Horse Breed: American Paint Horse

In the spotlight

Name of breed: American Paint Horse

Country of origin: United States

Breed origin: The most popular ranch horses in America, the Quarter Horse and the Paint Horse, have a shared history. They were the result of crossing English Thoroughbreds with the horses brought to Central America by the Spanish, which had spread north and been developed into distinct ‘types’ by Native American tribes. There is much debate surrounding these horses’ bloodlines, but Arabian, Barb, Iberian and Chickasaw stock is known to have played a part. The ranch horses that developed from these crosses possessed great speed, strength and hardiness, with a compact build and innate ‘cow sense’. In the hands of the pioneer settlers, the horses’ ability to work with cattle was further honed, along with their explosive speed – quarter-mile racing was very popular! They also needed to be docile and willing enough for the whole family to ride, and have enough stamina to undertake long musters and migrations.

Native Americans prized pinto horses very highly and believed that those with ‘medicine hat’ markings gave their rider spiritual protection in battle. However, white settlers preferred solid-coloured horses, and thus pintos were ruled out when the American Quarter Horse Association was established. The AQHA went as far as excluding horses with white leg markings above the knees and hocks, or small white spots on their body. There were still plenty of stock horse and Quarter Horse breeders who favoured pintos, though, and they formed a number of organisations to preserve and promote the horses they called ‘Paints’. In 1965, some of these organisations merged and the American Paint Horse Association was born. Since then, the Paint Horse has been further refined and is now considered not merely a ‘colour breed’, but a breed with unique characteristics that separate it from its relatives.

Distinguishing features: The most distinctive trait of Paint Horses is, of course, their colouring; however, solid-coloured horses are accepted if both of their parents are Paints. The three main colour patterns are tobiano (mostly white legs, round-edged, regular spots, and head markings like those of a solid-coloured horse); overo (irregular, scattered markings, distinctive head markings and at least one dark leg); and tovero (a mix of tobiano and overo, with one or both eyes blue and spots of varying sizes). The colouration of these patterns is endlessly varied, although white is always involved. The genetics of coat colour inheritance are not fully understood, so when crossing two Paint Horses you never know what the foal will look like! The down-side of this is that some ‘frame overo’-patterned horses carry a gene that can cause lethal white syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes white, or nearly white, foals to die shortly after birth. DNA testing is now used to ensure that no two healthy horses carrying the affected gene are unwittingly bred together.

To be registered as an American Paint Horse, a horse’s parents must be either purebred Paint Horses or a combination of Paint Horse bloodlines with Quarter Horse and/or Thoroughbred bloodlines. The horse must have stock-type conformation, with a well balanced, compact body, strong bones and powerful hindquarters. The APHA has strict standards of conformation, athletic ability and performance to ensure that the Paint Horse remains as versatile and rideable as its stock horse ancestors. Paint Horses are also known for their intelligence, willingness and calm temperament.

Modern day American Paint Horse: Thanks in large part to the Paint Horse, the United States now has the largest number of pinto horses in the world! The APHA has members in 40 countries, with around 30,000 new horses registered each year and over a million horses in the studbook. Paint Horses have a worldwide reputation as eye-catching, versatile and athletic mounts. They are most commonly used for Western disciplines such as reining, roping, Western pleasure and, of course, ranch work; however, they also excel at in-hand showing, trail riding, racing, jumping, and just about anything else asked of them.

References: American Paint Horse Association, International Museum of the Horse, Stoney Hollow Paints, Wikipedia.

Image credits: Holley Underhill Photography.

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