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Where did the Morgan horse come from? Facts and History about the Morgan horse

One of the earliest horse breeds developed in the united states, Morgans had many uses in 19th century American history. They were used as coach horses, in harness racing, for riding, and even as Cavalry horses during the American Civil War. Other American horse breeds that have been influenced by the Morgan include the American Quarter Horse, the Tennessee Walking Horse, and the Standardbred. The Morgan is a compact and refined horse, with strong legs, an expressive head with large eyes, and a well-arched neck. They have a reputation for being intelligent, courageous, and having a good disposition. 

All Morgans trace back to one foundation sire, a stallion named Figure. Figure was born in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1789. In 1792, Figure was given to Justin Morgan as payment for a debt. Figure was known for passing on his looks, conformation, athleticism, and temperament to his offspring. Although he was used extensively as a breeding stallion, only six of his sons have written records. 

By the 19th century, Morgans were a recognizable breed that was well-known for its diversity. They were the choice of many families who needed a horse to plow the fields, take the family to church and Sunday, and then take the Father to work on Monday. Morgans were heavily used in wagon trains moving west, as horses on cattle ranches, and by the US Army as cavalry mounts and harness horses.

In 1945, Marguerite Henry’s Justin Morgan Had A Horse was published. The book was a fictional account of Figure and his owner. Walt Disney Studios made a movie based on the book in 1972. Both the book and movie have been heavily criticized for not being accurate to the true history of Justin Morgan and his stallion. 

Love the Morgan Horse? Click the image above to purchase a Morgan print!

The Morgan horse is very special to me, because that’s the breed of horse I own! My pretty girl, who you may have seen in other blog posts of mine if you’ve been visiting my blog for a while, is a Morgan mare. My Morgan piece for the Horses Of The World series is also the only breed in the series that I’ve drawn more than once. Back when I did the first Morgan design, I was drawing my sketches directly on the map and then going over the pencil lines with ink. Unfortunately, it was VERY hard to see pencil lines sometimes on the map backgrounds, so when I inked the first version of the Morgan I wasn’t happy with the outcome. At the time I didn’t have another map of the area, so I let it be. But once I got new atlases in, I decided to try again and I’m much happier with the “2019” version of the design (shown above!)

I have also used Morgans as models for the Civil War Cavalry horses on maps of Gettysburg that I did, as well. 

To purchase my Civil War Horses prints, click on the above image!


I knew nothing about the Morgan breed until I met my now-best-friend and the horse who would become my first horse, but in the past 7 years I’ve come to appreciate and truly love this breed! 

Our Morgan Unicorns, Glory and Raven


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What is a Nokota Horse? History and Info about the Nokota Horse

The Nokota horse breed developed in the southwest corner of North Dakota, in the Little Missouri River Badlands. In the 19th century feral horses mingled with the domestic horses of ranchers. The ranchers ofter crossbred the local ponies, Spanish horses, and various draft, harness, stock horses, and Thoroughbreds to make hardy ranch horses. 

By the early 20th century, the feral horse population was the target of ranchers who wanted to limit their grazing so it could be used for livestock instead. Horses were rounded up to either be used for ranch horses, sold to slaughter, or be killed. In the 1930s and all the way to the 1950s, federal and state agencies worked to take horses from western North Dakota. The Nokota was saved from extinction when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in the 1940s. During construction of the park, several bands of horses were accidentally enclosed in the park fence, and by 1960 these bands were the last  feral horses living in North Dakota. 

Love the Nokota Horse? Purchase a Nokota print by clicking the above image!

The park, however, wanted to eliminate these horses. The National Park Service was declared exempt from the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, allowing them to view the horses as a nuisance and to send many of them to slaughter. In the late 1970s, public opposition to the removal of the horses grew to the point where management strategies changed, and today the herds within Theodore Roosevelt National Park are kept for purposes of historical demonstration. In 1986 the dominant herd stallions were removed and outside bloodlines were introduced to the herds with the aim of modifying the appearance of the Nokota. Park management felt that horses created with outside bloodlines would sell better at auctions. 

