The Horse from Palouse River
And the Story of BC Appaloosa Centre
By Margaret Evans
The man steps cautiously in the darkness, pulling his fur clothing closer to him in the frigid cave air. He feels the roughness of the wall, his fingers tracing the lines etched by those who had come before. He is driven by an overpowering urge to precisely draw the beauty of the animal he saw. With a sharp piece of flint, he scrapes the surface smooth. Then, using mixtures of clay ochre, earth pigments, charcoal, minerals, and cave water, he mixes his paint on a piece of curved bone and applies it to the wall with his fingers and pads of moss. He shapes and shades the drawing with the use of a brush made of animal hair and blows pigment through his mouth. By the torchlight, he sees the horse take shape on the wall, the one with the white coat and the black spots he saw pawing for grass in the snow-streaked valley, its coat blending dream-like into the dappled shadows of the ice-white glacier. He has no idea that the allure of the spotted horse will capture the imagination of people 25,000 years into his future when the horse will become known as the Appaloosa…
Until recently, archaeologists theorized that the spotted horses drawn on cave walls in southern France thousands of years ago were fanciful depictions with maybe some form of symbolic meaning. But, in fact, an international team of researchers using ancient DNA found that all the colour variations seen in cave paintings – including the celebrated Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle in France dating back more than 25,000 years – actually existed. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, was the first to produce evidence for prehistoric white spotted horses, providing us with evidence that the talented Paleolithic artists drew exactly what they saw, and giving us an intimate look into their world and the animals they depended on to survive. According to another, more recent international DNA study led by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Ludwig laboratory) in Berlin, Germany, and published in Scientific Reports, December 2016, there were three distinct colour phenotypes in ancient wild horses before domestication – bay, black, and leopard spotted. Horses were domesticated in northern Kazakhstan almost 6,000 years ago, and the DNA study showed that the popularity of spotted horses was high. As the first horse keepers experimented with their earliest breeding ambitions, they developed the chestnut, tobiano, and sabino horses, then silver and cream coloured horses for a total of eight phenotypes. Spotted horses defined cultures. They appeared on statues and pottery in ancient China, among the terracotta warrior sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of China), as the Sacred Nisean Horse of ancient Persia which the Chinese called Tien Ma (the Heavenly Horse), and later, Le Tigre in France in clear reference to the spotted coat.
The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle cave painting in France, dating back 25,000 years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The spotted horse played a role in religious symbolism. In the last book of the New Testament, the “Apocalypse of St. John” described four riders on different coloured horses. The rider of victory was sitting on a white or white spotted horse while the riders of famine (black), death (bay) and war (chestnut) rode on solid coloured horses.
In time, the cultural significance of the spotted horse shifted, maybe because of the development of weapons for warfare, such as the longbow. White horses would have been easier targets than solid dark-coloured animals.
Niseans were the most valuable horses in the ancient world and the chosen mounts of royalty. The Greeks imported Niseans to breed to their own stock, then exported horses to the Iberian Peninsula where they influenced the ancestral lines of today’s Iberian horse breeds.
The terracotta warrior sculptures depicting the armies and spotted horses of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (210 BCE). Photo: Dreamstime/Zhaojiankang
It was inevitable that the spotted horse would be part of the Spanish fleets that came to North America, entering the New World through Mexico in the early 1500s. Free-ranging horses that escaped captivity spread rapidly through the grassland plains, eventually moving into the immensely fertile hills of the Palouse Country of southeastern Washington and north central Idaho in the 1700s. The region was home to the Nez Perce people who were fishers and hunters. The horse transformed their lives and they rapidly became not only skilled horsemen but accomplished horse breeders, producing horses with intelligence, good nature, endurance, and remarkable distinctive beauty. The unique splatterings or spots of white on a dark coat provided the practical value of camouflage, breaking up the horse’s outline and making it more difficult to see the horse from a distance.
When explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark saw them in 1806, he praised the stature of the horse and commented on that unique colour pattern. In time, settlers came to refer to the horses as “a Palouse horse” that later became “Palousey,” “Appalousey,” and finally Appaloosa.
