A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Long long ago, in a pasture far far away.............there were SPOTS!

How often do you think about where your horse's traits came from?  Never?  Rarely?

Well, when your horse has spots, it tends to be a common thing.  See, the ApHC did a great job of marketing back in the day, and somehow we have now come to call all polka-dotted type horses "appaloosa" colored.  Ah but it wasn't always so!

Ever wonder where my blog name "Pinzgauer" came from?  Well, that's what the ancients called this color pattern in its many forms.  Then history happened, and some guy makes these amazing all terrain vehicles, and named them after a pretty horsey.  Now when you think Pinzgauer, very few people think spotted horses.  In reality, the Noriker horse is still referred to as the Pinzgauer.

Because I'm a complete dork - as y'all should know by now - I tend to over research things.  This whole thing started when some one asked me if a Knabstrupper was descended from the Appaloosas.  Oh my!  (If you don't know, they aren't, the Knabstrupper came first.... well before the new world was found).

So, lets start at the beginning, because this really is a very cool story:

In Lascaux Pech Merle, France (thanks for the correction by Dominique Cuyvers) a picture of some very appaloosa colored horses was found on a wall.  For many years it was assumed that this was proof that the pinzgauer color pattern was a very old one.  The Appaloosa people (big A means breed) thought this was great news and wonderful history for their horses.  Sadly, it was later discovered that the spots were added long after the original painting was finished.  Still, a few thousand years after caveman is still a LONG time ago.

So we know that spotted horses were in Europe at some point long long ago, but where did they come from?

Around 1000 BCE we find the first true evidence of the pinzgauer pattern. In the Fergana Valley, in a country called Uzbekistan, there is very good grazing.  This area was very secluded, and at the time controlled by nomadic people who depended upon their horses for their lives.  Ample rainfall, and lush soil meant that the horses born and bred in this valley grew to be massive animals.

Now keep in mind that in other parts of the world at this time, most people were using donkies and onagers as beasts of burden because they were superior to horses.  Horses were small fragile things with short legs and little stamina, for the most part.  Of course, the Arabians were just being started as a breed, and the Celts had a cute little pony with a smooth flowing gait, but those were few and far between.  Few people had ever seen or heard of the celtic horse, or the Arabian horse, or the strange horses in the fergana valley.  Horses were only really good for one thing..... food.

Now the green dot on the map up there is where the Fergana Valley is located.  Right in the middle of central Asia, and next door to China.  Around 112- 101 BCE, a Chinese emperor named Wu Ti found out about these horses.  He wanted them!

These horses were ram headed, strong and big boned.  They were large enough to carry a man.  Accounts vary (depends upon what you believe I suppose) as to how the emperor acquired these horses, but acquire them he did.  Shortly after, we begin to see art of horses in China with polka dots.  Tapestries and statues from that point on used the polka dots as a common theme in these horses, and many texts reference their "coats of gold".

Oddly, these gold horses bred very true, not like palominos today.  Many people believe that this is a reference to the color we now know as Champagne.

The Chinese word for horse is "ma" and these horses were named the Tien Ma, or the heavenly horse (literal translation).  Ironically though, the Chinese nuclear program is also called Tien Ma.  Strange how the military keeps naming their programs after these pretty ponies!

But, of course the Chinese weren't the only people to find out about these new fangled animals.  The Persians also learned of their existence, and soon acquired some for themselves.  Knowing a bit about the history of the Persians at that time, I would assume that it was not a friendly trade.  These horses became well known in a small place called Nisaia, and most of the world knew them as the Nisean horse.

These amazing horses were used by the Persians to pretty much conquer the world.  Remember that movie "300"?  Remember the bad guy in that, Xerxes, and all of his strange animals that he used?  Well, his army was mounted on these beauties, and it was a huge military success.  Since it took a while for the Persian Empire to cross Asia, a few civilizations had sprung up by the time they reached Europe.  Of course Xerxes wasn't leading the Persians the whole time, but he did play a famous role in spreading these horses around.

Before Xerxes, most peoples had small ponies that were short and strong.  Remember those mongols?  Yeah, their horses had nothing on the Nisean horse, and yet the simple fact that they had them was such a success, so just imagine what a "war horse" would do?  And of course, the Persian Emperors were not stupid.  In order to control the land they just conquered, they had to do something nice to make the people of the area like them.  In many cases they left behind a Nisean mare or colt of poor quality.  These culls were still vastly superior to what the native inhabitants had access to, and the foals that resulted from their cross breeding led to the creation of many horses that today are distinct breeds.

Now,  those getting Nisean infusion into their herds didn't complain about boring colors.  For them, it was an insane technological advance, kinda like going from using a wheel barrow to a tractor with front end loader.

And of course, time tends to pass, and horses tend to breed, and things change.  The Greeks received a rather nice share of Persian horses to augment their herds, and soon became one of the most civilized societies.  As they advanced, so did their horse care, and knowledge of selective breeding.  Then they began to make advances on things like horsemanship and riding.  Soon the Greeks and Romans were the new super powers (ok, I'm not a huge human history buff, so I'm shoving this all together) and they were moving around the area.  As we know, the Romans also were a conquering nation, and of course some of their fine horses were lost in the battles, and picked up by the local farmers.  These horses still had the occasional spotted pattern, and of course could pass it on.

