How did the Appaloosa horse get to North America?

It’s long been assumed the Appaloosa, a spotted breed of horse, was brought to the New World from Europe. But how should it change our view of history if that’s not true?

Appaloosa horse © Bjakko | Dreamstime.com

Conor Woodman, director and presenter of The Secret Horse: Quest for the True Appaloosa, tells BBC History Magazine’s TV previewer, Jonathan Wright, about a remarkable journey that might go some way to changing our perspective on North American history. 

Q: How did the documentary come about?

A: I previously made a TV series called Around The World In 80 Trades, the premise of which was I traded my way around the world by selling different things – camels and coffee and surfboards, and at one point horses in Kyrgyzstan. When Scott Engstrom, who’s a 69-year-old Appaloosa horse breeder [originally from California], saw the show going out in New Zealand, she got very excited because one of the horses, that I had called Martin and sold to a Kurdish farmer for $600, looked very much one of her Appaloosas.

Now, the accepted wisdom about the history of the Appaloosa, and indeed all horses in North America, is that they were imported at first by the Spanish conquistadors in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. But Scott has often questioned this history because she thinks the numbers of spotted horses that were in the Pacific north-west part of America when [explorers] Lewis and Clark first made their way over the Rockies in the early 1800s didn’t quite tally with her experience of being a breeder. She said there were too many of them for that to be the case, so she’d always had this theory that maybe horses had come across the Pacific into America by a different route.

So she contacted me and said, basically: “I think you’re an idiot. You just sold the missing link in the history of the North American horse.” So we went back to Kyrgyzstan to look for that horse, as ridiculous as that sounds.

Q: What’s it like to travel there?

A: Eventually, we wanted to get to the source of where these [indigenous] horses came from, and what we discovered was these horses had been pretty much destroyed during the Soviet occupation of Kyrgyzstan – by interbreeding with big native Russian horses. The only place you could find the old, indigenous horses were in these pockets up in the mountains, way away from where anyone would ever go. And so I ended up taking this 69-year-old woman, who hadn’t ridden a horse for 12 years, over a 4,200m-high mountain pass [by horse].

Q: That’s high, it’s a bit whoozy up at that kind of altitude…

A: Now, I tell people the film is a great inspirational story. At the time, I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to kill an old lady making a film, this is terrible.” But she was so strong, and she was determined she wasn’t going to let the mountains beat her.

In the wilds, you found horses with Appaloosa-like qualities that DNA tests confirm as related to North American horses. Does this reengineer how we need to think about American history and the people who brought the horses over?

That’s a really good question now. [Horse expert and Texas-based geneticist] Dr Cothran’s best guess was that it was probably people coming over from Asia hunting or looking for furs [who brought the horses] – and they could have been pre-Columbus, or they could have been around the same time as Columbus, or they could have been slightly after Columbus, we don’t really know. The other theory is they migrated themselves by land.

As far as I know, there’s no archaeological evidence to support that theory, but then a lot of the archaeological record would still be buried under ice, so it would be tricky to find archaeological evidence up in the far north-west, Alaska, around there.

I think there is another question to be answered, which is when? Now that we know the horses did come over, when did it happen? Are we talking about the 1600s, the 1400s, the 1200s? Or maybe we’re talking about even further before that...

The Secret Horse: Quest for the True Appaloosa airs on BBC Four on Wednesday 21 January. To find out more, click here.

To learn more about Conor Woodman’s documentary, visit trueappaloosamovie.com.

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