At the 1986 auction, Leo and Frank Kuntz purchased 54 horses that had been rounded up from the Nokota herds, including a dominant blue roan stallion. They purchased more horses at subsequent auctions, and by 1993 the Kuntz herd was 150 horses strong. In 1999 the Kuntz brothers founded the Nokota Horse Conservancy to protect and conserve the breed. The Nokota Horse Conservancy tracks about 1000 living and dead horses throughout the United States. 

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Breed Spotlight – Appaloosa

In North America, a horse with a colorful spotted coat pattern was developed in the Pacific Northwest by the Nez Perce people. Settlers referred to this horse as the “Palouse Horse”, after the Palouse River in the area. Gradually, this breed’s name evolved into “Appaloosa”.

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Artwork depicting prehistoric horses with leopard spotting exists in cave paintings in Europe. Images of domesticated horses with the same coloring patterns appear in artwork from Ancient Greece and Han dynasty China through to modern times. The Nez Perce people of the Pacific Northwest United States lost most of their horses after the Nez Perce War in the year 1877. The Appaloosa breed fell into decline for several decades after this. Because of the dedication of a small number of breeders, the Appaloosa was preserved as a distinct breed until the Appaloosa Horse Club (known as the ApHC) was formed in 1938 and acted as a breed registry. The modern breed maintains bloodlines tracing back to the foundation stock of the registry. The breed registry allows some addition of Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, and Arabian blood. 

Ancient art depicting Leopard spotted horses

Today, the Appaloosa is one of the most popular breeds in the United States. It was named the official state horse of Idaho in 1975. Appaloosas have been used in movies, as sports team mascots, and as influence to other horse breeds. They are a versatile breed, suitable as a stock horse in western riding disciplines as well as other equestrian activities. 

The Appaloosa is best known for its leopard spotted coat, which is the preference in the breed. Aside from spotting, there are three other distinctive core characteristics of the Appaloosa: mottled skin, striped hooves, and white sclera in the eyes. Though all horses show white around the eye if the eye is rolled back, white sclera showing while the eye is in a normal position is a distinctive characteristic seen more in Appaloosas than in other breeds. Occasionally, an Appaloosa horse is born with little or no visible spotting pattern. The ApHC allows for the “regular” registration of horses with mottled skin plus at least one other common characteristic of the breed. There is also a “non-characteristic” registration for horses with two ApHC parents who show no identifiable Appaloosa characteristics. 

It is not always easy to predict the color a grown Appaloosa will be when it is born. Patterns sometimes change over the course of the horse’s lifetime, and foals do not always show classic leopard spotting characteristics. Horses with the varnish roan and the snowflake patterns usually show very little of the color pattern at birth, but develop more visible spotting as they age. Appaloosa horses come in several base colors, including bay, black, chestnut, palomino, buckskin, cremello, perlino, roan, gray, dun, and grulla. There are ten different recognized spotting patterns, including spotted, blanket, leopard, snowflake, and mottled markings.

Domestic horses with spotted patterns in artwork have been seen as far back as Ancient Greece, Ancient Persia, and China. Eleventh century France and Twelfth century England paintings also depicted spotted horses. Records indicate that spotted horses were used as coach horses at the court of Louis XIV of France, and in the mid-18th-century there was a huge demand for spotted horses among the nobility and royalty. These horses were used in schools, parades, and other displays. The Spanish obtained spotted horses, likely from trade with Austria and Hungary. These horses then traveled with the Conquistadors and Spanish settlers to the Americas in the early 16th century. A snowflake patterned horse was listed among the 16 horses brought to Mexico by Cortez. 

Spotted horses went out of style in Europe in the late 18th century. This caused these horses to be shipped to Mexico, California, and Oregon.