Now, it's important to keep in mind the idea of horsemanship at this time.  People didn't have "breeds" they just had types of horses.  There were horses you ride, horses you fought on, and horses to do work.  If your plow horse doesn't have enough stamina, then you bred it to a horse that did, and used the foal.  Of course because they didn't have a whole lot of veterinary knowledge, and definitely no deworming, horses didn't live all that long.  Well, people really didn't either for that matter!

But the point is, that cross breeding was the ONLY breeding.  You bred for a machine, not a companion.  Oh, I'm sure that some people had affection to their horses, but it was not the normal thing.  Alexander the great had Bucephalus (Ox Head) who was a Nisean horse, or a direct descendant of one.  We know this because he was known to have "knobs" on his head which gave him his name.  These knobs were a holdover from the original horse of the Ferghana Valley area, and their "ram heads".

Sadly though, Bucephalus wasn't spotted, and really has very little to do with the history of appaloosa color, except that he's useful in helping to trace the ancestry of the Nisean horse into what would become the Spanish horse.  These is a gap in documentation of LP patterned horses through this time, as few horse colors are mentioned.  We do know that the Greeks and Romans had them, but lineage was really not an important thing in horse breeding at the time.

But, those Grecian and Roman horses were the ancestors of the Spanish horse, and we know that they were related to the Nisean horse, and that the Nisean horse had LP color.  Interestingly, the Spanish horse was commonly seen and painted in appaloosa color patterns.  Of course, when you aren't selecting for color, you tend to blend multiple patterns that can easily hide pinzgauer type coloration.  Grey, tobiano, overo, cremello... these all can so easily hide a small blanket, or a bit of roaning.

So, along comes the Spanish horse, and it's amazing beauty..  These amazing horses were used by royalty, and quickly became the "to have" type of horse!  Every Lord and Lady wanted to have a fancy horse, and most of them were Spanish horses.  Again, this is not a breed, but a type of horse.  Just as we have "draft" horses and "gaited" horses today, they had Spanish horses, which were the same type of large category.  Think of it the same way we have "stock horses" today.

The louder and more glamorous your horse the better.  The fops wanted to be noticed, just like teenaged boys today trick out their cars with accessories for their accessories, back then bling on your horse and by your horse was desirable.

And then a few things changed.  Suddenly it became to be considered poor taste to have these loud colored horses, and garishly colored clothes.  Grey became all the rage, and blacks, and boring bays.  Horses began to be bred for a lack of color, as those loud horses dropped in value, and as many good horsemen knew, there's nothing to cover up loud patterns like grey!

And around this time, some Spanish woman sent some Christopher guy to a new place in some boats.

Well, when you have a super long sea voyage ahead of you, and are likely to lose a ton of your livestock on the way there, you're not exactly going to be as concerned about fashion are you?  Guess where all those loud colored but basically worthless horses went?  Yeah, on the boats.  Better to get a little money for your worthless goods, then to have to pay to keep feeding them.  And better to get a LOT of nice horses for little money when no one will be there to judge your fashion tastes.  Many others of course went onto dinner plates, so the poor horses that spent weeks upon weeks sea-sick were the lucky ones.

So, the Spanish begin colonizing the new world, and many of the lords who traveled over wanted to be sure they had a nice comfy ride to carry them around.  Those fancy Spanish horses were just the thing!  Top quality horses in bad colors work great when no one is around to see your fashion faux pas.  Of course there were some "Indians" running around, and of course a few people died and left their horses behind.

This is how the appaloosa colored horses got to North America.  The natives, being a spiritual people, often put value on the interesting colored horses.  Whether that was palomino, pinzgauer, or pinto, different tribes found different favorites.  Most tribes didn't worry about selective breeding, as anything that wasn't good quality fed their children.  Other tribes worked to master the art of horsemanship, as it gave them a wonderful military advantage.

And so the horse became yet another bartering item between nations.  This time it was Native American nations.

By the 1700s the Nez Perce had horses in the Palouse valley, and these horses were supposedly rather well bred, according to the American explorers (well, the "white man" at any rate).  Although by this point a word for the type of color pattern was no longer common language.  There was piebald, which refered to a party colored horse, with black and white coloration like a magpie, and skewblad which refered to a party colored horse of any other combination.  Of course, the story, and debates about what happened to the Appaloosa of the Nez Perce is as varied as ApHC breeding programs, but we do know that in the end the US Calvary won, and decided to disperse the herds.  One of the ways they did that was by cross breeding to draft horses.

Ah, but we seem to forget our history so often, and try to put our modern feelings on historical actions.  Why would the Calvary do such a thing?  Why not just keep the horses for themselves, and their own use if they were so great?  I have yet to hear any answers to these questions, and we can all speculate all day long.  So lets just take a few things into consideration.

