FAQ Horse Care

Breed Profile: The Colorful World of the Paint Horse

bay paint overo horse
Written by Holly N.

Paints, Pintos, and Piebalds…Oh My!

The world of horses can be both colorful and confusing, as my colleague discovered when she explored the difference between pintos and paint horses. It’s important to recognize that the American Paint is a specific breed, while pinto simply refers to a color.

The American Paint Horse is well known for its colorful coat, but that isn’t the only criterion. An American Paint Horse must have the conformation of a stock horse, which translates to a compact, athletic body, powerful hindquarters, and strong bones. Temperament is also critical: paints should be willing and calm.

paint horse

Source: Canva

The Paint Horse: An Overview

The American Paint Horse is a versatile and athletic animal. Regarding conformation, you can expect sloping shoulders similar to those of the Quarter Horse, a compact body, strong legs, and a short yet muscular back.

While most American Paints have colorful, patterned coats, a solid-colored horse can also qualify if both parents are registered Paints.

Breed History

American Paint Horses descended from the same bloodlines as the Quarter Horse, combining the speed of the Thoroughbred with the colorful coats of the Spanish breeds and the stocky strength of the Chickasaw pony.

Until 1940, there was no differentiation between the American Paint and the Quarter Horse, but when the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) was formed, it soon excluded all horses with too much white in their coats.

This separation led to the creation of the American Paint as a distinct breed, even though conformationally, it still has much in common with the Quarter Horse.

paint horse with partial blue eye

Source: Canva

Breed Origination

If it wasn’t for the Spanish, the equestrian world would never have known the wonders of the American Paint Horse.

When Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes arrived in the US in 1519, he brought 17 horses, each of which boasted a unique color pattern. One particular horse, a sorrel-and-white stallion, is believed to be the ancestor of modern-day Paints.

The American Paint Horse Association

The American Paint Horse Association (APHA) was founded in 1965 when the American Paint Quarter Horse Association (APQHA) and the American Paint Stock Horse Association (APSHA) merged.

The association’s main goal is to promote the American Paint breed, and it’s been so successful in its endeavors that it’s now the second-largest international equine breed association in the world.

To be eligible for registration with the APHA, a horse must meet both color and bloodline requirements. This means both their dam and sire must be registered with the APHA, the Jockey Club, or the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA).

Horses that fail to meet the color requirements may also be registered but will be placed in the Solid Paint-bred Registry rather than the Regular Registry.

tovero paint foal

Source: Canva

Additional Registration Options for Paint Horses

American Paint horses may also be registered with:

• The Pinto Horse Association
• The American Quarter Horse Association

Breed Description

An American Paint Horse has the conformation of a stock horse, with a short back, compact body, and powerful hindquarters. American Paint Horses typically measure between 14.2 and 16 hands and weigh between 950 and 1,200 lbs.

Although solid-colored Paint Horses do exist, most American Paints have striking color combinations with large areas of white.

In addition to their physical appearance, American Paint Horses must demonstrate the demeanor of a stock horse. In other words, they must be intelligent, easy-going, trainable, and friendly.

Stock-Type Horse Characteristics

A stock horse needs stamina and athleticism to work effectively with livestock. It also needs to be friendly and easy to train. Physically, a smaller, stockier build is preferred, along with a good temperament and a certain level of agility.

overo paint horse with flaxen mane

Source: Canva

Coat Patterns

The APHA describes three main patterns of American Paint Horses’ coat patterns but also accepts that each horse’s color and pattern are unique.


A horse with an Overo coat pattern usually has a colored coat over which jagged white markings spread out from the belly towards the neck, legs, or back, although an Overo can be predominantly dark or white.

Either way, the white sections never cross the horse’s back between its withers and tail, and often all four legs are dark in color.

An Overo features distinctive head markings, including apron-faced, bonnet-faced, and bald-faced.

The term Overo comes from the Spanish word meaning “like an egg,” perhaps because the splashes of solid color resemble the yolk of an egg.

black overo paint mare and foal

Source: Canva


A Tobiano is a horse with a colorful coat pattern in which the patches of white cross over the top line somewhere between the ears and the tail.

The head is usually dark, and the legs are predominantly white, especially below the knees and hocks.

Tobiano is the most common coat pattern in American Paints.

two tobiano paints playing in the snow

Tobiano color pattern. Source: Canva


Tovero is a combination of the Overo and Tobiano coat patterns and is characterized by dark pigmentation around the mouth and ears. Many Toveros also have spots on the chest, flanks, or around the base of the tail.

