A Brief History of the Paint Horse in the United States

The American Paint Horse is one of the most beloved breeds within the United States. This country-wide affection is due, in part, to the animals’ beauty and accessibility. However, the Paint Horse has been on American soil for hundreds of years—most scholars trace their ancestors back to the new world expedition of the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando Cortez.


A Spanish historian, Diaz del Castillo, traveled with the expedition to record and preserve their actions and achievements. In a journal, he described one of their horses as a “pinto,” with “white stockings on his forefeet.” Another horse was described as a “dark roan horse” with “white patches.” Unbeknownst to del Castillo, these were the first recorded descriptions of the forebears of American Paint Horses in the New World.


Descendants of these colorful, tobiano, overo, and tovero horses spread quickly across the Western plains, where they were picked up and used by Native Americans and American Cowboys. Selective breeding began around this time; the horses were chosen for their athletic ability, as they were used primarily for transportation and moving large, heavy items. Though breeding may have changed the Paint Horse’s body, their stunning and unusual coat patterns remain the same.


This brief history points up a crucial detail about the American Paint Horse—these animals are not “wild.” Though visitors flock to the Western United States to see bands of “wild” Paint Horses, these animals were never actually wild. Instead, they are “feral.” The distinction is important. A feral horse is a free-roaming horse of domesticated ancestry; Paint Horses have been domesticated since their landing in the New World. Wild horses, in contrast, have no history of domestication. Though this terminology may appear to be unimportant, using the incorrect word erases centuries of breed history.