History of the Appaloosa


Through the centuries spotted horses have been given names ranging from the mystical Celestial Horses in China, to the Knabstrupper in Denmark, to the Tigre in France. The name Appaloosa joins in this history around the late 1800s. It was during this time that the term Appaloosa was first used to describe the spotted horses of the Palouse region. The Palouse, or Palouse Country, is the area of Washington and Idaho drained by the Palouse River. Early white settlers referred to the spotted horse of the area as a Palouse horse. Over time the a and Palouse were slurred together to first form the name Apalousey and later Appaloosa. The word Palouse most probably has its origin in the Sehaptin language spoken by the Nez Perce and Palouse Indians. It means "something sticking down in the water" in reference to a large rock at the confluence of the Snake and Palouse Rivers where the main village of the Palouse or Palus Indians was built. (1)

 

Prehistoric Man and Horses

One of the facinating aspects of history is that the more we study the more we learn.  It used to be assumed that the first evidence of the spotted horse was found in cave paintings dating from around 18,000 BC at Lascaux and Peche -Merle in France.  Anthropologist hypothetized that these horses may be the remote ancestors of present day spotted horses. However, current studies indicate that rather than representing actual horses the cave artists used the spots to represent dreams or visions.  Never-the-less spotted horses can be seen in art across the globe.

Cave painting at Pech-Merle, France from the Upper Paliolithic era. Courtesy of Centre de Prehistoire de Pech-Merle.

Ferghana Valley (present day Uzbekistan)

The Bronze Age (roughly 1750 – 1500 BC) ushered in the use of the horse drawn chariot. Commerce and travel along the Silk Road of 100 BC to 200 CE widened interaction and connection across the Asiatic Steppes. The area of Fergana in the heart of the Asiatic Steppes appears to be a main source from which horses of superior size, strength, speed and intelligence emerged.

China

Around 100 BC the Emperor Wu Ti sent court officials to Ferghana to obtain these superior horses who they called Heavenly or Celestial horses. Some thought that they were those prophesized in the Book of Changes as “the heavenly horses will come from the northwest.” The spotted horse continues to be profusely depicted in Chinese art.

This statue was excavated from a tomb at Astana, China which dates from the T'ang Dynasty (mid 8th century). Courtesy of the British Museum.

Persia (present day Iran)

Persians claim the ancestor of all spotted horses to be Rakush, the spotted warhorse of the hero Rustam who lived approximately 400 BC. Rakush was said to be sired by a white demon, a symbol of good. The exploits of Rakush and Rustam are detailed in the 11th century epic Shah Nameh of Firdausi.

This miniature from a shah-namah of Firdausi showing Rustam capturing the Khagan of China. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Ancient Mediterranean World

Scattered evidence of the spotted horse shows up throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. This vase, found near the Tombs of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra outside the citadel at Mycenae (Greece) is dated ca. 1300 BC. It is decorated with warriors in a horse drawn chariot.

Courtesy of the National Museum, Athens, Greece,

Austria

The earliest evidence of the spotted horse in Austria was a sword found at a graveyard in Hallstatt , Austria, dated around 800 BC. The sword was encased in an iron scabbard decorated with an engraving of four men riding horses with spots on their rumps. In the mid-16th century, Austria acquired a group of Andalusian horses from Spain. First put on a breeding farm in Kladrub, Bohemia, most of the horses soon moved to Equile Lipizzano. Called Lipizzans, these horses were raised for the Austrian royal family. Those that showed unusual ability and intelligence were given special training. Because the Lipizzan horses originally came from Spanish stock, their training center was called the Spanish Riding School. Those horses that stayed in Kladrub were bred to become carriage horses called Pinzgau.

Detail of THE STUD AT LIPIZZANO by Johann Georg Hamilton. This group of brood mares, painted in 1727, shows the great number of coat colors prevalent amoung the original Lippizaner stock--palomino, tobiano, and a well marked blanketed Appaloosa. Courtesy of Colonel Alois Podhajsky, Commandant, Spanische Reitschule, Vienna, Austria.

France

The first evidence of spotted horses in France was found in the 11th century. Artwork with spotted horses often depicted the horses carrying nobles, kings , or saints. In the 17th century Louis XIV and Louis XV both demanded to portrayed in paintings and tapestries on spotted horses. Louis XVI had a driving team of two spotted horses. In France the spotted horse was called Tigre.

13th century bronze aquamanile used to hold water for services of the church. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Denmark

Spotted horses made their way north into Denmark , Norway and Sweden. Numerous examples of artwork showing spotted horses exist in each country. In the 17th century, Denmark received spotted horses from Austria. But, for some reason the Danish had trouble keeping the correct color and conformation in their breeding so the numbers of spotted horses declined rapidly. Then, in 1808 a Danish butcher bought a spotted mare, the famous Flaebe mare. The offspring of this single mare started the famous line Knabstrupper.

England

Spotted horses begin to appear in English art around the 12th century and much like in France these horses were usually carrying saints or nobles.

Lady Conway's Spanish Jennet painted in the 18th century by John Wooton.