But the flood of settlers led to disputes and conflicts. In 1877, the Nez Perce War broke out against the US government, stemming from some bands refusing to give up their ancestral land and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho. The Nez Perce warriors fought heroically but ultimately fled toward Canada with elders, women, and children, and some 3,000 head of horses. For nearly four months – travelling over 1,800 kilometres of extremely difficult terrain – they managed to keep ahead of their enemy, thanks to the endurance of their horses. But then, wracked by hunger and exhaustion, and just 64 kilometres from the Canada-US border, the Nez Perce suffered a surprise attack and were defeated, but not before a few Nez Perce and some Appaloosa horses made it to Canada. The Indian people were captured and the horses taken and dispersed, the breed eventually falling into obscurity. Many new owners did not fully appreciate their abilities and bred them indiscriminately at the expense of conformation and quality. But the Appaloosa, now on a new trajectory, was starting to win the hearts of some people who saw in them the finer points the Nez Perce had nurtured. They began breeding them with a greater degree of discrimination. In 1938, Claude Thompson, a long-time Appaloosa breeder, formed the Appaloosa Horse Club. In 1954, the Appaloosa Horse Club of Canada (ApHCC) was formed to protect and promote the fine qualities of the breed and maintain a national registry.
Nez Perce Indians with Appaloosa horse, circa 1895. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In British Columbia, Howard Jackson, who with his wife, Marylin, owns the BC Appaloosa Centre (BCAC) in Prince George, has enjoyed a lifelong relationship with Appaloosas. Jackson was born in 1948, and in 1955 his father acquired an aged Appaloosa stallion named White Chief #36 ApHCC in a horse trade. Some two years later, an Appaloosa colt came to the family ranch at Minburn, Alberta. “This fellow became known as Snowstorm J #1292 ApHCC by Shining Timber #25 ApHCC and became my personal horse, the only one I have ever owned that would not be sold,” says Jackson. He adds that, in the early days of registry of Appaloosa horses both in Canada and the US, the main requirement to qualify for designation was colour and body type. But there was a lot of draft horse influence in the breed that had occurred after the Nez Perce War, and efforts were taken to eliminate that by outcrossing with Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Arabs.
Howard Jackson on the stallion, Top Quest Zeuss, named the High Point ApHCC Stallion in Canada in 1996 and 1997, and Silver Medal Winner at the European Championships in 2008. Photo: Marylin Jackson
Neon Rainbow, the first outstanding stallion bred and raised by BCAC, traces back to Joker B and Bright Eyes Brother, two of the most famous Appaloosas in history. Photo: Marylin Jackson
Photo: Tanja Schneider Photography
“For years, many referred to Appaloosas as Quarter Horses with spots and genetically that could be so with many,” says Jackson. Unable to find Appaloosa horses that met his expectations (“Real Appaloosas of three generations or more”), Jackson committed to developing the genetically ideal Appaloosa horse. New mares were given two chances to produce the desired characteristics in their offspring – conformation, cooperative disposition, and the unique Appaloosa physical profile including striped hooves, white sclera (the white area of the eye encircling a dark pupil), mottled skin, and body colour. Horses were not sold until they were at least three years old as disposition, trainability, and growth rates were monitored. With some 150 Appaloosas on their ranch today, the mares produce 25 to 40 foals a year, allowing the desired characteristics to become apparent as patterns to set for future breeding decisions. “Our research and development allows us to better match folks with the best equine partner possible. And if for some remote reason a customer is unhappy with their purchase, we offer a value exchange,” says Jackson. “Our strongest market is for trail-pleasure horses for teenage girls and middle aged and senior ladies [wanting horses] that are black, bay, or chocolate blanketed colour and between 14 hands and 15.2 hands.” Since 1999, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada under its Animal Pedigree Act has recognized horses with the ApHCC registration as an Evolving Breed moving toward a Distinct Breed (five generations). The key consideration for that recognition is genetic stability expressed by both the pedigree background as well as the phenotypic (visible) characteristics of multiple generations. That Evolving Breed status was completely in step with Jackson’s philosophy and, now, much of his herd are four generations and a few are five, nudging toward the Distinct Breed status.
