“Shere ahraha hai” (The Tiger is coming). Words that would have been brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the conquering Muslims in the 8th century, and which have reverberated down through the centuries to touch horse lovers in the New World of today.

What do a tiger and a horse have in common? The connection is, at best tenuous. The horse certainly does not roar, it isn’t striped, and has never been used in the hunting of tigers. The answer is in the Spanish language. Since there was no word for leopard in Spanish, the term Tiger was used to describe all patterned cats, and this habit carried over into the description of other animals. Thus, the term Tiger Horse, was used to describe horses of the eye catching and exotic spotted color patterns that are today associated with the Appaloosa, Knabstrupper, and Noriker horse breeds, all of whom share the Tiger Horse as a common ancestor.

The horse, Blue Tiger, once owned by the king of Sweden and painted by David Klocker von Ehrenstrahl. The painting is in the Swedish National Museum.

That ancestry first began to be recorded thirty thousand years ago, when unknown artists painted their horses, wearing rope halters, in caves in Spain. Some of the horses depicted were distinctively marked with the leopard spotted, or white hip blanket patterns, that we now know are largely controlled by the incompletely dominant Leopard Complex (Lp) gene. These horses were members of the “proto warmblood” herds which roamed Europe, and were the base upon which the Spanish Jennet was built. Over the millennia Iberian breeders infused the blood of horses from northern climates, the Orient, and North Africa, and gradually produced horses of smooth gait and great pride. The Tiger Horse of ancient Iberia was a member of the Jennet family, and it’s smooth four-beat intermediate gaits and beautiful color patterns made them favorites of the nobility and wealthy.

When Ferdinand came to the Spanish throne, he passed the “Gentleman’s Law”, which stated that “All Gentlemen must ride stallions”. This law, due to the fact that not all “Fine Gentlemen” were fine horsemen, helped intensify the breeding of horses which had great presence, but were gentle and docile in nature, and very smooth to ride. This helped insure that the Jennet was so highly regarded by the European horsemen of the 15th through 18th centuries that, in 1593 Salomen de al Broue, Horsemaster to Henry IV of France wrote: “Comparing the better horses in order to appreciate their greater perfection, I must place the Spanish at the top and give it my vote for being the most noble, the best conformed, the bravest and the most worthy of being mounted by a Great King.”

In the early 1500’s the Spanish began establishing horses on the American Continent. By the mid 1500’s many important breeding centers had been established in South and Central America. By this time the Native American tribes had begun to learn about and adopt horses for themselves. The horse had a profound effect on many Native American tribes, and horses spread rapidly across the North American Continent. All native American horses are of Spanish ancestry. The southern and western tribes had the purest Spanish, as this is what came in directly from Spain and the Indies. Many of these horses exhibited the four-beat or ambling gaits, and they came in all colors and patterns, reflecting their Jennet heritage.

Lady Conway’s Spanish Jennet, Painted by Wooten in the 1600’s, painting owned by the Marquess of Hertford.

The paintings of the colonizing period in Europe depict many very colorful Spanish horses in all patterns from sabino and overo to tobiano, and the patterns variously called blooded, blood spotted, trouite, leopard or Tiger, which were all various descriptions of the Lp patterned horses. The Native Americans also prized loudly patterned horses and to many the term “Indian Pony” came to mean a patterned horse. The Tiger patterns, while not plentiful, were prized, and one particular Native American tribe has been erroneously singled out as having developed a breed of horse based on this single trait.

This tribe, the Ni Mee Poo (Nez Perce) of the Pacific Northwest has sometimes been called one of the most adopting and adapting tribes in the country. They were a farming and gathering folk with and extensive culture and a passion for art. They were also master traders always on the lookout for new things to acquire, and had been known to halt battles under a flag of truce to trade for something new. Some time between 1700 and 1730 the Cayuse, who were kinsmen of the Ni Mee Poo, introduced them to horses. The Ni Mee Poo were very taken with these new, powerful creatures and immediately set out to acquire some for themselves. They traded with the Shoshone for their first horses in this 1700 to 1730 time fame. The horses they thus acquired would have been of very pure Spanish blood. The Ni Mee Poo not only took to horses, they became premier horse breeders. They developed excellent herds, and even developed an improved technique of gelding.

