I was lucky enough to be born at a time when the classic westerns era of literature and movies was in full swing. Not a Saturday went by when theaters across the country weren’t showing the likes of Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and, of course, The Lone Ranger. Eventually, the western moved from the big screen to the new, little screen, the television set. Even then, the one truism continued…The cowboy hero always rode a solid colored horse. In fact, I can only think of two stars of the western genre who rode paints; Little Joe Cartwright of Bonanza, and the Cisco Kid. Indians primarily rode Paints.
What does any of this have to do with Native American Culture? Because, mostly, it’s true. Indians did prefer pintos, and they were, for the most part, the only ones who did. That brings up two interesting questions. Why? And where did they get them? The answer to the first question is easy. They liked them and preferred them to solid color horses. The second question is much harder. Frank Gilbert Roe, the author of The Indian and the Horse, University of Oklahoma Press, 1955, devotes three chapters to the issue of coloration of horses introduced to the Americas by the Spanish in the early 16th century.
Of the sixteen horses brought to Mexico by Cortes in 1519, only one was a pinto, and he was not one lost by the expedition. In fact, according to Roe, Spaniards cared little for horses colored in such a way. Of all the horses brought into the “New World,” by the Spanish, the one with Cortes is the only recorded Pinto. At the time of the Spanish invasion of the Americas, the Spaniards were considered the finest breeders of horses in Europe. Their horses were a cross between the fast and powerful horses of the Iberian Peninsula and the Arab/African stock ridden by their Moorish conquerors. Moors and Arabs, by the way, also held paints in contempt.
So, if the animals brought to the Americas were a product of hundreds of years of de-selecting Paints, how did they come to flourish on the plains of North America? In all honesty, no one knows. To expand the mystery, try to explain why paint horses abound in North America, but not in South America. Again, According to Mr. Roe, they came from the same basic stock, but no paint horses appeared on the Pampas.
Some geneticists say that the phenomenon is a result of a mutation from the inbreeding of the wild horse herds, but that spawns two other questions: Why North and not South America? And aren’t all pure breeds a product of inbreeding? If inbreeding mutations resulted in pintos, they would have blossomed in every breed.
Finally, how were the Nez Perce able to further hone their stock to produce the Appaloosa pattern? A feat that even as accomplished a horse society as the Comanche were not able to reproduce when they captured Appaloosas during raids.
How did Indians, who first were introduced to horses in the early to mid-18th century develop the skill to produce pinto horses in such a short time? The Comanche were known to have thousands of pintos in their herds by the mid-19th century. Mr. Roe says the answer might never be known unless we are willing to impart a far greater knowledge of genetic training to Plains Indians than we ever believed possible.