One of the reasons the Nez Percé warriors were so effective against the U.S. cavalry during the legendary Nez Percé war lead by Chief Joseph was their distinctive horse, the Appaloosa. Named after the Palouse River, it was selectively bred by the Nez Percé for speed and endurance. Their beauty was a happy side effect of the breeding program.
While the US Army horses were primarily drawn from stock in the East and were ill-fit for the environment, the horses used by Native Americans in the West largely came from the Spanish horses brought into Mexico with partial lineages going back to Arabia. In the mid-17th century, large Spanish herds were used around Santa Fe and Taos. The Spaniards attempted to keep the horses from the Native Americans, but escaped Indian slaves and stolen horses resulted in Apache and Navajo acquiring horses rapidly and putting their new equestrian skills to masterful use. The 1680 Pueblo Revolt resulted in thousands of horses being left behind by the fleeing Spaniards. As Spain continued to lose control over Northern Mexico, even more horses found their way into Native herds.
By 1700 the Shoshone tribes of the Great Basin had acquired horses from their southern cousins. Around 1730, the Nez Percé also had horses giving the Shoshone and Nez Percé a strategic military and hunting advantage over the plains tribes (the Crow and Blackfeet did not have the horse until c. 1740 and the Sioux not until c. 1770). The Spanish stock were ideal for the harsh environment of the Western U.S. and the Nez Percé recognized early on the benefits of selectively breeding the best horses for their particular environment and needs. Though the Appaloosa was not the only type of horse owned by the Nez Percé, it was easily the most identifiable.
In the mid-19th century, the U.S. Army often found their cavalry horses unable to compete with the horses of the Western tribes. The Army horses had been raised on grain, were used to abundant water, and often bred from racing stock, but the superior Native horses were grass fed and had far better endurance. Army officers often complained that their horses were not up to the task of chasing down the steeds of the Native Americans.
In many cases the Army, knowing the advantage the horses gave the Indians, destroyed their herds to remove the military power of the tribes and lock them into areas that could only be traveled by foot. So, after the Nez Percé War, the US Army tried to destroy the Appaloosa breed through slaughter and breeding with draft horses. However, Chief White Bird had slipped across the Canadian border with women, children and some of their prized spotted horses. In Canada, he and his refugees kept the breed alive.
Today the Appaloosa is a lasting testament to the equestrian mastery of the Nez Percé tribe. Standing over 14 hands high with strong legs, hard hooves, and noted intelligence, the Appaloosa is still an ideal horse for the Idaho mountains. Their beautiful spotted coat, striped hooves, and almost human eyes are as striking as the Palouse River country from which they arose. It is only fitting that the Appaloosa is recognized as the Idaho state horse.
The Nez Percé Tribe of Northern Idaho continue their horse traditions, as well. They have a new registered breed called the Nez Percé horse, which is a cross of the Appaloosa from the Wallowa herd with the Akhal-Teke horse from Central Asia. The Akhal-Teke originated in Turkmenistan and is legendary for its endurance. The registered Nez Percé horse, usually a buckskin or palomino, has mottled skin with a spotted blanket. As the tribe is quick to point out, the modern Nez Percé horse is not an Appaloosa, but every registered Appaloosa is a descendant of a Nez Percé horse.