Horse Care Other Tips

Pinto vs. Paint Horses: Differences Demystified

pinto vs paint horse
Written by Aimee B.

Overcome Your Horse Color Confusion for Good

If you’ve spent time in the horse world, you’ve probably heard the terms “pinto” and “paint” thrown around. Confused about the differences between the two? You’re certainly not alone!

In short, a Paint horse is a stock-type breed of horse, while Pinto references a color pattern found across various horse breeds. In this post, we will break down everything you need to know to differentiate between Paint and Pinto horses.

Basics of Equine Coat Colors

Hang on for a minute—we’re about to take a trip back to Biology 101!

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that horse coat color is genetically determined by a combination of dominant and recessive genes. Dominant genes win out over recessive ones. Two recessive genes are necessary for a trait to reveal itself.

Black pigment is linked with a dominant gene, while red is connected to a recessive one.

Secondary genes determine the color and color distribution of a horse’s foals. Not to add further confusion to the mix, but there’s also a gray gene. If a foal receives the dominant version of this gene, it will turn gray in adulthood.

Other genes affect the shade and base tone.

Theoretically, any breed can exhibit any color, but over the years, certain breeds have been selectively bred for specific colors.

Appaloosa and Friesian horses are both examples of selective breeding for color.

How are white markings genetically determined?

Many different genes impact whether a foal will have white markings. Despite decades of genetic research, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty about how color will present in a foal when two horses are crossed.

Generally speaking, genes determine if the foal can have white markings in certain areas (say, a star or a blaze on its face) and in utero conditions determine the actual shape of those potential white markings.

The Paint Horse

Descendants of Spanish horses, the American Paint Horse has been part of the American landscape for centuries. Many Native American tribes highly valued their distinctive color patterns and heart, while cowboys appreciated their work ethic.

Paint horses are stock-type horses, generally exhibiting shorter bodies and strong bones. Their athleticism lends itself well to a wide range of sports, including pleasure, trail riding, and dressage.

Their even-keeled temperaments make them a favorite for a wide range of riders from beginners through advanced.

paint horse

source: canva

The American Paint Horse Association (APHA) maintains the breed’s registry. To qualify for registration, horses must meet the color criteria by displaying a certain amount of white in established parts of their body. The sire and dam must also be registered with the association.

You must also send photos of the horse to be registered so the registry can determine whether your horse meets established color criteria.

Certain genetic testing can be used to determine whether your horse carries specific color genes. If so, they can be registered with the association.

The APHA slightly amended its registration rules several years ago to include a genetic test for solid-colored horses that meet the lineage but not color criteria.

The Pinto Horse

While the APHA, just mentioned, focuses on color and genetics, the Pinto Horse Association of America (PtHA) concentrates solely on color. Like Paint horses, Pinto horses descended from Spanish breeds.

Early Pinto horses also have bloodlines from Russian and Arabian breeds. And similar to the Paint, Pinto horses were also prized by Native American tribes and cowboys for their versatility and durability in rough conditions.

pinto horse

source: canva

Today the PtHA maintains a registry of over 150,000 horses. The Pinto Horse Association has color requirements which include anywhere from 2-4 square inches of white in a qualifying zone and depending upon the size of the horse.

The PtHA bases registration solely on color—so you could have a Pinto miniature horse, or a Pinto draft cross!

Pinto vs. Paint

With that, let’s discuss the similarities and differences between these two remarkable breeds!


  • Originally descended from Spanish horses
  • Maintain separate registries for color and solid-breed horses
  • Unique coat patterns that consist of white and solid color patterns such as black, chestnut, or brown


  • The PtHA registry recognizes 4 different classifications: miniature, pony, horse, and utility. At the same time, the APHA sticks to strict breed specifications without different categories.
  • To qualify for registry, Paint horses must be descended from Paint, Quarter Horse, or Thoroughbred bloodlines. In contrast, Pinto horses can be descended from a wide range of breeds.
  • The APHA is the only Paint registry. Several other registries recognize Pinto horses, including the Pintabian Horse Registry and the National Pinto Horse Registry. Pinto horse owners, therefore, have several registration options.

Coat Color Patterns

Overo: This color pattern is referred to as a “frame,” as the white is framed by color. The white is not permitted to cross over the horse’s back. The tail and legs are usually one, solid color. Facial markings are typical!

Tobiano: Perhaps the most recognizable coat color, this pattern tends to display white in vertical shapes that cross over the withers and back. The mane and tail may be bi-or-tri-colored. The horse’s head is usually solid colored, while their legs may be white.

Tovero: A mix of Tobiano and Overo, Tovero horses are usually mostly white except for around the ears, the mouth, the chest, flanks and base of tail. This coat pattern is also referred to as “Medicine Hat.”

Sabino: This pattern generally consists of high stockings, sometimes reaching the belly, and large facial markings. The Sabino coat pattern also frequently includes roaning, or a “spray paint” look.

Splashed White: These horses limit white to the legs and belly of the horse. The muzzle is also frequently white. This coat pattern gives the impression of being splashed by paint, so it’s easier to remember! Deafness has been linked with this coat pattern.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is a Pinto horse the same as a Paint horse?

Although their coloring can be identical, the breeding may be different. Paint horses are recognized as their own breed. In contrast, Pinto horses of all breeds can potentially be registered through the PtHA.

Q: Are all paint horses pinto?

Yes, Paints are always Pintos! All Pintos, however, are NOT always Paints. Paint and Pinto horses share similar coat patterns, including overo and tobiano. The tovero is a combination of both patterns.

Q: Can a Paint horse be registered as Pinto?

Paint horses can also be registered under the Pinto registry.

Q: What is the difference between a pinto and a paint pony?

A pony has several differences from a horse, one difference being height. There are other differences between ponies and horses regarding their build and conformation. Ponies are shorter than 14.2 hands.

To qualify for registration, the horse’s sire and dam must be registered with either the American Quarter Horse Association, Jockey Club, or the APHA.

The APHA does not recognize ponies as part of its registry, so technically speaking, there is no such thing as a Paint pony. That said, a Paint can be as short as 14 hands, although it must be of appropriate genetic lineage.

A pony could be registered as a Pinto if it fits the color guidelines. The PtHA does recognize equines of all shapes and sizes, including ponies and miniature horses.

Parting Thoughts

With their stunning coat patterns and can-do attitudes, both Paint and Pinto horses are popular for various disciplines and rider abilities. Hopefully, this post has shed some light on the similarities and differences between the two. And the next time you hear

Pinto mentioned in conversation, you’ll know exactly what it means!

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About the author


Aimee B.

Aimee grew up riding and showing in western pleasure and horsemanship through 4-H. She began riding dressage 7 years ago and is currently training her 3.5-year-old Friesian/Quarter Horse.