American Paint Horse

By PetMD Editorial on Sep. 11, 2008

The American Paint Horse is a breed highly valued for its color and markings, but it is also a favorite because of its unique refinement and intelligence. Its current popularity notwithstanding, the Paint Horse has long been used in performance competitions as a show horse.

Physical Characteristics

The American Paint Horse comes in various colors, amongst them, bay, chestnut, black, palomino, gray, buckskin, and blue roan. But, more important than their physical coloring, are their distinctive white markings. While the marks vary in size, the patterns are standard. The two predominant coat patterns of Paint Horses, the overo and tobiano, are distinguished by the position of the white coloring on the body.

The overo (Spanish, for “like an egg”) patterned horse has white spots extending across the back between the withers (the highest point on the back) and the tail. Typically, all four legs are dark-colored, but in order to be considered, at least one leg should be dark in color. Scattered and irregular white markings also appear all over the body. The tail should be solid in color, and the horse itself can be either primarily dark or primarily white. The overo pattern is generally used to describe most patterns that are not the tobiano pattern, which can lead to some confusion when describing a horse simply as overo. They include the frame overo, the sabino (speckled), and the splashed white overo. Many overo-patterned American Paint horses have blue eyes, especially the frame and the splashed white, and the tail is a single color.

The tobiano-patterned horse, on the other hand, has a solid-colored head with a white spot at front, which can be of various shapes (e.g., blaze, star, etc). The legs are white, with an appearance of white stockings. Apart from these distinctive markings, the spots on the rest of the horse’s body are in sharp contrast to the colored areas. These markings are commonly found on the neck as well as the chest. Spotting may be oval or round, and the amount of white varies as well. Some Tobianos have a large amount of white, while others have so little white that they appear not to be spotted at all. The tobiano usually has dark brown eyes and bicolored tail.

In addition, there is also the combination of the overo and tobiano, the third accepted coat pattern. Because of the risks that are inherent in some breeding programs, in particular, the lethal white foal condition that is related to the frame overos, combining breeds from different patterns will result in stronger bloodlines. This is important for the strength and survival of the Paint Horse, and also adds vitality to the splash markings of the Painted Horse. The resultant cross is referred to as a tovero.

The American Paint Horse has a muscular and firm neck, a muscular yet short back, strong legs, sloping shoulders, mid-size ears, and intelligent eyes.


The American Paint Horse is known for its amiability. Its good nature, plus its innate intelligence, makes the American Paint Horse a pleasure to train for performance competitions, and above all, an ideal companion outside of the ring.

History and Background

Around 500 A.D., during the invasion of the Roman Empire, several barbaric tribes brought spotted Oriental horses from Eurasia to Spain, where the spotted horses were interbred with the native horse stock. The breed thrived in Spain, and began to resemble what is commonly referred to as the standard Paint Horse markings. Records dating back to 700 A.D. show the spotted horses that have the standard tobiano and overo patterns. When Spanish Conquistadors came to the United States, they brought their own horses along. These horses are believed to be the ancestors of the modern American Paint Horse.

The American Paint Horse -- while undeniably recognized by its colorful markings and patterns -- still has to conform to strict bloodline and physical conformation requirements. The standard-setting body (association) for this breed is the American Paint Horse Association (APHA). According to the set rules, a horse can qualify for registration as an American Paint Horse if its sire and dam are themselves registered with the APHA, the Jockey Club or the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA); this ensures the purity of its stock. Apart from satisfying bloodlines and ancestry requirements, the horse must also exhibit standard conformation and temperament.

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