- American Beauty: Spots and All -

By: Abigail Peterson

You've got to love that paint job. The Appaloosa horse is known for many things--speed, endurance, versatility--but above all, for its alluring spotted coat. No other breed of horse can claim such fantastic markings--nor such a deep connection to the history of the West.

Descended from stock brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s, the breed was developed by the Nez Perce Indians of the interior Pacific Northwest. Natural horsemen, they recognized that the animal's compact, powerful body and tough, striped hooves ideally suited it to the demands of the rugged Palouse country. Appaloosas with unusual color patterns were prized as racing and riding mounts for warriors and tribal leaders.

Exploring Nez Perce lands in 1805 and 1806, Lewis and Clark were among the first Americans to see the breed, writing that the horses were "lofty elegantly [sic] formed active and durable." But the arrival of homesteaders nearly spelled disaster for the Appaloosa. Tensions over Nez Perce lands led to war with the U.S. government in 1877. After Chief Joseph surrendered in Montana, the Nez Perce were resettled in Oklahoma, and their precious Appaloosas were either lost or given away.

Over the next 40 years, the genes that gave the Appaloosa its characteristic speed and coat were diluted by crossbreeding. Recognizing that the breed could be lost, enthusiasts formed the Appaloosa Horse Club in 1938 and established a registry program. "Their goals were small," explains Stacey Garretson of the Appaloosa Museum & Heritage Center in Moscow, Idaho. "They wanted to standardize the characteristics of the breed and promote Appaloosas."

The club grew quickly and by the 1960s, Appaloosas were fast becoming a Western favorite. John Wayne chose an Appaloosa for his mount in 1964's El Dorado; Paul and Linda McCartney owned and bred Appaloosas and recorded a song about them in 1998.

Today, the Appaloosa is one of the most popular breeds in the United States. There are many reasons, but ask Appaloosa owners what they love most about their horses, and it all comes back to those remarkable spotted coats.

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