The Nez Perce were living in what is today eastern Washington, Oregon, and north central Idaho. They engaged in horse breeding as well as agriculture. Horses were first obtained by the Nez Perce people in 1730, and they received them from the Shoshone. Because the Nez Perce lived in excellent horse breeding country, and were relatively protected from raids, they took advantage of this and developed strict breeding selection practices. They were one of the few tribes that actively gelded inferior male horses and traded away poor stock to remove unsuitable animals from the gene pool. They were notable horse breeders by the early 19th century.

Nez Perce horses were known to be of the highest quality, and even Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition wrote in his journal about the excellence of their horses. He also mentioned the horses being “pied”, noting the spotted patterns of the modern Appaloosa horse. At this time, however, many of the Nez Perce horses were solid colored, as they had not yet begun to breed for color until after Lewis and Clark’s visit. As settlers moved into the Nez Perce lands, the successful trade of their horses enriched the tribe. In 1861, the Nez Perce horses were said to be “elegant chargers, fit to mount a prince.” Ordinary horses at the time could be purchased for $15. Settlers and non-Natives who owned Appaloosa horses from the Nez Perce turned down offers as high as $600 for their animals.

The encroachment of gold miners in the 1860’s and settlers in the 1870’s put pressure on the Nez Perce people. A treaty in 1863 reduced the lands allotted to the Nez Perce people by ninety percent. Some of the Nez Perce refused to give up their lands under this treaty, including a band living in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. Tensions rose, and in May of 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard called a council and ordered the bands to move to the reservation. The leader of the bands, known as Chief Joseph, felt that military resistance would ultimately be futile. But, on the day that the Chief had gathered 600 people in Idaho, a small group of warriors staged an attack on nearby settlers. After several small battles in Idaho, 800 Nez Perce took 2000 head of livestock and fled into Montana before heading southeast and into Yellowstone National Park. 

A small number of the Nez Perce warriors held off larger U.S. Army forces in several skirmishes, including a two-day battle in southwestern Montana. After being rebuffed by the Crow Nation when they sought safety there, the Nez Perce headed for Canada. The journey was around 1,400 miles, and all throughout it, the Nez Perce relied on their fast, agile, and hard Appaloosa horses. They stopped to rest near the Bears Paw Mountains in Montana, around 40 miles from the Canadian border. Unknown to them, Colonel Nelson A. Miles had led an infantry-cavalry from Fort Keough in pursuit. After a five day fight, Chief Joseph surrendered. The Nez Perce war was over on October 5, 1877. Most of the war chiefs were dead, and the noncombatants were cold and starving. 

A Nez Perce warrior on horseback.

The U.S. 7th Cavalry immediately took more than 1,000 of the tribe’s horses when they accepted Chief Joseph’s surrender. They sold what they could and then shot the rest. A significant population of horses were left behind in the Wallowa Valley when the Nez Perce began their retreat, and additional horses escaped or were abandoned on the way. When the Nez Perce were relocated to reservations in north central Idaho, they were allowed to keep few horses and were forced to crossbreed with draft horses in an attempt to create farm horses. 

A remnant population of the Appaloosa horses remained after 1877, but they were nearly forgotten as a distinct breed for nearly 60 years. A few of the best horses continued to be bred and used as working ranch horses. Others were used in circuses and shows, such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The name “Appaloosa” came from the Palouse River that ran through the Nez Perce territories. There were several other spellings of the breed’s name, including “Appalucy”, “Opelousa”, and “Apalousey”. By the 1950’s, “Appaloosa” was considered the correct spelling of the name. 

Western Horseman magazine published an article in 1937 describing the Appaloosa breed’s history and urging the preservation of the horses. This was when the Appaloosa came to the attention of the general public. The author of the article, Francis D. Haines, had performed extensive research, including traveling with a friend to various Nez Perce villages to collect history and take photographs. The article generated interest in the breed, and was responsible for the founding of the Appaloosa Horse Club by Claude Thompson in 1938. The Appaloosa Museum Foundation was formed in 1975 to preserve the history of the Nez Perce horse. Western Horseman magazine continued to support and promote the breed in subsequent issues. 

