post No Spines but Loads of Beauty: Horses of the West

February 3rd, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:49 pm

Buck Cannon in The Assassins

Manolito brings back an Apache paint horse as a gift from Cochise in The Assassins. The paint horse is eating Buck’s biscuit. On the set Cameron Mitchell often gave treats to the horses, and as a result they would follow him around looking for a handout, occasionally interrupting filming.

By W. St. Germain

A while back I wrote an article about how The West wouldn’t be The West without cacti and I stand by that statement. However, cacti don’t get around much and they aren’t known to be great conversationalists. So, charming as they are (in a picky sort of way) I thought that we’d take a closer look at another symbol of the Wild West; the horse. While not conversationalists either, the horse has personality, elegance, intelligence and usefulness. They’re certainly more comfortable to travel on than a cactus would be – one would assume. I’ve never actually had the desire to compare rides.

After reading the wonderful horse article featuring Bob Hoy at I thought I might take a closer look at the various breeds so prominent in The West. One breed Bob didn’t mention was the Palouse Horse or Appaloosa. Certainly the Indians loved them and knew a good thing when they saw it. The Appaloosa is one of America’s most popular breeds. It is often called ‘The Proudest Horse a Man Could Ever Ride.’ I’d call them the proudest horse anyone could ever ride.

An outstanding feature of the Appaloosa is their beautiful spotted markings. These range from a few spots to covering the whole animal. Cave paintings in France dating as far back as 18,000 BC depict spotted horses that are probably Appaloosa. The white spot pattern is the result of at least one gene type though a second is also suspected to have some effect. For obvious reasons, the spotting gene is called the Leopard Gene or Leopard Complex. This gene mutated (altered from the original form) and led to the new patterning. Genes carry instructions to code for things to be done. In this case, the gene mutation changed to read, ‘produce white spotting where there was once color’. Technically, where white occurs, the gene is actually saying produce no color in these areas and ‘no color’ results in white.

We can assume the mutation has been around for a long time. The spotted coat has been seen in cave paintings and is found among other ancient breeds, such as the pre-Christian Asia Karabair and Mongolian Altai. It’s believed that the original Appaloosas are of Mongolian mountain horse stock. The leopard gene is also responsible for the white sclera (white of the eye) we see in many horses but always in the Appaloosa. It can also produce striped hooves. We have the Nimíipuu Indians, commonly known as the Nez Perce, to thank for developing this breed. The name springs from a modification of Palouse. The Palouse River runs through Washington and Idaho and straight through the Nez Perce country, where the horse was recognized as the Palouse Horse to the white settlers. Over time, the name Appaloosa evolved.

AppaloosaThe Appaloosa is a breed found in all disciplines of equine sport. The stallion Apache Double (1969-1999) broke racetrack records and was inducted in the Appaloosa Racing Hall of Fame in 2001. He is only one of many champion Appaloosas in equine sport. Personally, I’d love to see an Appaloosa run the Melbourne Cup!* Incredibly, the world nearly lost the breed during the Indian Wars. When the Calvary recognized that this horse, with its sure-footed speed and stamina was often the reason the Indians escaped, they placed a bounty on them. Of those captured some were sold, most were slaughtered. As recently as 1935, it was illegal to breed and raise this ‘Indian weapon’. Thankfully, some survived and dedicated individuals rescued them for future generations.

How Do They Get Their Markings?
Like humans, horses inherit their genetic material from their parents – in pairs. One parent provides one gene for a given trait (e.g. eye color), while the other gives the corresponding gene to make up the required pair. Some genes are dominant and override the instructions of others. The leopard gene is dominant and so can override or alter the outcome of another that pairs with it. What the Appaloosa inherited from its parents determines its coloration. You may already know that James Drury’s Virginian and Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon (James Arness) both rode Appaloosas. Below I give a general observation of what to expect, based on combinations. Can you guess which types Matt and The Virginian rode?

The horse received one leopard gene from each of its parents (a double dose): This produces the ‘few spots’ patterning. The coloring of the few spot leopard will be almost entirely hidden by the white spotting. In some cases, color may appear on the face and legs. Since both genes are giving instructions to, ‘make white spots’, you don’t usually see much in the way of other color.

The horse received the leopard gene from only one of its parents: The corresponding gene is not the mutated leopard but a standard color gene. This is my favorite combination! It produces a range of patterning from mottled to full leopard spots. This is because the leopard will be pushing for the white spotting while the other gene will be coding for color. Each will win some territory and gorgeous combinations result. The leopard spots can cover the entire body in varying degrees on different colored backgrounds. The full leopard pattern and ‘snowflake’ patterns are often confused. Generally, the white ‘snowflakes’ of the latter get larger with age. Snowflakes can be found on horses of all colors.

The horse did not receive a leopard gene from either parent: It is not carrying it. This produces a solid color. No spotting is present and the color will be determined by the color information the animal inherited from its parents.

Unfortunately the leopard gene is also linked to eye and vision difficulties. This explains why the breed suffers from a higher than average rate of vision problems; in particular Night and Moon blindness. Both produce difficulty seeing in low light conditions. If the animal isn’t ridden at night this seldom creates a problem.

Such Beautiful Personalities!
I have met many Appaloosas (and owned two) and have yet to encounter a bad tempered one. They are gentle animals and their willingness to learn and to please explains why they have proven successful in so many equine disciplines. Their good nature makes them great horses for children. Another time I will write about a different breed and if you haven’t already read the article with Bob Hoy, I recommend you do. You will see just how much personality the different HC horses had. It’s no wonder the people in the Old West loved them.

* For those of you with an interest in this greatest of stayers races, a race that ‘astonished’ Mark Twain in 1895, you can read the a brief history of The Cup at:

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