By JENNIFER K. BAUER
When Lewis and Clark met the Nez Perce, one of the first things they noted was the tribe’s skill at selectively breeding elegantly formed, fast and durable horses.
While most of their horses were uniform in color, the most prized were spotted. Incoming whites later identified the breed as “a Palouse” horse, later shortened to Appaloosa. In the early 1800s, the tribe owned thousands of horses.
For Appaloosa breeder Scott Engstrom, an American now living in New Zealand, this didn’t make sense. How could the Nez Perce be in possession of thousands of horses only a century after history says they obtained the animals?
A new independent documentary, “True Appaloosa,” claims to have discovered the real origins of the breed. The film plays out as a discovery story with some far-fetched assertions.
Engstrom, now 71, convinced British filmmaker Conor Woodman to aid her in her quest to find the origins of the North American Appaloosa. In the documentary, they travel to Kyrgyzstan where inquiries about spotted horses led them to a remote valley accessible only by horseback near the border of China and Russia. There, they discovered a tribe of nomads and a herd of wild horses. Among them are spotted horses that share other identifiable characteristics associated with American Appaloosas: striped hooves, sclera around the eyeball and a unique gait.
DNA samples were taken and delivered to Gus Cothram, a professor of animal genetics at Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science. Cothram compared the DNA of the Asian horses to that of North American horses and found a “clear possibility of Asian ancestry.”
This led Engstrom to conclude that this is the true foundation for the breed and that the horses migrated to North America from Asia, over the land bridge with the first people.
“For 40 years, I had had the theory the horses were not brought in by the Spaniards. We’ve proven that now. We’ve changed history,” Engstrom later told Inland 360.
To say that Native Americans had horses before Europeans arrived is “completely opposite of anybody else’s conventional wisdom,” said Lee Sappington, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho.
DNA evidence doesn’t trace a path of travel, only a link to a past ancestor. There is no archaeological evidence to support Engstrom’s conclusion, nor are there any Native American claims of having horses before the Europeans, he said.
“Almost every tribe called them big dogs. If they had had them before, they would have had their own word for it,” Sappington said.
Horses actually originated in North America millions of years ago and migrated to Asia where they continued their evolution. Some of the oldest horse skeletons in the world have been found at Hagerman, Idaho. While the Hagerman Horse is called a horse, the Equus species is more closely related to a zebra. It lived in Idaho more than 3 million years ago but went extinct at the end of the last ice age, along with the mammoth, dire wolves and saber tooth tigers, Sappington said. Recent evidence indicates humans hastened their extinction by hunting them.
Horses were first domesticated in Central Asia around 4,000 years ago. They were instrumental in the Spanish conquest of the New World. The Spaniards brought their finest horses to South America and through barter, trade and theft they spread north, arriving in Nez Perce territory sometime in the early to mid-1700s. That the Nez Perce had so many and were so skilled at breeding them by the time Lewis and Clark arrived speaks to their ingenuity, Sappington said.
Nez Perce stories of the first spotted horses are recorded in the 2013 book “Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of Nimiipuu,” by Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans. In one account, the first horses are brought to Cottonwood Creek by Tsuts Pilkin. Pilkin had gone to Salt Lake to steal horses from the Shoshoni, Bannock and Ute. This was not frowned upon as one gained fame as a good horse thief. He met some Mexicans who, impressed with his skills, invited him to Mexico. Several years later he returned with two spotted mares and a spotted stallion.
In another story a Nimiipuu prophet on the Palouse dreams of a spotted horse with a heart of stone that will benefit the entire tribe. It describes the tribe performing various rituals to bring about the birth of this horse from other stock.
At the Appaloosa Museum in Moscow the breed’s history is intricately detailed. One can see the horses’ Asian background recorded in ancient art. One can also see references to spotted horses in other cultures around the world.
“We know there were spotted horses in southern Asia long, long ago. Which way they migrated is up for debate,” said Steve Taylor, who is interviewed in “True Appaloosa” and is CEO of the Appaloosa Horse Club, an international breed registry for Appaloosas. “I think it is fair to say there will always be more than one theory for where these horses came from.”
Taylor said he is not sure that the film’s claim to have found the true Appaloosa changes anything for those who love the breed.
“I just appreciate the fact that somebody went through all that trouble to track down those horses. As far as the museum is concerned, it would add to some of the information we could provide.”
The museum works to spread the word about the breed at events like Thursday’s Appy Fest, where kids can ride horses, attend a roping clinic and visit the museum. At Christmas, Santa rides in on an Appaloosa.
“The main thing is spotted horses have been valued in a lot of different cultures and a lot of different parts of the world, and we just happen to be the most recent, I guess,” Taylor said.
“True Appaloosa” is available on iTunes and can be found online at trueappaloosamovie.com.
if you go
What: Appy Fest 2015
When: 5 to 8 Thursday, July 9
Where: Appaloosa Museum, 2720 W. Pullman Road, Moscow
Of Note: The event features horse rides for children, a roping clinic and museum activities.