The Arabian horse played a huge part in the revitalization of the Appaloosa horse, as evidenced by early registration lists that show Arabian-Appaloosa crossbreeds as ten of the first fifteen horses registered with the ApHC. Later, Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse lines were added, as well as crosses from breeds such as the Morgan and Standardbreds. In 1983 the ApHC reduced the number of allowable crosses to three main breeds: Arabian, American Quarter Horse, and the Thoroughbred. 

By 1978, the ApHC was the third largest horse registry of light horse breeds. By 2007, more than 670,000 Appaloosas were registered. They are an international organization, with affiliates in Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, and Israel. The ApHC has 33,000 members as of 2010. 

The American Appaloosa Association was founded in 1983 by members of the ApHC who opposed the registration of solid colored horses. Based in Missouri, the AAA had a membership of more than 2,000 as of 2008. Other registries have been created for horses with leopard complex genetics that are not affiliated with ApHC. The ApHC is, by far, the largest Appaloosa horse registry, and it hosts one of the largest breed shows in the world.

The ApHC does not accept horses with draft, pony, Pinto, or Paint breeding. Mature horses must stand at least 14hh while unshod. If a horse has excessive white markings that are not associated with the recognized Appaloosa patterns, it cannot be registered unless a DNA test reveals that both the horse’s parents have ApHC registration. 

Unfortunately, Appaloosas have an eightfold greater risk of developing Equine Recurrent Uveitis than all other breeds combined. Up to 25 percent of all horses with ERU may be Appaloosas. If not treated, ERU can lead to blindness. Appaloosas with roan or light colored patterns, little pigment around the eyelids and sparse hair in the mane and tail mark the most at-risk horses for this condition. Researchers believe they have identified a gene region in the Appaloosa that makes the breed more susceptible to the disease.

Some Appaloosas are also at risk for congenital stationary night blindness. CSNB is a disorder that causes a lack of night vision, though day vision is normal. It is an inherited disorder, present from birth, and does not progress over time. 

Appaloosas are a versatile and hardy breed. They are used for both Western and English riding disciplines. Western competitors use the Appaloosa for cutting, reining, roping, barrel racing, and pole bending. Barrel racing is known as the Camas Prairie Stump Race in Appaloosa-only competitions, and pole bending is called Nez Perce Stake Race at breed shows. English riding disciplines use Appaloosas for competitions such as eventing, show jumping, and fox hunting. They are common in endurance riding competitions and casual trail riding. Appaloosas are also bred for horse racing and have an active breed racing association promoting the sport. Generally, they are used for middle-distance racing. An Appaloosa holds the all-breed record for the 4.5 furlongs distance, which was set in 1989.

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To learn more about the Appaloosa horse, go to the ApHC Official Website.

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Breed Spotlight – Nokota Horse

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By the early 20th century, the feral and semi-feral horse known as the Nokota was nearly wiped out by ranchers and state and federal agencies in North Dakota. When Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created in the 1940’s, a few bands of Nokota were inadvertently trapped inside by workers, and were thus preserved. 

The Nokota horse developed in the 19th century in the southwestern corner of North Dakota, in an area known as the Little Missouri River Badlands. Horses from domestic herds mingled with the original feral herds. Ranchers often crossbred Spanish horses from the southwest, local Native American ponies, and various draft, harness, Thoroughbred, and stock horses to create hardy and useful ranch horses. The Nokota horse has an angular frame and prominent withers, usually standing between 14.2 to 17 hands. They often exhibit an ambling gait called the “Indian Shuffle”. They are often blue roan in color, which is rare in other breeds. Black and gray are also common colorations for the Nokota. Less common colors include red roan, bay, chestnut, dun, grullo, and palomino. Pinto patterns occur on occasion. 

Nokota horses today are used in many horseback riding events, including endurance riding, western riding, fox hunting, dressage, three-day eventing, and show jumping. The breed is described by fans as “versatile and intelligent.”