The average person at the time used horses for a living.  Whether it was to haul a cart or carriage to travel in, to pack heavy supplies, or to plow fields that would feed their family, horses needed traits for more then just riding.  Because of this, Americans had already begun to cross breed the European Draft horses, such as the Percheron and the Belgian, with more common light horses.  These draft crosses were great all terrain vehicles!

Why a draft cross?  Because they could do it all.  They pulled enough weight to plow the field, then could be hitched up to the carriage for church on Sunday, and if you needed to put a saddle on one, well, it would fit!  Ever try to saddle a full size draft?  Yeah, not as easy as it sounds.  Lets not even talk about mounting an 18hh horse with no mounting blocks!

I mean, you don't think that the Quarter Horse just appeared out of nowhere do you?  It was most likely the result of breeding these draft crosses down to a lighter smaller horse with all the qualities needed on a homestead.  Have you ever compared an old picture of a quarter horse to a modern picture of a Belgian Draft cross?  Yeah, it speaks volumes!

So, it's very likely that the Appaloosas were crossed for use, rather then for revenge.  Granted, this is only a theory, and has so much less romance about it, but it was a pretty common practice at the time.  So then these horses were cross bred to the neighbor's horse, and so on for a few more decades.  Eventually, some one found a very nice, very pretty horse, and wanted to make up a breed.  Because in the early 1900s, horse breeds had only recently become all the rage!  Only one downside here.  When people breed for USE, they tend to forgive a bad color.  Look at Plaudette!

Plaudette there was an ancestor to many well known Quarter horses as well as Appaloosas, and as you can guess by looking, some Paints as well.  She carried splash white, tobiano, and LP evidently, because her kids got a bit of it all.

So as news of this fancy new breed for polka dotted horses came around, people began to register their horses.  Many of these horses had no known lineage, but they did show color.  As you can also guess, many of them also showed some draft traits.  Some more then others. 

And because the breed started in the west, as the horses traveled east, the oldest, and draftiest went first.  Keep the better bred offspring, and sell the flawed parents on to the next enthusiast.  So, by the time these horses hit Ohio, there was a whole jumble of types that only had polka dots in common.

And some crazy boy up there thought "hey, those would cross great on my draft horses for my carriage company".  So, if you ever wonder where the draft crosses and their descendants went, well that's where.  And today, those descendants are the ancestors of our beloved Sugarbush Draft Horses.

I have to admit, there's something kinda amusing about the Appaloosa being the Indian's horse, and the Sugarbush Draft being the cowboy's horse.  Or is it just me?

It's all related really.  The Spanish horse later divided into a few breeds, such as the Andalusian (or PRE), Lusitano, and Lipizzaner.  Some where along the lines, one of the pretty spotted horses was left in Denmark, where it became the first Knabstrupper.  And of course, there are the intentional crossbreds, such as our Sugarbush Drafts, the Pony of the Americas, minitature horses, and the Gypsy vanner/cob.

The Noriker is a unique one, as it's one of the early breaks from the Appaloosa lineage.  Those fine LP colored horses were crossed into drafts in Austria, and the color still crops up occasionally today.  Of the breeds that still carry LP colors, only the Appaloosa and the Knabstrupper breed selectively for color.  Many of the Appaloosa and Knabstrupper descendants do as well (POA, Colorado horse, etc).  And for clarification, I call the Colorado horse a descendant of the Appaloosa because they were formed after the Nez Perce's horses had gained a variation of that name.  The ApHC was actually formed after the Colorado Ranger Horse Assoc.

I admit, I don't know all of the breed histories, only that which leads to my polka dotted monsters.  Still though, it's interesting to see how LP coloration tended to follow the best horses of the times from the early history of humans and horses until today.


  1. Fascinating - I'm glad you did all that research for the rest of us!

  2. That is definitely an interesting read.. and I did wonder how you got your name. ;)

  3. Gosh girl! I have raised Appaloosas over 20 some years and you are still teaching me about thier history .Thanks ,great post

  4. Well, in all honesty, I think I have been researching this for about that long! Remember for many of those years I could only love horses from the inside of my books. There's only so many pretty pictures a horse crazed girl can look at before the questions start popping in her head.

    Oddly, Appaloosa and drafts were the things that always had me the most interested!

  5. I just figured Pinzgauer was great grandmas maiden name or something. Little did I know...Your arsenal of knowledge on all of this is impresive. I am glad that you seem to be living your dream and also that you readily share what you know. That is very cool. Thank you for teaching me so much. Some days your posts make me dizzy and I have to stop and think for a while about what I've read, and I like that. Thank you for helping to keep my "Gray Matter" running on all four cylinders. :-)

  6. The cave painting on the picture above is not Lascaux but it is Pech Merle. Some spotted horse paintings were also found in Lascaux.

  7. OOps! You are correct! Like I said, I am not a human history buff, and so took the name and location from the image I used. I should have put more effort into that. It has now been corrected, and thanks for pointing that out!

  8. The cave painting on the picture above is not Lascaux but it is Pech Merle. Some spotted horse paintings were also found in Lascaux.