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Horse Breeds
First Posted: July 14, 2009
Apr 19, 2013

Pinto Horse

Pinto Horse

A horse with pinto coloring, specifically the tobiano pattern
My horse, A Patchy Star, has Pinto coloration. He is a tricolored, bay, gaited tobiano.

A Pinto horse has a coat color that consists of large patches of white and another color. In nations using British English, the term used to describe this pattern is "colored". The Pinto color pattern existed in prehistoric times, and has been specifically bred by various cultures throughout history. Pinto coloring is popular today in the English-speaking world, especially the United States, where the pattern is considered a color breed and several competing registries have formed to encourage the breeding of pinto horses.

A Pinto may be any breed, and the word itself does not necessarily imply a breed. There are several different registries for pinto horses with varying requirements. The Pinto Horse Association of America (PtHA) defines pinto horses recorded in their registry as a true breed and accepts solid-colored offspring of registered pinto parents as breeding stock, but has strict requirements for full registration. The most generous allow registration of a horse of any breed or combination of breeds with as little as three square inches of white above the knees or hocks, other than facial markings. Some registries also require horses to meet a certain breed or type standard. A few registries will allow registration of a solid-colored foal if the parents were both colored and accepted by the registry.

Color Patterns and Genetics of Pinto Horses

There are a number of words used to describe the typical color and spotting patterns of pinto horses. Essentially, a pinto horse is genetically created when an allele for a spotting pattern is present in addition to the genes that create the underlying base coat color. The precise mechanism that creates spotting is not fully understood, but appears to be a form of leucism. Common terms for describing different types of pinto horses include:


  • Piebald: (term more commonly used in nations using British English). A black and white spotting pattern.
  • Skewbald: (term more commonly used in nations using British English). A spotting pattern of white and any color other than black, often a chestnut and white horse, (sometimes called "brown and white") but now also used to refer to a bay and white horse. Skewbald horses are less commonly Palomino or Buckskin and white, Roan and white, or any number of other shades.
  • Colored: The nations using British English term for Pinto coloration, including both piebald and skewbald.
  • Tricolored: A term for horse with three colors (usually bay and white), in nations using British English, a color usually incorporated into the term skewbald.


  • Tobiano: The most common type of pinto. A spotting pattern characterized by rounded markings with white legs and white across the back between the withers and the dock of the tail, usually arranged in a roughly vertical pattern and more white than dark, though the ideal is a 50-50 distribution, with the head usually dark and with markings like that of a normal horse. i.e., star, snip, strip, or blaze. Thought to be a dominant gene, in that for a tobiano foal to be produced, at least one parent must be tobiano.
  • Overo: A group of spotting patterns characterized by sharp, irregular markings with a horizontal orientation, usually more dark than white, though the face is usually white, sometimes with blue eyes. The white rarely crosses the back, and the lower legs are normally dark. Some of the genes responsible for separate overo patterns remain to be identified, but each appears to be expressed by the action of different genes. Overo foals (sometimes called "cropouts") are occasionally produced from two apparently solid-colored parents. There are three forms recognized by the American Paint Horse Association (APHA), which has the most specific rules: "frame," "splashed white" and "Sabino." However, Sabino is not necessarily classified as an overo pattern by other breed registries, particularly those whose horses do not carry the genes for the other two patterns.
  • Sabino: Sometimes confused with roan or rabicano, a slight spotting pattern characterized by high white on legs, belly spots, white markings on the face extending past the eyes and/or patches of roaning patterns standing alone or on the edges of white markings. Some forms of sabino appear to be recessive in behavior, thought to be either polygenic or a gene complex. However, one form, produced by the SB1 gene, when present, is a dominant. Genetically unrelated to frame or splash, sabino is nonetheless classified with the "overo" family of patterns by the APHA, though not by other breed registries, particularly those whose horses do not carry the splash and frame patterns.
  • Tovero: spotting pattern that is a mix of tobiano and overo coloration, such as blue eyes on a dark head. Horses can carry multiple spotting genes at the same time, producing characteristics of both patterns.

Related Terms

  • "Chrome:" An informal term of approval used to describe appealing white markings on the horse.
  • "Solid:" A horse with no spotting pattern, usually referring to the offspring of spotted parents. Some color registries accept solids as breeding stock, others do not.
  • "Medicine hat:" An uncommon pattern where the poll and ears are dark, surrounded completely by white. A true "medicine hat" pinto or paint usually has a predominantly white body, with dark coloration by the flanks and around the eyes.

  • "Shield:" A large dark patch covering the chest, surrounded completely by white, usually on a predominantly white horse. Sometimes associated with Medicine hat patterning.
  • "Cropout:" A horse with spotting who had two apparently solid-colored parents, typically within a breed whose standard does not allow pinto coloration.

