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My uncle had a spotted horse that previously spent time performing with the circus. This fantastic creature always captivated me, and recently I began to wonder if the spots on its coat contributed to its capabilities.
Ever since man domesticated and selectively bred horses, we’ve been captivated by flashy coat color patterns. And horses with spotted coats are some of the most highly desired.
Most people are familiar with the spotted Appaloosa breed; however, plenty of other lesser-known horse breeds also produce amazing spotted coat patterns.
Horse breeds with spots
The genetics behind white spotting patterns
The genes that affect white spotting can occur on any base coat color and combine with any dilution gene. Some of the genes result in a roan color, and others in gray horses.
The leopard complex (LP)
Spotting, as seen on Appaloosa horses, is created by the leopard complex LP gene. The Leopard complex gene creates many spotted patterns and is the most prevalent.
The leopard complex is a white coat pattern with or without pigmented spots known as leopard spots. The LP gene also causes mottled skin, striped hooves, white sclera, and progressive loss of pigment in the coat as the animal ages.
LP patterns include a typical leopard, displaying spots over the horse’s entire body over a white base. There is also near leopard, few-spot leopard, and near few-spot leopards, which all vary dark colors spotting over a white coat.
Another more distinct LP patterns are the spotted blanket, which typically displays a white blanket with spotting over the horse’s rump and down the hindquarters. If the coverage is solid white, it’s sometimes referred to as a frosted blanket.
The leopard complex also creates a snowflake pattern on some horses. These horses have white splashes of hair intermingled with the horse’s dark coat. LP can also generate a roan or marble coat pattern.
The Sabino spotting pattern typically displays white markings on legs, white roaning of the midsection, and a blazed face. SB1 alleles create it.
Splashed white gene
The genetic mutation, SW1/SW2/SW3/SW4/SW5/SW6, results in a splashed white horse. Splashed white horses exhibit large, broad blaze, elongated white markings on the legs, white spotting on the belly, and blue eyes.
Horses with a TO genotype have a tobiano spotted coat. Tobiano’s have blotches of white across their topline somewhere between the ears and tail. These white areas are typically symmetrical and distinct vertical patterns, and their head is colored.
Appaloosa horse breed.
Appaloosa horses are internationally renowned for their athletic ability, speed, and personality. Through the years, they’ve been crossed with Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Quarterhorses.
This combination resulted in an exceptionally athletic horse with a high spirit. Appaloosa horses are also brilliant animals that are willing workers, but they are best suited for experienced riders.
The Appaloosa Horse Society was formed in 1938 at a time when the breed was diminishing. Currently, the USDA estimate there are over 500,000 Appaloosa horses in the United States.
Appaloosa horses have been crossed with various horses and ponies to create other spotted breeds, including the Pony of America, Tiger horse, Wakaloosa, Nez Percé Horse, and many others.
The Knabstrupper breed.
The Knabsturpper horse originates in Denmark. It has a fascinating history; it was once near extinction; Knabsturppers dawned from a chestnut mare with the leopard complex gene.
She produced a unique colt with spots. This colt grew up to sire many spotted offspring. The mother and son continued to breed with various horses, and in 1812, their progeny became the basis Knabstupper breed.
The breed was popular in Europe in the 19th and early 20th century; however, in more recent years, their population dwindled until, in 1971, three Appaloosa stallions were brought to Denmark to revitalize the breed.
Knabstupper’s are athletic horses that compete in numerous equine events. They average just under 16 hands tall, have an even temperament, and are easy to train.
The Noriker horse breed.
Noriker horses are primarily raised in Austria, and like the Knabstrupper, they also carry the LP gene. Not all Norikers are spotted; some are bay, black, sorrel, and paints.
They are an ancient horse breed that can trace their name back to a Roman province called “Noricum” in the Alps. The Norikers are a stout and versatile horse breed.
They are excellent draft horses, riding horses, and have the athletic ability to perform many equine activities. They have a calm temperament and make excellent companions.
In Austria, the locals consume the meat of Norikers, and foal meat is highly desired, much like veal in the U.S. Horses of undesirable color or without correct conformation for riding or work are sold for slaughter.
