What is a Paint Horse?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A paint horse is a horse with a characteristic splotchy, colorful coat. Paint horses are actually a recognized horse breed in the United States, where they can be registered with either the American Paint Horse Association (APHA), the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), or the Jockey Club. Many horses have colorful coats, but not all of them qualify as paints. If a horse is not qualified for registration, it may be referred to as a pinto or colored horse.

Woman posing
Woman posing

These unique equines are related to the stock horses which were once ubiquitous on American ranches and across the American plains. In order to qualify as a paint horse, a horse must have either Thoroughbred or Quarterhorse parents, or parents who are both registered as paint horses. In addition, the horse must fulfill certain conformation requirements. A paint horse is small and stocky, with a muscular, flexible body and powerful hindquarters. These horses are often highly intelligent as well, and they tend to be cooperative, friendly animals with a kind disposition.

Three basic color patterns are recognized for American Paint Horses: tobiano, tovero, and overo. These patterns consist of a base color and a secondary color. Typically, one of the colors on a paint horse is white, and the other color may be black, brown, bay, roan, blue roan, buckskin, perlino, sorrel, or red dun, among many others. The APHA also recognizes solid paint breeds, horses who have paint parents, but solid bodies.

A tobiano paint horse has white legs, dark flanks, and a solid head which may have a blaze or star. Tovero horses have at least one blue eye, along with dark color around their eyes and flanks, and spots around their tails. Overo horses have coats with splatters of white; they look rather like Jackson Pollack paintings run amok, and they may have distinctive, flashy head markings.

The blotchy pattern of dark and light on a paint horse can be quite distinctive and very beautiful. Each horse is uniquely colored, and particularly flashy horses are sometimes called “chromes” because of their fancy coloration, which is somewhat reminiscent of the chrome on flashy cars. Paint horses have been registered and tracked in the United States since the 1950s in an attempt to categorize and preserve this historic and beautiful breed.

Many breeders around the United States specialize in paint horses, and these horses can regularly be found for sale in many regions. As is the case when buying any horse, make sure to inspect a paint horse with care, and if the horse is officially registered, ask for paperwork to confirm the registration. If you have never owned a horse before, definitely bring along an experienced horse person like a veterinarian to help you inspect your potential purchase.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@waterhopper: In 1950, an organization called the Pinto Association was created. Their purpose was to preserve the spotted horses. In 1962, the American Paint Horse Associated was also created. Their purpose was to not only preserve their color, but also stock-type conformation.

The paint horses’ classification is based upon the way their colors are patterned. Paint horses have a variety of different markings and colors. They are grouped into four coat patterns: tovero, solid, tobiano, and overo.


@waterhopper: The year 1519 was probably the first and earliest description of paint horses. Hernando Cortes, the Spanish explorer, described his horses as what we now call paint horses. They were then referred to as pinto horses.

During the 1800’s, the plains were highly populated with herds of wild paint horses, which were the preference of the American Indians.


Does anyone know any more history of the paint horse? Our neighbors are paint horse breeders and they are the most beautiful horses. We watch them running through their pasture sometimes and they are so graceful looking. Fascinating animal.

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