Pinto or Paint?

A Pinto differs from a "Paint" solely by breeding. Horses with Pinto coloring and verifiable pedigrees tracing to Quarter Horses or Thoroughbreds have been named the American Paint Horse and are recorded in a separate registry, the American Paint Horse Association. While a Pinto may be of any breed or combination of breeds, and some Pinto registries may have additional restrictions (some do not register draft horses or mules, for example), a horse that is registered as an American Paint Horse must be the offspring of registered American Quarter Horse, American Paint Horse, or Thoroughbred bloodlines. Therefore, most Paint horses may be registered as Pintos, but not all Pintos are qualified to be registered as Paints.

Thus, it is always correct to refer to a horse with a non-leopard spot pattern as a Pinto. A spotted horse should only be called a Paint if its ancestry is known or if it displays conformation that is clearly akin to that of an American Quarter Horse. A leopard spotted horse is usually called an Appaloosa, whether it is a registered Appaloosa or not. However, "paint" or "painted" was also an archaic term used to describe assorted spotted horses bred by various Plains Indian tribes and thus is occasionally used in this context when describing spotted Mustangs.


Although pinto coloration is rare in the wild, people have always had an eye for animals of unusual colors and a desire to deliberately breed for them. Images from pottery and other art of ancient antiquity show horses with flashy spotted patterns. Images of spotted horses appear in the art of Ancient Egypt, and archaeologists have found evidence of horses with spotted coat patterns on the Russian steppes prior to the rise of the Roman Empire. Later, spotted horses were among those brought to the Americas by the Conquistadors.

By the 17th century in Europe, spotted horses were quite fashionable, though when the fad ended, large numbers of newly-unsellable horses were shipped to the Americas, some for sale, and others simply turned loose to run wild. The color became popular, particularly among Native Americans, and was specifically bred for in the United States, which now has the greatest number of Pinto horses in the world.

Pintos Today

Photo credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont

The above photograph shows the difference between a Pinto horse and a leopard-spotted Appaloosa. The Pinto is on the left, the Appaloosa on the right. Pinto horses can be any of the major physical conformation types. A "Hunter Type" pinto displays the body type associated with pinto color crossed on predominantly Thoroughbred or Warmblood breeding. A "Saddle Type" pinto is a gaited horse or pony displaying the carriage, animation, and conformation of the American Saddlebred or Tennessee Walking Horse. A "Pleasure Type" Pinto may be partly of Morgan or Arabian horse breeding, and some Arabian/Saddlebred crosses known as the National Show Horse have pinto coloring as well. The "Stock Type" resembles horses of American Quarter Horse breeding.

Crossbred ponies and even some purebred breeds, such as the Shetland pony and the miniature horse, also may have pinto coloring. Some pinto registries do not accept animals with draft horse or mule breeding, though others do. None accept Appaloosa coloring.


Breed Registries and White Markings

Many breed registries do not, or at some time in the past did not, accept "cropout" horses with spots or "excess" white for registration, believing such animals were likely to be crossbreds. This exclusion of offspring from pedigreed parents led to the formation not only of the American Paint Horse Association, but other Pinto registries as well. Among the breeds that excluded such horses were the Arabian horse and American Quarter Horse registries. However, modern DNA testing has revealed that some breeds do possess genes for spotting patterns, such as the sabino pattern in Arabians, and sabino, overo, and tobiano in Quarter Horses. Therefore, these registries have modified their rules, allowing horses with extra white, if parentage is verified through DNA testing, to be registered. On the other hand, the Jockey Club's Thoroughbred registry still does not officially recognize pinto as a registrable color, though they do allow white body spots to be recorded under the category of markings. The Welsh Pony and Cob Society of the UK also does not accept "piebald" or "skewbald" horses for registration.

Lethal White Syndrome

There is a link between the frame overo gene and a condition called Lethal White Syndrome. Not all overo horses carry the gene, and some horses that do not appear to be overo do carry the gene. However, if a foal is born homozygous for the gene, it dies shortly after birth. This gene can be detected by DNA testing and breeders can now avoid breeding two carrier horses to one another.

A Note:

Just approved by the Pinto Horse Association of America Inc. - Any horse, pony or miniature, currently registered with an approved outcross registry, with documented Pinto characteristics on the outcross papers, is eligible for registry with the PtHA.

For More Information:

Pinto Horse Association of America
National Pinto Horse Registry
Oklahoma State University - Breeds of Livestock
University of California, Davis - Vet Genetics Lab
"Horse Coat Color Tests" University of California, Davis

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