PONY OF THE AMERICAS
Pony of the Americas (POA) is a pony breed with roots in the Midwestern United States. During the mid-1950s, an Arabian/Appaloosa mare was crossed with a Shetland stallion and produced a unique colt named Black Hand.
The owners loved this pony’s demeanor and conformation so much that they established a new breed. Black Hand became the foundation for the Pony of the Americas, a new horse breed with specific physical and coloring characteristics.
All Pony of the Americas must stand between 11.5 and 14 hands tall and have Appaloosa coloring visible from 40 feet. So like many other horses with spots, the POA also has the LP gene.
Pinto horses have spots.
Pinto horses are not a breed but a reference to coat colors that include spots. The genetic color patterns are tobiano, overo, and tovero. These color schemes are found on numerous breeds but most notably in The American Paint horses.
There is a common confusion between pinto and paint horses. However, pinto is typically used as a reference to color or a color breed. The American Paint horse is a specific breed.
Some other breeds that typically have pinto color patterns include Quarter horses, Arabian, Icelandic Horses, and Saddlebreds.
The Icelandic horse breed is the size of a large pony; their average height is only 13.5 hands. They are direct descendants of the Mongolian horses used to conquer much of Asia and parts of Europe.
Icelandic horses are likely the purest breed in the world because of tight government restrictions on horse importation, which restricted breeding to native animals only.
Icelandic horses are of various colors, including pinto. However, there are four dominant colors, white, brown, chestnut, and black. The white horses often have spots that come and go with the seasons.
A unique trait of Icelandic horses is their gaits. They travel in five different strides, walk, trot, gallop, which is fundamental in all horse breeds, but they also have two more speeds, tolt and flying pace.
Cave paintings depict spotted horses.
In southwest France, ancient cave paintings depict two white horses with black spots. These paintings confirm that spotted horses existed before they were domesticated.
It has long been accepted that spotted horses didn’t exist until about 4,000 BC, but with the revelation of these paintings and advanced genetic research, scientist and archeologists agree the leopard complex spotting gene (LP) has existed much longer, likely for more than 25,000 years.
Other genetic spotting phenotypes did evolve after the domestication of horses. For example, tobiano spotting can only be traced after 1500 BC, which is after the domestication of horses around 4000 BC.
Spotted horses weren’t always popular.
During the medieval period, the popularity of spotted horses decreased, and solid chestnut horses were favored. The reason this occurred isn’t known for sure but has been extensively researched.
From the records kept by the Romans, we know they preferred solid-colored cavalry horses. They believed spotted horses were inferior to the horses of one color.
After the Roman empire collapsed, its global influence on culture continued, as did their preference for solid coat colors. Another theory has its origin in religion.
St. John’s apocalyptic vision revolved around the fall of Rome. The coat colors of horses had special meanings, the Victor was riding a white or spotted horse, the rider of Famine was on a black horse, the rider of Death rode a bay, and the rider of War was on a chestnut horse.
Until the fall of Rome, people often chose horses based on these symbolic colors, royalty preferred white or spotted horses, knights rode chestnut horses, and bay and black horses weren’t favored.
But during the Middle Ages, a “bad” rider, that of the Plague, replaced the good rider in St. John’s vision. The addition of the Plague rider resulted in the white or spotted horse having a negative connotation during this period. Its effect could have resulted in a decrease in the spotted horse population.
During the middle ages, new weapons emerged. These new weapons, specifically the longbow, may have played a role in reducing spotted horses in the military.
Distant archers could recognize riders on spotted horses easier than they could solid-colored horses, so naturally, the cavalry desired horses with solid coat colors.
Spotted horses have a fascinating history that traces to ancient cave drawings. Throughout history, they have fallen in and out of favor with the public.
Spotted horses can be found in the popular Appaloosa to the rare Knabstrupper; many different breeds have colorful spotted coat colors.
This article just briefly covers the many kinds of horses that display spots. I hope you decide to delve deeper and learn more about this fascinating topic.
My uncle’s spotted horse was a huge speckled Appaloosa, trained to walk on his rear legs and jump through hoops. He was a fantastic animal.