American Paint Horse: Origin, Colors, Registration and Health

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The American Paint Horse is one of the most recognizable horse breeds – the unique patterns of his coat make him stand out in a crowd. But funky coat patterns aren’t the only things these “colored” horses are known for. Hardworking, versatile, and hardy, the American Paint Horse has charmed its way into the hearts and minds of equestrians all over the world.

History

The history of the “painted” horse runs deeply through the heart of America. But did you know that their coloring traces back to ancient Egypt, and beyond?

Origins

Before horses and humans worked alongside one another, prehistoric Eohippus roamed the earth. Much smaller than their modern counterparts, Eohippus survived in the grasslands and forests with a splotchy coat pattern that camouflaged them from predators.

Evidence of a colorful coat pattern appeared throughout history as horses developed close relationships with humans: depictions of painted horses appeared in 4th century Egyptian tombs, on artifacts from nomadic tribes in the Gobi desert, on art in ancient sites in India – and even the Huns sacked the Roman Empire astride painted horses (Duston, 60).

In 1519, Hernando Cortez landed in Mexico with seventeen horses – several of which carried the distinct tobiano and overo “pintado” patterns that characterize the American Paint Horse today.

The American Paint Horse is one of the most recognizable horse breeds – the unique patterns of his coat make him stand out in a crowd. But funky coat patterns aren’t the only things these “colored” horses are known for. Hardworking, versatile, and hardy, the American Paint Horse has charmed its way into the hearts and minds of equestrians all over the world.

As the influence of horses spread through the Americas, painted horses became popular with various Native American tribes, especially the Comanche.

The introduction of horses revolutionized the cultures of indigenous people. They became skilled equestrians, proficient in riding and training horses for hunting. Paint horses grew strong, agile, and fast, and quickly became symbols for the “wild” American west.  

As westward expansion continued through the 1800s, conflicts between settlers and American Indians resulted in the deaths of thousands of paint horses. As tribes were pushed from their homelands and onto reservations, their horses were slaughtered or shot for “sport” (Dutson, 61).

Rebecca Tyler Lockhart embarked on a quest to transform the paint horse from a rough, colored mustang to a refined, flashy quarter horse with “a bit of chrome.”

In the 1960s, breed enthusiasts formed the American Paint Horse Association “ to promote, preserve and provide meaningful experiences with Paint Horses.”

Painted vs Pinto

Originally, “painted” and “pinto” were just terms used to describe color (pinto comes from the Spanish word “pintado” i.e. “painted”). Enthusiasts began breeding horses for specific characteristics that extended beyond coat color – body type, athleticism, and versatility.

There are two separate registries available to horses with painted coats: the Pinto Horse Association of America and the American Paint Horse Association.

Pinto coloring can appear in almost all horse breeds, but American Paint Horses must have specific bloodlines to be registered with the APHA.

paint horse

Registry

A registered American Paint Horse must meet one of the following conditions:

  • Two registered APH parents.
  • One registered APH parent and one Quarter Horse parent, registered with the AQHA.
  • One registered APH parent and one Thoroughbred parent, registered with the Jockey Club.

Characteristics

American Paint Horses are stock horses – sensible, hard-working, muscular and agile. They are built similarly to the quarter horse; they have strong hindquarters, muscular and compact bodies, nicely formed necks, strong legs and tendons, and sloping shoulders.

These horses are relatively heavy, but they’re not too tall. American Paint Horses generally weigh between 1000 and 1200 pounds and reach 14.2 to 16.2 hands high.

Horses with lower centers of gravity are more agile, and better able to turn and stop quickly. These are necessary skills for a good cow horse.

Temperament

Paint horses have a long history of working closely with people. Because of this, they generally have good temperaments. However, because they were predominantly bred for color, paint horses may have less consistent temperaments than other breeds.

APHs are often used for racing and crossed with “hotblooded” breeds like Thoroughbreds. Many of them are descendants of wild mustangs, and may garner a reputation for having a “hot streak.”

Overall, paints are generally easy-going, gentle, and easily trainable. Every horse is an individual – whether you need a quiet horse for a beginner or a bold mount for eventing, you can probably find an APH to suit your needs.

Paint color patterns

American Paint Horses come in many colors, but two main coat patterns exist within the breed.

Tobiano

This dominant color gene produces the following characteristics:

  • White coloring that appears on the lower legs, and also across the back between the withers and tail dock.
  • White splashes are arranged vertically on the horse’s body, and they usually have a rounded shape.
  • Facial markings include a star, snip, blaze, etc. (similar to those on a solid-colored horse).
  • Horses often have dark coloring down their necks and chests in a “shield” pattern.
paint horse
Tobiano Paint Horse

Overo

The overo pattern is more complicated than the tobiano. Often referred to as “the opposite of tobiano” it may be further classified in the following ways:

Frame overo: This is the most common type of overo pattern. Horses present with a solid base color, and white patches with jagged edges appear in a horizontal orientation.