While the Ni Mee Poo were getting acquainted with horses, in Europe, a fad was ending. When Phillip of Spain came to his throne, he brought with him Dutch Warmbloods, which he had grown up with in his mother’s native Netherlands. His original plan to replace the Jennet with the Dutch Warmblood, was soon abandoned due to the superiority of the Jennet. Instead, he introduced Dutch Warmblood blood into the Jennet. These new style Iberians were closer in type to the modern Lippizan and Lusitano, and were enormously popular in Europe. Particularly popular was a leopard spotted version. In fact, the bloodstock that Phillip gave to his cousin, the King of Austria, was a group of leopard spotted Iberians that became the foundation for the modern Lippizaner. Just around the start of the 1700’s the spotted Iberian began to become less popular, and the horses were sent in large numbers over to North America especially into Canada and the northern tier of America. By the mid 1700’s a significant population of these horses was in the southwestern parts of Canada to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. The Ni Mee Poo obtained horses of this type through trade, and added them to their breeding pool, which was producing a distinctive and superior horse with strong Spanish/American characteristics. Ni Mee Poo Tribal oral history also tells of special stallions bought from Russian traders, which were pushed off boats in the mouth of the Columbia River, and swum ashore by tribesmen. These horses, called “Ghostwind” horses, seem to have been of a color pattern that is now-a-days called few-spot or snowcap, and would have been very light horses, homozygous for the Lp gene, which would have made them nearly 100% producers of Tiger patterned horses. Some have felt that because these horses were obtained from Russian traders, they must have originated in Russia. Extensive research by various historians and researchers has shown no evidence of Russian importation of any livestock. It is much more likely that these “Ghostwind” horses were pure Spanish, obtained by the Russians from the Spanish ranchers in California, where the Russians established farms. Thus, the breeding programs of the Ni Mee Poo were heavily influenced by the blood of the horse “Most worthy of being mounted by a Great King.” One particular trait which was retained from their Spanish heritage, and common in the Ni Mee Poo herds was the ability to perform a four-beat intermediate gait, or “saddle gait”. This trait came to be called the “Indian Shuffle” by the white settlers.

Detail from THE RENDEZVOUS painted in 1837, by Jacob Miller, first artists to paint the Northwest.

The Ni Mee Poo had nearly a century to perfect their breeding of horses and a testament to their success is seen in an excerpt from the journal of Meriweather Lewis, written during the Lewis & Clark expedition, in 1804. In his journal Lewis wrote: “Some of those horses are pided with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with the black, brown, bay or some other dark color, but much the larger portion are of a uniform color with stars, snips, and white feet, or in this respect marked much like our best blooded horses in Virginia, which they resemble as well in fleetness and bottom as in form and color.”

It must be remembered that at the time of the Lewis & Clark expedition, there was still a strong influence in the colonies of the British Hobby, and the Narragansett pacer was being formed. Both these well known breeds had a strong Spanish Jennet influence, so it is no wonder that Lewis, himself a horse breeder, recognized the quality of the Ni Mee Poo herds.

Another fact, which stands out in Lewis’s description of the horses of the Ni Mee Poo, is the color. While many modern Appaloosa horse students choose to interpret the lines about the horses being “pided” or pied as describing tiger patterned horses, it is not very likely. Leopard, or blood-spotted horses, as the British called them, were known and would most likely have been so described. The term pied most commonly referred to pintado patterns. Another item, which seldom receives much attention is the line which states that the majority of the horses were solid colored. Ni Mee Poo tribal historians themselves refute the contention that the tribe ever developed a breed of horse based on color. They had much more important characteristics in mind for their breeding programs. One of their most important criteria was that the horses be sure-footed and smooth, to handle the extremely rough terrain of the Ni Mee Poo homeland. They also needed to be fast and tough and easy keepers. The temperament was also important and the Ni Mee Poo had a relationship with their horses reminiscent of the relationship of the Bedouins to their desert bred horses. All of theses traits were abundant in the Spanish stock with which the Ni Mee Poo founded their herds.

In 1877, war between the Ni Mee Poo and the U.S. Army brought the conquest and relocation of the tribe, and the nearly total dispersal of their herds of horses. While there were many stories of the gunning down of large numbers of the spotted horses, the fact is, in the words of Lewis, “the majority of the horses were solid colored”. Records actually show that most of the horses were confiscated by the soldiers, and many of them were shipped back east. It well behooved the military men to take advantage of an opportunity to acquire horses so superior to their own that they were able to outrun, outmaneuver and outlast everything the U.S. Cavalry could send against them while living off the winter countryside. After all, the only reason the Ni Mee Poo were caught was because the army had the advantage of the telegraph, and was able to lay an ambush.