The New World

The Spanish introduced horses to North America in the 16th century. Spanish settlers moved north to the Rio Grande Valley and raised livestock. Though only the Spanish rode horses for herding, travel, and pleasure, it seems inevitable that some of the Indian stable boys did learn to ride.

This illustration is from a miniature of the Commentary of Saint Beatus de Liebana written around 776 on the Apocalypse of St. John , a favorite work of Spanish scribes of the late 9th to 12th centuries. Courtesy of the British Museum, London.

Pueblo Indian Revolt

During 1680 the Pueblo Indian slaves revolted and drove the Spanish from northern New Mexico. The Pueblos kept the sheep and cattle, while they traded of the horses to the Plains Tribes. Through trade and theft horses made their way east and north. By the early 1700s the Nez Perce had acquired horses and quickly became adept at breeding them for excellence.

Nez Perce acquire horses

In the West, the Shoshones from southern Idaho were the most important distributor of horses. Because of the fine range in their territory, their herds increased rapidly. Tribes to the north, including the Nez Perce, acquired horses from the Shoshones both through trade or stealing and by 1750 all had been supplied.

The land occupied by the Nez Perce was even better-suited to raising horses than that of the Shoshones, and was better protected from enemy raids. The Nez Perce became excellent horsemen and, unlike other tribes, they practiced selective breeding of their horses by gelding the inferior stallions and trading off the poorer stock. As a result, the Nez Perce were able to produce better horses than other tribes. The Nez Perce horse herds multiplied into the thousands and in an economy where horses equaled wealth, the Nez Perce became known as an affluent tribe. Meriwether Lewis, who happened to be a skilled horseman, wrote of the Nez Perce horses in his journal, “Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are elegantly formed, active and durable; in short many of them look like fine English coarsers [ sic ] and would make a figure in any country.”

Not all Nez Perce adopted the horse and the changes in lifestyle that horses made possible. A conservative minority stuck to their traditional way of life without horses. Thus even by the mid 1700's there were two distinct groups of Nez Perce. In 1836 missionaries arrived on the scene and tried to get the Nez Perce to give up their old customs of horse racing, hunting buffalo and fighting Blackfeet. The missionaries taught them how to raise crops and livestock. This suited the conservative faction who preferred to stay near their villages, safe from attack, but not the Nez Perce who had adopted the horse. “Thus it happened that the more independent members of the tribe continued to breed and raise fast Appaloosas for use in the buffalo country while their farmer brethren raised solid-colored work horses.”(2)


A shield bearer rides down a Shoshone. From the Little Wolf Ledger, circa 1877.

War of 1877

To pave the way for settlement of the Northwest, Indian title to the land needed to be extinguished, so the US government entered into a treaty with the Nez Perce in 1855. This treaty, which all the Nez Perce recognized, gave them 7 million acres of land which was most of the land that they already considered theirs. “Gold was discovered on the Nez Perce reservation in 1860 and a town of two thousand people sprang up overnight at Lewiston to supply the thousands of miners and prospectors who swarmed onto the Nez Perce land in search of oro fino- -golddust. This settlement clearly violated the treaty.”(3)

Conflicts between the settlers and Nez Perce escalated. A new treaty was then created in 1863 which reduced the size of the Nez Perce reservation by 90%. Not all of the Nez Perce chiefs signed this treaty, however. Thus the existing rift between the Christian and the more independent Nez Perce became formalized into treaty and non-treaty Nez Perce.

During the 1870's the non-treaty Nez Perce were increasingly pressured to move onto the reduced reservation. Friction between settlers and natives increased, eventually erupting in a battle at White Bird Canyon on June 17, 1877 . Thus began the Nez Perce War of 1877.

The non-treaty Nez Perce fled the US cavalry with approximately 3000 of their horses. In spite of traveling with women, children and elders, the Nez Perce successfully evaded the cavalry for over 3 1/2 months and 1300 miles. They surrendered on October 7, 1877 just 42 miles from the safety of the Canadian border. The conditions of surrender stated that the Nez Perce would be allowed to keep their horses and go home in the spring. This was not to be. The Nez Perce were sent to North Dakota and their approximately 1000 surviving horses were taken from them. These were the toughest, hardiest horses which had survived the war and they included the survivors of the spotted-horse herds of the Chief Joseph band.

NEZ PERCE SCOUT by Bill Holm. A Nez Perce scout, mounted on an Appaloosa horse, surveys the back trail during the flight across Montana in 1877.

“Since the outbreak of the war caught the Nez Perce leaders by surprise, many of their horses were still on the open range when fighting broke out. A large number escaped the hasty round-up and were claimed later by the first white men who could corral them. They were then sold to cattlemen throughout the West… As a result of the war and subsequent raiding of the ranges, the Appaloosa became a “lost” breed, its glorious history neglected until 1937.”(2)

For the rest of the story click on The History of the ApHC.

  1. Sprague, Roderick. "The Meaning of "Palouse", Idaho Yesterdays, Summer Issue, 1968: Volume 12, Number 2.

  2. Haines, Frances. Appaloosa: The Spotted Horse in Art and History, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1963.

  3. Cheryl Wilfong. Following the Nez Perce Trail, Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 1990.