Tovero horses often have at least one, if not two blue eyes, as a result of having a trait known as complete heterochromia.

tovero paint horse

Tovero coat pattern. Source: Canva

One version of tovero coat pattern is the Medicine Hat horse. This coat pattern is characterized by an almost completely white coat with pigmentation around the top of the head and the ears—the less pigmentation, the more desirable. 

medicine hat tovero

Medicine Hat color pattern. Source: Canva


The Sabino is a type of Overo pattern in which the white markings rise from the legs and spread across the belly.

Sabinos have two or more white feet and jagged white patches known as belly or barrel spots.

The edges of the white patterns of the Sabino are often blended with the base color, creating a roan-like effect.

Splashed White

Another variation on the Overo pattern, the Splashed White is a variable pattern characterized by white markings on the belly and legs and a broad white blaze. Most horses with this color pattern also have blue eyes.

A horse with a typical Splashed White pattern looks like it was dipped in white paint.

Frame Overo

This highly desirable color pattern features blocks of white surrounded by areas of color as though they were framed.

A Frame Overo may have only small patches of white arranged horizontally.

Most Frame Overo horses have wide, white blazes and may also have one or two blue eyes.

overo chestnut paint horse with flaxen mane

Frame Overo coat pattern. Source: Canva

Overo Lethal White Syndrome

This syndrome is associated with Frame Overo horses that, when bred, produce an all-white foal. Also known as ileocolonic aganglionosis, Lethal White Syndrome causes the foal to be born with an under-developed intestinal tract which means it can’t move food through the tract properly and can’t defecate.

Foals born with the syndrome have a life expectancy of just a few days, during which they show signs of colic and abdominal pain.

Paint Horse Uses

Paint Horses are agile, versatile, and easy to train, which means they excel in many disciplines. APHA horses are commonly used for Western events like reining and barrel racing, they’re also excellent at working cattle and pleasure riding.

Events Where Paint Horses Excel

The calm disposition of American Paint Horses makes them excellent mounts for beginners in all disciplines. Their conformation and stamina make them suitable for everything from showjumping to cross country, endurance, trail riding, and rodeo events.

Famous Paint Horses

When I think of famous paint horses, Hidalgo was the first name that popped into my head, only for me to discover that he wasn’t an American Paint at all, but a Spanish Mustang. In the 2004 movie, however, the role of Hidalgo was played by five American Paint horses, including the stallion RH Tecontender, who Viggo Mortensen subsequently bought.

Painted Joe was a Tobiano who dominated the racetrack in the 1940s, beating famous Quarter Horse racehorses like the sprinter Grey Badger II.

He died at the age of 20 after eating poisonous mesquite beans but did manage to sire a few winners before he died, including Bad Bat, who went on to become one of the most influential APHA mares.

Zippo’s Sensation was a 1993 sorrel Overo stallion who became the first Paint Horse to enter the National Snaffle Bit Association’s (NSBA) Hall of Fame. He had a huge impact on the world of American Paint Horses, and his legacy continues today.

Although Zippo passed away in 2016, his legacy lives on, and he still tops the APHA’s Leading Sires of Performance Winners list.

black and white paint horse

Source: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the 2 types of paint horses?

The main two coat patterns of paint horses are Overo and Tobiano. However, there is a third coat pattern called Tovero. Technically, Frame Overo and Splashed White fall under the Overo pattern, whereas the Tovero is truly unique and stands alone.

Q: Why is a paint horse called a paint horse?

Despite my lengthy research, I could find no historical explanation for why a paint horse is called a paint horse, but it seems plausible that term emerged because these colorful horses look like they fought with a bucket of white paint while in the womb!

Q: What are paint horses used for?

American Paint Horses are extremely versatile and excel in almost every riding discipline. Although rarely used to pull carriages, they perform well under saddle and have the conformation and disposition necessary to compete in trail riding events, showjumping, cross country, and even racing. They are also popular for pleasure riding and as children’s mounts.

Parting Thoughts

American Paint Horses are eye-catching, but their beauty is more than skin-deep. In addition to their bold colors and striking patterns, American Paint Horses are well-balanced, agile, athletic, friendly, and easy to train. These traits make them versatile riding horses that excel in many disciplines, from showing to racing.

tobiano paint horse

Tobiano color pattern. Source: Canva



Pinto vs. Paint Horses: Differences Demystified

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About the author


Holly N.

Holly started riding as a six years old in the UK and competed regularly in local events, including showjumping, cross country, showing, working hunter, and gymkhana. She now lives and rides in South Africa, working as a trail guide with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures. Her interests are primarily in the areas of DIY horse ownership, trail riding, barefoot horses, endurance, competitive trail riding, and South African breeds.