There are two commonly cited sources for the Nokota name. One source states that the Nokota gets its name from the Nakota people who inhabited North and South Dakota. The other origin claims the name comes from a combination of North and Dakota, and was created by the Kuntz brothers.

In 1884, a ranch near Medora, North Dakota, called the HT Ranch purchased 60 mares from a herd of 250 Native American-bred horses that were originally confiscated from the Lakota leader Sitting Bull in 1881. Some of the mares were bred to the Thoroughbred racing stallion Lexington, also owned by the ranch. 

Nokota Horses: Photo from the Nokota Horse Conservancy

By the early 20th century, the feral herds became the target of local ranchers who wanted to limit grazing competition for their own herds. Many horses were removed from the wild, used either for ranch horses, sold to slaughter, or killed. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, federal and state agencies worked with the ranchers to remove the horses from western North Dakota. The species was all but extinct by the time that Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in the 1940’s. During construction, a few bands of the horses were accidentally trapped in the park when the fence was constructed. By the 1960’s, these bands of horses were the last remaining feral Nokota in North Dakota. 

Despite their status, the park sought to eliminate these feral bands of horses. The National Park Service was declared exempt from the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, an act that protected free-roaming horses and burros on other federal lands. This allowed the park to view the Nokota horses as a nuisance and deal with them as such, which included sending many of them to slaughter. In the 1970’s, public opposition to the removal of the feral horses prompted management strategy changes. Today, the herds within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park are managed for historical demonstration purposes. 

In 1986, the park added outside bloodlines into the feral bands with the aim of modifying the appearance of the Nokota because management of the park felt the resulting horses would sell better at auctions. Dominant herd stallions were removed and replaced with a crossbred Shire stallion, a Quarter Horse stallion, an Arabian stallion, and two feral stallions from the Bureau of Land Management Mustang herds. At the same time, a large number of horses from the park were rounded up and sold. At this auction, Leo and Frank Kuntz purchased 54 horses, including the dominant stallion, because they were concerned about the welfare of the Nokota horses. 

By 1993, the Kuntz brothers had a herd of 150 Nokota horses, including those purchased from the park over the course of several auctions and the descendants of those horses. The horses were mainly used for ranching and endurance races. In that year, the Nokota was declared the Honorary State Equine of North Dakota. In 1994 , researchers conducted a study of the horses in the park and on the Kuntz ranch. They discovered that none of the horses in the park and only about 20 on the ranch had characteristics consistent with the Colonial Spanish Horse. Since that study, the horses on the Kuntz ranch have been bred with the goal of maintaining and improving their Spanish characteristics. In 1999, the Kuntz brothers founded the Nokota Horse Conservancy to protect and conserve the Nokota horse. The Conservancy tracks around 1,000 horses throughout the United States. 

Breyer Nokota Horse Model

In recent years, Theodore Roosevelt park has continued to thin the feral Nokota herd. Several round-ups were conducted throughout the 1990’s and the early 21st century. In the year 2000, the last horses to be considered of the “traditional” Nokota type were removed from the wild. Some were purchased by supporters of the Nokota Horse Conservancy. The National Park Service maintains a herd of 70 to 110 horses.

The Breyer Animal Creations annual “Benefit Horse” Campaign chose to honor the Nokota in 2006. A Breyer model was created, manufactured, and marketed throughout the following year, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Nokota Horse Conservancy. In 2006, the Kuntz family owned approximately 500 Nokota, with the Conservancy owning another 40. At that point, there were less than 1,000 living horses of the breed in the world. 

In the fall of 2009, the North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry was created to register horses that have been removed from the park. They state that these horses are not accepted by the main Nokota Horse Registry. In March of 2011, approximately 40 horses had been registered to this organization. The Nokota Horse Registry is run by the Nokota Horse Conservancy, and currently has around 2,000 horses in the registry. 

Learn more about the Nokota Horse by visiting 

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