Their heads are often completely white (or bald-faced), and they may have blue eyes. White markings often appear “framed” by the darker color, hence the name. 

Frame Overo Paint Horse

Splashed white: These horses looked like they have galloped through a giant puddle of white paint! Their legs and bellies are usually white, as well as their heads. They often have blue eyes, as well.

Sabino: This color is expressed by a specific gene (the SB1, or Sabino 1 gene). But, sometimes a horse will be described as “sabino” because they appear to have traits expressed by the SB1 gene – but don’t actually carry the gene at all.

Horses with this pattern will likely have roaning (intermixing of white and dark hairs) around the edges of their white markings, unlike the crisp definition present with splashed white.

They also have irregular face markings, white markings that extend higher than their hocks and knees, and may have blue or brown eyes.

Tovero: If a horse has a mix of tobiano and overo spotting patterns, they may be classified as tovero.

Solid: A horse with no spots at all may be a registered paint horse! Genetics are complicated. Sometimes two paint parents will produce a solid-colored foal, and that foal could produce spotted offspring. There is a separate classification in the APHA registry for solid-colored horses.

A horse can be solid colored and still be a registered American Paint Horse.

Paint, piebald, and pinto, oh my!

Not all pintos are paints, and not even all paints are pintos.

Pinto” refers to the color – most colored horses can be registered with the Pinto Horse Association of America. Horses are divided into types based on what the horse is used for: stock/hunter, pleasure/saddle, or utility. They do not accept Appaloosa horses (spotted horses with the leopard-complex gene).

An American Paint Horse is a pinto crossed only with APH, Quarter Horse, or Thoroughbred bloodlines.

Solid colored paint horses occasionally appear, but are designated as “Solid Paint Bred” by the registry. In an effort to encourage colored horses, rules prevent owners from breeding two solid bred horses.

Piebald Paint Horse
Piebald Paint Horse

 “Piebald is a British term that refers to a horse with black and white pinto coloring. In the Enid Bagnold classic tale National Velvet, the main character competes in the Grand National steeplechase race with “The Pie” – a large piebald farm horse.

“Skewbald” refers to horses with base coloring other than black – chestnut, bay, brown, etc.

skewbald paint horse

Disciplines

Paint horses are versatile working horses suited for a variety of disciplines. With similar body types to quarter horses, APHs are useful for working cattle on the ranch or performing in the show ring. They excel at ranch sports: reining, cutting, calf-roping, barrel racing, trail riding, or gymkhana games.

American Paint Horses are popular in English disciplines as well. Athletic and agile, paints can make excellent eventers, hunter/jumpers, or even dressage horses!

Previously shunned in the show ring for being “too flashy,” judges have loosened up. American Paint Horses are a popular choice for both Western and English pleasure classes, where standing out is a necessity!

Paint horses make fine racehorses as well. They compete in breed-specific races across the country, and you’ll often find them in competitive barrel racing competitions as well.

With the second-largest breed registry in the county, you can find paint horses in a variety of disciplines. Even the most casual weekend rider can find a suitable APH companion, and they are often found in beginner lesson programs teaching young ones how to ride.

Health

American Paint Horses are generally healthy and sound, and with the proper care, they should live long and healthy lives. However, there are several health problems linked to their unique coat colors:

Overo Lethal White Syndrom

This disease is linked to the recessive gene associated with the frame overo pattern.

Newborn foals appear healthy, but they don’t have a functioning colon or digestive system. They usually die within a few days, so many are humanely euthanized. Luckily, there is now a DNA test to find out if parents have a copy of the mutated allele – both parents must have it for the foal to have LWS.

Because of the influx of quarter horse genes, APHs are subject to quarter horse diseases like hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP), malignant hyperthermia, Hereditary Equine Regional Dermal Asthenia (HERDA), Glycogen Branching Enzyme Deficiency or equine polysaccharide storage myopathy. Thankfully, genetic testing is available to prevent many of these diseases.

There are many labs that offer genetic testing for these diseases. I’ve listed them in my post on Equine DNA Testing.

Deafness is another congenital issue that can sometimes affect paint horses when white markings cover the ear. With a few adjustments, a deaf horse can live a long and healthy life.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re drawn to an American Paint Horse for his flashy coat or versatile athletic abilities, these horses truly stand out. With such a wide variety of body types and patterns to choose from, the American Paint Horse may just be the breed for you.

Other sources: Storey’s Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America, Judith Dutson, 2005.

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April

I've owned horses for 25 years and have a particular love for gentling wild horses (I've trained over 100). I write these articles to help others learn more about horses. If you enjoyed the article please take a moment to pin it to Pinterest or share on social media. It really does help!

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