The Paint Horse

Paint horse mare and foal in a field

Mark Newman/ Lonely Planet Images /Getty Images

The Paint Horse is a very popular breed, owing to its flashy coloring, genial temperament, and versatility. In fact, the American Paint Horse Association counts about 110,000 members around the world—41 countries in all. As evidence of the breed's favored status among equestrians, membership in the association continues to grow steadily.

Paint Horse History and Origins

Barb, Andalusian, and Arabian-bred horses—pintados, so called for their distinctive two-tone coloring—arrived in North America along with Spanish explorers in the early 16th century. These horses became the mustang herds that roamed the continent's western half. Native Americans treasured these colorful animals, breeding them and, in some tribes, imbuing them with mystical beliefs.

English colonists eventually introduced Thoroughbreds to the gene pool, resulting in a strong, sturdy working horse that was highly intelligent and steady on the trail. Some of these horses kept their spots, while some were solid-colored. Until 1940, Paints shared a gene pool with Quarter Horses, at which time the American Quarter Horse Association formed and excluded horses with too much white—meaning, all Paints—from its registry. The multicolored horses remained popular, though, and eventually, the American Paint Quarter Horse and the American Stock Horse Associations were formed from the split. The two joined in 1965 to form today's American Paint Horse Association.

Today, the Paint Horse registry is the second largest breed registry in the world, after that of the American Quarter Horse and the Appaloosa.

Body Type

The Paint Horse has specific characteristics beyond coat color, of course. The breed has been crossbred frequently with American Quarter Horses, so many are heavily muscled cow-horse types. They're typically very muscular, with broad chests, strong hindquarters, and low centers of gravity that give them great balance.

Because Paint Horses can be out-crossed with Thoroughbreds, racier body types exist, too. The registry allows full Thoroughbreds and American Quarter Horses entrance into the registry, provided they meet the specifications for color.

Paint Horse Size and Lifespan

The Paint is usually between 14.2 and 15.2 HH, but those with Thoroughbred heritage can be taller than this. The average weight ranges from 950 to 1,200 pounds, a bit heavier than most breeds. On average, this hardy horse lives about 31 years.


Strong, fast, and agile, Paint Horses are ridden and driven in almost every English and Western discipline. You’ll find Paint Horses barrel racing, jumping in the stadium and in cross-country events, working cattle, trail riding, combined driving, and much more. This is a very versatile breed, with representatives in almost every sport involving horses. Many individual horses excel at a variety of sports as well; for example, you might find Paint Horses who are successful in both English and Western show rings, or some who excel both on the trail and on the ranch. 

Color and Markings

Many people like the Paint's distinctive coat patterns, which can occur in any combination of white plus another color, such as bay, black, palomino, or chestnut. The patterns and colors vary greatly, and no two are precisely the same. Some Paint Horses are a solid or almost-solid color. 

Paint horses display several distinct, named color patterns:

  • Tobianos exhibit a dark and white coat pattern, with solid dark over one or both flanks and white legs. The head is dark with regular facial patterns such as stars, blazes, and strips. The markings are smooth and regular. Tail and mane hair can be of two colors.
  • Overo is a solid color over the horse’s back. The legs are dark with regular stockings. The face is mainly white. The tail and mane are usually solid colors.
  • A Sabino horse is mainly a solid color, with white patches that have irregular edges. The legs are white, and the face has extensive white markings. Patches are of varying sizes, from large areas of the body to small flecks.
  • Tovero horses are mainly white on the body, while the upper head, chest, and flank areas are a dark color. Some Toveros have blue eyes, creating an especially striking appearance.

All coat patterns may be interspersed with white hairs (known as roaning). Any regular coat color may combine with white; sometimes, two coat colors plus white occur in the same horse.

These are only very general descriptions; for more specific, detailed explanations of coat colors and combinations, see the American Paint Horse Association's website.

The breed registry allows such wide variation because horses used for breeding can have offspring that are more colorfully marked than their parents. Moreover, color is only one aspect of the Paint's makeup; the breed has conformation standards as well. As long as the horse carries the genes for a colored coat, it may be registered as a Paint Horse. Thus, many solid-colored horses qualify as Paints. Some Paint Horses are also listed with the Pinto Horse registry, which allows any breed, regardless of ancestry, as long as the coat color meets its specifications.

Unique Characteristics of the Paint Horse

The colored coat pattern distinguishes this breed of horse most obviously, but the breed is about far more than color. Its markings combine with its well-muscled stature to create a unique, arresting physical appearance indeed.

Beyond their unusual beauty, Paints are prized for their calm, friendly, easy going temperament. These are relaxed, highly social horses, with natural intelligence that makes them easy and rewarding to train. 

What Is the Difference Between a Paint Horse and Pinto Horse?

Both paint and pinto horses have similar coats, with white patches and solid colors, such as black or chestnut. But their key differences lie in their breeds. While a paint horse, according to the American Paint Horse Association (APHA), “has strict bloodline requirements and a distinctive stock-horse body type”, a pinto horse can be a variety of breeds. The term "pinto" instead refers to the coat pattern rather than the breed of the horse.

Champion and Celebrity Paint Horses

The Paint Horse Legends website has an extensive list of foundation Paint Horses, with links to descriptions and photos.

The very first stallion registered was a black and white tobiano named Bandits Pinto

Is the Paint Horse Right for You?

This versatile, genial breed is ideal for anyone who enjoys horses, so the answer is probably "yes." They are loving companions and easy rides but will step up enthusiastically to the rigors of competition and work. They are compliant and driven to please their riders and owners, making them easy to train and keep as pets. This combination of beauty, temperament, and athletic ability earn them a top spot—pun intended—among horse breeds the world over.