A significant number of the Tiger type horses were still to be found in the Pacific Northwest, due to the fact that they were well distributed throughout the Native American tribes by trade. Also some of the white ranchers owned some, as well as those ranchers who agreed to hold portions of the Ni Mee Poo herds against the eventual return of their rightful owners. In 1938, Claude Thompson, an Oregon farmer, established a registry to preserve the spotted horse believed to have been developed by the Ni Mee Poo. The founding of the Appaloosa Horse Club brought attention to these horses, and prevented their total extinction, but then unfortunately a crossbreeding program was embarked on using Arabian, Thoroughbred, and Quarter Horse blood, which has all but eliminated the original Tiger characteristics from the modern Appaloosa. There have remained however, pockets of the original type in Canada, some areas of the Pacific Northwest, and in those herds held in trust by ranch families for the Ni Mee Poo. In addition there have been Appaloosa breeders who have adhered to “foundation” breeding, and who regularly produce horses of the ancient Tiger type.

This photo of a registered Tiger Horse gelding shows the Spanish type conformation so typical of the breed.

In 1991 Darlene Salminen and Vicky Belle Isle met through their mutual interest in learning about the four-beat gait in Appaloosas. The question started what became the more than three year research project that unearthed the information in this article. Much of the information was in direct contradiction of the “history” of the Appaloosa which was accepted at that time, and Appaloosa Horse Club adamantly refused to acknowledge the four-beat gait in the breed. Darlene and Vicky then decided that these unique animals deserved to be preserved and promoted, and in 1994, launched the Tiger Horse Association. With the invaluable assistance of experts such as Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg of Virginia Tech College of Veterinary Medicine, color genetisist and a Director of the American Livestock Conservancy; Deb Bennet PhD, anthropologist, horse historian, conformation and Spanish Horse expert, as well as many members of the Ni Mee Poo tribe who contributed much oral tribal history, Darlene and Vicky were able to develop a comprehensive breed standard, and use this to establish a new registry for this rare type of horse. The name Tiger Horse was chosen to highlight the Spanish heritage of the horses, and to differentiate from the myriad of “Appaloosa” organizations. The goal set forth for the Tiger Horse Association was to preserve and standardize a reliably gaited, light horse of exotic color.

In it’s first incarnation the Association was a non-incorporated registry, but in 1998 the T.H.A. incorporated for the first time. In March of 2004, the T.H.A. corporate structure was upgraded to a 501(c)3 compatible non-profit corporation, and the full 501(c)3 certification is pending. The new corporate structure gives the membership voting privileges, and makes the T.H.A. the ONLY registry for “gaited Apps” that is a membership driven organization instead of a privately owned endeavor. The T.H.A. is also the only such organization that has a Show/Awards program in place to allow members to participate in a wide variety of activities and earn points toward Certificates of Merit, and even a Permanent Championship. The T.H.A. also has a Youth Program for members 18 and under.

The Tiger Horse Association’s first Jr. Member enjoying one of her Tiger Horse mares

The new Tiger Horse Association retains the same goals and purposes, which have been included in the Tiger Horse Association Corporate Charter, so that the goals can never be altered. The T.H.A. will search for eligible horses, and register them. Approved outcross horses will be accepted into the T.H.A for the purpose of improving gait in Tiger Horses. One generation outcross breeding to these Approved Outcross Horses will be allowed until 400 foundation Tiger Horses have been registered, at which point no further outcross horses will be approved. When 500 foundation Tiger Horses have been registered, the books will close completely to outcrossing. The Membership will decide when to stop accepting registration of characteristic horses.

El Caballo Tigre has a long proud history which stretches back into the mists of antiquity in Spain, and, in the New World, changed the course of history for the Native American tribes. These smooth riding, colorful horses have come down to us today in sheltered areas, almost unchanged, but they are rare and could be lost. The Tiger Horse Association exists to ensure that they will survive for future generations to enjoy.

To learn more about the Tiger Horse, contact the Tiger Horse Association,
1604 Fescue Circle, Huddleston, VA 24104
540-297-2276 or 540-890-6832
email tigerhorseassoc@att.net
check out the web site at www.tigerhorses.org