Paint Horse vs. Pinto: What’s the Difference?

Is There a Difference Between Paint Horses and Pintos?

You may have heard the horse terms “paint” and “pinto” used interchangeably. But while a picture of both a paint and a pinto may look the same, comparing the two terms is like comparing apples with oranges, or more accurately, comparing a Red Delicious with a red apple.

What is the difference between a paint horse and a pinto horse? “Pinto” is the term used to refer to the markings on a horse’s coat that result in large splashes of color. “Paint” refers to a specific breed; it is the shortened name of the American Paint Horse. In other words, (almost) every Paint has a pinto pattern, but not every horse with a pinto pattern is a Paint. 

Keep reading to learn more about the American Paint Horse, which other breeds can produce a horse with pinto patterns, and the different patterns of pinto coloring.

Pinto Horse Breeds

Aside from the American Paint Horse, several breeds can produce horses with pinto markings. Listed below are some of the most popular horses commonly found with splashes of white.

  • Gypsy Vanner – The Gypsy Vanner is perhaps the horse most well-known for its colorful contrasts, outside of the American Paint Horse. This breed is a small draft horse known for pulling the caravans of the Romani people. They are heavy-boned with thick manes, tails, and feathering. While they can be found in solid colors, they are most often found in pinto. 

  • Miniature Horse – Miniature Horses come in almost every color and coat pattern. They are found in solid coats, spotted coats, and pinto coats. Miniature Horses are popular as companions, children’s mounts, therapy animals, and in driving shows. 

While not technically a specific breed, Mustangs are also very frequently found with pinto markings. Mustang herds have been traversing the American West for hundreds of years. They descended from the same paint-splashed Spanish horses that were set free and led to the development of the American Paint Horse.

While the Paint was intentionally bred over the years to create an excellent cow horse, the feral Mustangs are a product of natural selection. They come in all colors and patterns, and conformation and size can differ greatly among different regional herds. Because Mustangs breed freely without human intervention, hundreds of unique and beautiful color and pattern combinations exist within these herds.

The Different Types of Pinto Markings

Pinto markings are like snowflakes or thumbprints – they are all unique! That said, there are a few different classifications used to describe the type of pinto markings a horse possesses. Listed are some of the most commonly found patterns.

  • Tobiano – this is considered to be the most commonly found pinto pattern. The ideal distribution of white with another solid color is 50/50, though there is usually more white than dark found on a tobiano. Horses with these markings usually have a darker head, white legs, and splashes of white across the back between the withers and the tail. 

  • Overo – Overo simply means “non-tobiano pinto markings”. Overo markings generally have “crisper” outlines than tobiano markings, and there are a few different varieties:
    • Sabino – a horse with these markings will generally have white legs, belly spots, and white markings on the face. The edges have been described as “lacy” and with the coat’s slight spotting, can sometimes be mistaken for a roan coat. 
    • Splashed White – a horse that is splashed white appears to have walked into a lake of white paint. Usually, this horse only has dark coloring at the top of the body, from the tail to the top of the head. Most Splashed White horses have completely white faces with blue eyes
    • Frame – frame, also called frame overo, will include large patches of white across the horse’s body, “framed” by a darker color. 

What Colors Are Pinto Markings Found?

Horses with pinto markings come in white contrasted with just about any other solid color. Horses that have pinto markings will not come in two different non-white colors. Most commonly, pinto horses are found with combinations of black with white, bay with white, or chestnut with white. It is not uncommon, however, to see a pinto with either a gray-and-white coat or a palomino-and-white coat. The former can be mistaken for an entirely white horse in its older years as the gray portion of the coat fades with time. 

Piebald vs Skewbald

you may have heard the terms “piebald” and “skewbald” used to refer to a horse with pinto markings. These terms were used commonly years ago, especially in the Western disciplines. While you may still hear them used to refer to the coloring of a painted horse, they’ve largely been replaced by more specific terms to describe a horse’s markings (i.e. tobiano, splashed white, etc). 

A piebald, or pied, horse has any kind of pinto markings that are white and black. A skewbald horse has white pinto markings and any other color – bay, chestnut, palomino, etc. 

What Countries Can Pinto Horses Be Found?

Horses with pinto markings can be found across the globe, even in countries where there are limited breeds. The crystal-clear bloodlines of the Icelandic Horse can produce pinto markings. The tiny Falabella from Argentina can be found in pinto patterns. Even the solid-colored Arabian, known for its inability to produce offspring with pinto markings, can carry the sabino gene. 

By far, the greatest number of horses with pinto markings will be found in the United States. This shouldn’t be surprising, for two reasons. The first is simple – the United States not only has the largest number of pinto horses, but it also has the largest number of all horses. The country is believed to possess about 18% of the world’s horses, even though its human population is approximately 4% of the globe.

The second reason the United States has the largest number of pinto horses is due to the popularity of the American Paint Horse. The Paint is easily one of the most popular breeds in the country, especially in the states dominated by Western disciplines. 

The History of the American Paint Horse

When the first Spanish explorers came to the Americas, they brought with them Spanish horses. Many of these horses had two-toned coats. Enclosed paddocks were not the standard hundreds of years ago, and many of these horses either escaped to the wild or were let go to roam free. From these feral herds, the Native Americans and the cowboys of the West captured and trained horses for various uses.

A cowboy’s horse was prized for its hardiness, agility, and innate cow sense. Over the years, these well-bred stock horses became the norm on every ranch and range. In 1940 the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) was created, and at its inception, denied registration to horses with pinto markings. The reason behind this is not well-documented, though there are a few theories, one being that the painted horses were excluded because they were so prized by the Native Americans. Another theory was that their markings were considered too “flashy” for shows. 

By this time, excellent cow horses with pinto markings and Quarter Horse conformation were very popular among ranches, and the breed continued to flourish. In 1965, the American Paint Horse Association (APHA) was formed to give these horses a registry home. At the time, Paints and Quarter Horses were so closely related, that a pinto horse could be registered with the APHA so long as it came from stock registered with either the APHA or the AQHA (or The Jockey Club, due to the common practice of bringing Thoroughbred blood into these lines).

American Paint Horses today are still very popular, especially in the Western disciplines. There are approximately 250,000 Paints currently registered. 

Are There Solid-Colored Paint Horses?

It is possible, though rare, for two purebred American Paint Horses to produce a solid-colored foal. These horses are referred to as “Breeding Stock Paints” or “Solid Paint-Breds” and are accepted into the registry, though are not allowed in all breed-specific shows. Not all solid-colored Paints will produce foals with pinto markings, however, which should be considered when deciding whether or not to use a “Breeding Stock Paint” as a broodmare.

Is That Horse a Paint or a Pinto?

What term should you use to describe an unfamiliar colorful horse? If I don’t know for sure the breed of a two-toned horse, I’d refer to him as a pinto. If I knew the horse was an American Paint Horse, I’d call him a Paint, though referring to him as a pinto instead would not be incorrect. That said, either term would be understood in the horse community!

If you would like a flashy horse with a splash of color, learn about some of the most colorful horse breeds in my article Discover the 11 Most Colorful Horse Breeds.

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My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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