23 years old, had the energy and vision to become the club’s executive secretary. He accepted a silver dollar as his first paycheck and took the club’s entire contents home to Moscow, Idaho, in a shoebox— paperwork on 200 Appaloosas and 100 members.
Hatley ran the ApHC with his wife Iola out of their home in Moscow for 64 years until his death at age 87 in 2011. In the process, they helped put the Appaloosa back on the map by: publishing Appaloosa News, (now Appaloosa Journal, the club’s official magazine); organizeing the first national Appaloosa horse show; establishing the National Appaloosa Sale; putting together the first ApHC studbooks; and setting up the foundation for the Appaloosa Museum. Today, the club resides in a commercial space in Moscow, with the museum adjacent. In 1991, a “living exhibit” was installed behind the museum, where each summer and fall a different Appaloosa is pastured.
When she met George, Iola didn’t know a thing about horses. But George changed all that. He gave her an equine education, complete with riding lessons. The year that Iola got her pick of foals the Hatleys owned, she chose an Appaloosa colt named “Apache Double.” One of the most successful Appaloosa racehorses ever, he won 18 of his 21 starts. “I always could tell when a horse was good,” remembered Iola. “Something about their hips that could tell you. This horse was so calm, he’d win a race and then go eat grass.” In 1973 at the Portland Meadows Sweepstakes, Apache Double ran 5 furlongs in 1 minute, 40 seconds, a record that, while tied, has yet to be beaten.
The ApHC has registered more than 700,000 horses and, as of 2013, over 15,000 Appaloosa owners in 27 countries count themselves as members. It’s a breed registry with a preference for color, meaning that while color is appealing, it’s not essential. According to Steve Taylor, executive director, “Just because you breed an Appaloosa to an Appaloosa doesn’t mean you’ll get a spotted horse. About one third of the horses registered each year are solids.”
Unlike other registries, the ApHC permits Appaloosas crossed (known as outcrossing) with other breeds to register. “Because the genetic pool was originally so small, you could breed your ApHC mare to an American Quarter Horse, Jockey Club Horse (Thoroughbred) or World Arabian Horse. Native Americans raced their Appaloosas from the beginning, so it made sense to outcross them with Thoroughbreds,” said Merida McClanahan, marketing director for the ApHC.
Rosa and Jon Yearout, members of the Nez Perce tribe and owners of M-Y Sweetwater Appaloosa Ranch, have been breeding Appaloosas since 1974 and aim to preserve bloodlines from what they call the Old Herd, reputed descendents from Chief Joseph’s horses. These ancestors of horses who escaped the attention of the U.S. government and found their way onto ranches around the West where they were prized stock horses. “Foundation lines are found in horses that most resemble the original Appaloosa bred by the Nez Perce. It’s as close as you can get to what an Appy should truly be,” explained Rosa.
M-Y Sweetwater Appaloosas attract Appaloosa collectors from all over the world. “We get a good mixture of buyers—a lot of people want to use them as jumpers. I once saw our stallion, Ciikowis Timina (meaning Brave Heart in Nez Perce), jump over a 6-foot-high round-pen fence like it was nothing. Not a long running jump, just one, two strides, up, up and over!” said Rosa.
Athletic ability aside, Yearout believes their horses are iconic of the original breed. “I think a lot of people are intrigued with the Nez Perce story and our family’s story. We try to keep in touch with our historical connection through our horses,” she explained.
What began as a horse from another continent and evolved into an amalgam, bred by a tribe who made him part of their culture, is today an all-purpose equine, beloved by rock stars and ranchers, at ease in the stockyards or a crowded cathedral in Manhattan. He is far more than a genetic phenomenon, he’s a horse of the people.