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Appaloosa history

Historians are not exactly sure of the origin of the Appaloosa; some believe the Spanish Conquistadors brought some vividly-marked horses with them, others believe that the Russian fur-traders brought them. Another theory holds that when spotted horses went out of style in late-18th century Europe, large numbers were shipped to the west coast of America and traded to Spanish settlers and the Indian people of the Pacific Northwest, a voyage survived only by the hardiest animals. Each theory has some historical support.

This horse became associated with the Nez Perce Indian tribe, who were known as notable horse breeders by the early 1800s. The Nez Perce had strict selection policies and encouraged traits that can still be found in the modern Appaloosa. These traits include temperament, endurance, intelligence, along with a distinctive look.The word Appaloosa originated from the name Palouse River, which runs through the original Nez Perce country. The horses were given several variations on this name, which evolved until the name Appaloosa was officially adopted by the Appaloosa Horse Club.

The early Appaloosas were thought to be sturdy, sure-footed, and fast. Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition wrote of the horses of the Nez Perce in a February 15, 1806 journal entry: "Their horses appear to be of an excellent race: they are lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable: in short many of them look like fine English horses and would make a figure in any country." What is interesting, however, is that Lewis, an accurate observer who made detailed records, made no mention of the animals being spotted, something that as the meticulous Lewis normally would have noted. Some theories therefore speculate that the Nez Perce had solid-colored horses in the early 1800's, and added specialized color to their breeding program some time after the arrival of Lewis and Clark. In either case, the Nez Perce had spotted horses by the late 1800's when they once again came to the attention of the rest of the world.

The Nez Perce people were a relatively peaceful nation, though the encroachment of gold miners in the 1860s and settlers in the 1870s put pressure on the tribe to give up much of their land, which was good not only for raising horses, but also had some gold reserves and was suitable for farming.

Ultimately the Nez Perce drew the line at the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. While their leader, popularly known as Chief Joseph, was attempting to negotiate a treaty, a small group of warriors attacked settlers in 1877, leading to the Nez Perce War. Joseph then led about 800 of his people, mostly non-warriors, in a remarkable retreat southeast through Idaho and Montana and then back north across Yellowstone National Park, traveling over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) while first trying to seek refuge with other tribes including the Shoshoni and the Crow Nation, then ultimately deciding to try to reach safety in Canada. A small number of Nez Perce fighters, mounted on their fast, agile and hardy Appaloosa horses, successfully held off larger forces of the U.S. Army in several skirmishes, including a battle in White Bird Canyon in Idaho and the two-day Battle of the Big Hole in southwestern Montana.

However, the journey came to an end when they stopped to rest near the Bears Paw Mountains in Montana, 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the Canadian border, thinking that they had shaken off their pursuers. But Nelson A. Miles, then a colonel, led his troops in a rapid march of over 200 miles (322 kilometers) to catch the Nez Perce. After a devastating five-day battle, Joseph surrendered.

When the U.S. 7th Cavalry captured Chief Joseph and the remaining Nez Perce on October 5th 1877, they immediately took all of the tribe's horses, sold what they could, and shot most of the rest. A small remnant population remained of horses left behind in the Wallowa valley when the Nez Perce began their retreat, as well as animals escaped or abandoned along the way. The Nez Perce were settled on a reservation in north central Idaho , and allowed very few horses. Thus, after 1877 the Appaloosa breed was nearly extinct. However, a few horses continued to be bred on, mostly those captured or purchased by white settlers. By 1937 the Appaloosa had caught the eye of the general public and in 1938 the Appaloosa Horse Club, based in Ontario, Idaho was founded. Idaho adopted the Appaloosa as its official state horse in 1975.

The Nez Perce tribe once again began a breeding program in 1995 to develop the Nez Perce Horse. Their program is based on crossbreeding the Appaloosa and a Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke. This is a program the Nez Perce hope will resurrect their horse culture, a proud tradition of selective breeding and horsemanship that was destroyed by the 19th century war. The breeding program was financed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe and a nonprofit group called the First Nations Development Institute, which promotes such businesses.

Today the Appaloosa breed is one of America's most prized breeds and there are over a million registered horses. More information on the history of the Appaloosa can be found at the Appaloosa Museum.

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