Morning Song. Photo: Tanja Schneider Photography
“Unlike other Appaloosa registries in the world, the Canadian Evolving Breed program has benchmarks at the third and fourth generation designation that must be met in order to produce the next level,” says Jackson. He explains that at the third generation, in order to parent a fourth the Appaloosa must be 14 hands or taller; the canon bone must have a six- to nine-inch circumference; the horse must have at least one Appaloosa characteristic (striped hooves, white sclera, mottled skin, or Appaloosa coat pattern); and no more than three-quarters of a tooth overbite or underbite should be present at five years old. Stallions must have both testicles down at two years of age. And any Appaloosas with pedigrees tracing to Impressive AQHA must be DNA tested N/N in order to be registered with the ApHCC. Impressive AQHA (1969-1995) was a world champion halter stallion famous for his highly successful offspring, having sired 2,250 foals. But he is also notoriously famous as the primary source of the genetic disease known as hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, a disorder characterized by uncontrolled shaking, weakness (especially in the hind end), an abnormal whinny, collapse, and death from a paralyzed diaphragm. Many breeders are careful with selective breeding practices to work toward eliminating this genetic disease.
Photo: Tanja Schneider Photography
The results of Jackson’s breeding philosophy have proven themselves in the show ring.
“BC Appaloosa Centre exhibited Appaloosas for a few years to measure [our] product against the industry,” says Jackson. “We had the national high point three-year-old and four-year-old stallion along with other national top ten placings ending in 2001 and 2002, and had ten national top ten achievers in both years for a total of 19 different horses. A couple of noteworthy achievements are 2005 when a BCAC-bred filly was British Appaloosa Society National Show Superior Champion, the first time a mare had won that title. In 2008, Top Quest Zeuss, a 15-year-old retired stallion sold to France, was a silver medal winner at the European Championships held in Germany.” Jackson says that their real achievement is in their mare power. Some are fourth generation daughters and granddaughters of national top ten mothers.
Photo: Tanja Schneider Photography
“We have had the honour of representing Canadian-bred Appaloosas in Europe, South America, China, and in Canada at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, the Masters at Spruce Meadows, Calgary Stampede, Mane Event in Chilliwack, Cloverdale Fair and Rodeo, Prince George Exhibition, and a multitude of smaller exhibitions and events.”
Winter feeding using the bush as a natural windbreak. Photo: Marylin Jackson
For the past 12 years, the Jacksons have hosted interns from Europe, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, who have come to study their breeding philosophy, practices, and results. Of the five to twenty foreign students they receive each season, most come for personal reasons, while some come as part of their University degree program. Three European universities have identified BCAC as a go-to place for their students in Agricultural Business Management degree programs who require two- or three-month practicums in order to graduate. They have also been identified as a business-for-work-experience that provides credit by two BC school boards.
Heading to the winter watering hole. Photo: Marylin Jackson
“Our herd is now being noticed by the health and wellness industry, not only as therapeutic riding mounts but also because of their unique personalities [when used] in counselling people with trauma, addiction or PTSD issues, or students who have issues with the traditional school system,” says Jackson. Working with Appaloosas for so long, people have accused Jackson of having a near mystical instinctive connection to his horses, given the speed and efficiency with which they have reached the four- and five-generation breeding plateau. Rather than pouring over pedigree charts, he makes his decisions based on what he sees in the pasture.
A group of young stock at BC Appaloosa Centre. Photo: Marylin Jackson
But now, with aging issues catching up, the Jacksons are seeking someone or a group of enthusiasts to take over all or part of their remarkable operation and continue to work toward the genetic level of Distinct Breed.
2005 British Appaloosa Champion, Crystal Chandelier, was a National Top Ten achiever in Canada as a yearling before being exported to the UK. Photo: Marylin Jackson
“We believe that the Appaloosas that grace the BCAC pastures south of Prince George are very close to the same ones observed by Lewis and Clark in the Palouse River valley all those years ago,” says Jackson.
Photo: Tanja Schneider Photography
This article was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: Rubies On Ice and Galaxie Wonder. Tanja Schneider Photography.