What A Spotty Horse Is Called (The Answer Might Surprise You)

What A Spotty Horse Is Called

While you may always have called horses with dalmatian-like spots simply spotted horses or spotty horses, did you know that this unique coat is the result of very specific genetics attributed to a common American breed of horse? Not many people know much about this breed, though just about everyone recognizes it when they see it. 

What is a spotty horse called? A spotty horse is called an Appaloosa. Appaloosas are a popular breed of horse developed in what are now the US states of Washington and Oregon by the Nez Perce people. Appaloosas are most well-known for the leopard complex gene, which results in unique coat patterns, mottled skin, striped hooves, and white scleras. 

Keep reading for more information on this unique and flashy horse breed, including a detailed list of recognized coat patterns and their origin story.

Appaloosa Spotty Coat Patterns

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to Appaloosa coat patterns – in fact, the Appaloosa Horse Club (their official registry) recognizes seven different coat patterns, with some containing spots throughout the body, some having spots only on a portion of the body, and some having no spots at all. Here is a description of the different pattern possibilities:


  • Solid – yes, Appaloosas can be a solid color. However, the registry may require a genetic test if the horse has no spots. Appaloosas can have a base coat of bay, black, chestnut, palomino, buckskin, cremello or perlino, roan, gray, dun, and grulla (in other words, they come in almost every color).


  • Spots – this pattern will have spots in a contrasting color to the base coat all over or over a majority of the body. This pattern is what most people picture when they imagine an Appaloosa.


  • Blanket – also called a snowcap, this is a solid white area on the hindquarters of the horse. 


  • Blanket with spots – this is a common Appaloosa pattern, where the horse has a blanket that is spotted. The spots will usually be the same color as the base color. 


  • Roan – also called Appaloosa roan, marble, or varnish roan. This is a unique pattern where there is intermixed dark and light hair (roan) throughout the body, with darker points called “varnish marks” on portions of the face, legs, stifle, hip point, elbow, and above the eye. There are usually lighter areas along the forehead, jowls, along the back, loin, and hips.


  • Roan blanket – this is just as it sounds, a blanket that is roan instead of white. 


  • Roan blanket with spots – again, this one you can probably figure out without the explanation. This is a roan blanket that has spots on it.


While each of these coat patterns is distinct from one another, it isn’t always easy to label an Appaloosa’s coat without experience. Some Appaloosas with spots may be covered in spots, while others may have very few spots.

Some have noticeable blankets on a dark base coat, while others have a blanket on a lighter base coat that can be difficult to see. While there are several different coat patterns an Appaloosa may have, there is so much variety within each pattern. This is what makes the breed so unique and special. 

Why Appaloosas Are Spotty: The Leopard Complex Gene

The coat patterns of an Appaloosa are a result of the leopard complex gene (named the Lp). Technically, the Lp is a mutation of the TRPM1 gene in chromosome 1. There is likely more to it than this, including additional genes that interact with this mutation, and this makes the Appaloosa of particular interest to researchers.

What we do know is that any horse with at least one copy of the Lp will show the following four physical traits:

  1. Spotted coat patterns – almost all Appaloosas have one of the spotted coat patterns listed above. An Appaloosa can also have a solid coat, but this is not as common with the leopard complex gene.
  2. Mottled skin – the gene will result in mottled skin, particularly around the eyes, muzzle, and underside.
  3. Striped hooves – some horses have dark hooves, while others have light. Many Appaloosas have hooves that are covered in vertical stripes of both light and dark. These striped hooves will only be found on solid-colored legs. It is said that striped hooves may be stronger than either completely light or completely dark hooves.
  4. White sclera – humans have white sclera – this is the white portion of the eyes, outside of the iris. Most horses have dark scleras, however, so that the whites of the eyes are not visible. Appaloosas have white scleras.

While the Appaloosa is the breed that most people associate with the leopard complex gene, it is not the only breed of horse with this mutation. The Knabstrupper is another horse known for its distinctive spotted coat. A Knabstrupper is a warmblood of Danish origin and is considered to be an endangered breed today.

Other horses may carry this gene, including the POA, Colorado Ranger, Falabella, and Noriker (an Austrian draft horse). DNA of ancient horses has revealed that the Lp is likely a gene mutation that has been around for several thousand years.

Appaloosa vs. Pinto Patterns

Appaloosas are not the only horses with two-toned coats. The term “pinto” refers to a horse that has splashes of white over a base coat of a contrasting color (usually bay, chestnut, or black). These splashes of color can be found in large patches over the entire body, including the mane and tail.

There are several patterns within the pinto label, including tobiano, overo, sabino, and tovero – these are used to describe the size and placement of the white patches. The most notable example of the pinto pattern can be found in the American Paint Horse.

Pinto patterning differs from Appaloosa patterning – the white of the pinto can be described as large “splashes” upon the base coat, as opposed to the dalmatian-like spots of the Appaloosa. While the genetics of pinto patterns have not been specifically identified, they have nothing to do with the leopard complex gene.

They also do not display the other traits of the Lp – the mottled skin, striped hooves, and white sclera.

Spotty Horses

The Origin Of The Appaloosa

Though images of spotted horses have been around for thousands of years, it is believed that the Appaloosa, as we know it today, originated in North America. The Nez Perce tribe were Native Americans that lived in what is now known as Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

They purchased their first horses from the Shoshone tribe in the early 1700s and quickly made a name for themselves in the industry of horse breeding. They were also one of the first tribes that practiced gelding – this was so that they could ensure they were breeding their mares to stallions of only the highest quality.

Once they had a strong, healthy, and well-mannered horse, they began breeding for color, having some stock with the leopard complex gene. By the 19th century, most of their herds had spotted coat patterns.

As the United States expanded and the gold rush brought even more settlers westward, tensions between the Nez Perce and the US military increased until two separate battles led the Nez Perce chief to surrender to the US soldiers.

Upon their victory, the military took control of a majority of the Nez Perce Appaloosas, selling some and slaughtering the rest. This decimated the breed, and the Appaloosa remained a distant memory until the early 1930s when a history professor from Lewiston, Idaho, wrote a paper on the breed.

Interest grew, and the Appaloosa Horse Club was developed to both grow and preserve the breed. Today, the Appaloosa is Idaho’s “state horse” and can be found on ranches, in stables, and on trails throughout the country.

What Are Spotted Appaloosas Used For Today?

Today you can find Appaloosas throughout the United States. They are used extensively in Western disciplines, including cutting, reining, barrel racing, and roping. They are also used on working ranches.

Though they may be better known for their Western skills, they can hold their own in English disciplines as well. You can find Appaloosas in eventing, show jumping, fox hunting, and even short-distance racing. Because the Appaloosa is known both for its physical agility and its docile temperament, the breed can be used for almost anything. 

Appaloosas Will Always Be Known For Their Spots

Though Appaloosas are strong and athletic horses that excel in a number of disciplines, sports, and jobs, the breed will always be known for their beautiful spots. What is special about the Appaloosa is that each one has an entirely unique coat and pattern.

Every time you meet a new Appaloosa is a treat – the pattern and coloring is probably unlike any other that you’ve seen. So while this horse has many amazing physical, behavioral, and temperamental traits, it is no wonder that the horse is so well-known simply because of its spotty coat.


Having Trouble With Your Training?

Learn how to gain and maintain your horse’s respect in my latest course!

Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

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.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

Legal Information

This site is owned and operated by Wild Wire Media LLC.

Equinehelper.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.