Photos and text by Bob Grier
Colorful paint horses and their riders gather each September at Fort Robinson State Park for the American Paint Horse Association's trail rides at the historic frontier fort, cavalry remount station and Olympic equestrian training center.
Take one of North America’s most famous frontier outposts, cavalry remount station and Olympic equestrian training center, add the American Paint Horse Association’s (APHA) thousands of riders nationwide and sprinkle liberally with the region’s
The formal organization of paint horse enthusiasts that make up APHA began relatively recently, but paint horses are no stranger to North America’s grasslands. Spotted horses were among the first horses to arrive in the New World with Spanish explorers at the beginning of the 16th century. Spanish historian Diaz del Castillo, traveling with the Cortes expedition in 1519, described several of the expedition’s mounts, including a “pinto” with “white stockings on his forefeet” and a “dark roan horse” with “white patches.” Diaz del Castillo’s writings are the earliest known records of the arrival of paint horses on the continent. The Spanish explorers’ spotted mounts are believed to have been descendants of North African and Asian breeds.
Boldly marked, showy paint horses quickly became prized for their beauty, stamina and performance. The arrival of horses in the New World also opened an epic chapter in the history of Native American tribes and the spotted horse was revered by European and native horsemen alike.
After their arrival in the southwest from the upper Platte River in eastern Wyoming and a brief period in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, the Comanche were among the first Native American tribes to acquire horses from Spanish explorers, settlers and their allies. The Comanche became feared raiders of the southwest, stealing horses, women, children and goods, and often selling their plunder back to the original owners, who would rather barter and buy what they couldn’t take back from the fierce Comanche by force.
During this period, the oral and recorded histories of many plains tribes, including the Northern Cheyenne, describe early horse-gathering forays to the south to bring horses north. In the beginning, the Cheyenne walked from their homelands on the northern High Plains as far south as Texas and northern Mexico to acquire horses.
The romantic vision of mounted riders hunting immense herds of bison on the grasslands and moving far and fast to conduct intertribal warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries became legendary. Judging by figures of spotted horses in numerous winter counts on bison hides, and more recently as ledger book art, the boldly patterned paint horse was a highly regarded part of Native American horse herds. The plains horseman – the nomadic hunter and warrior – remains today only as history and legend, but the popularity of the horse that has become the American paint horse continues to grow.
According to APHA’s history, during the 1800s and 1900s spotted horses were called pintos, paints, skewbalds and piebalds. Efforts to recognize and preserve patterned paint horses began with the organization of the Pinto
The paint horse registry maintains the color patterns and stock-type conformation of working horses, but also horses known for their beauty, natural intelligence, gentle disposition and versatility. Today, paint horses are used for pleasure riding, showing, ranching, racing, rodeoing, trail riding and as companion horses for young riders.
American paint horses are formally divided into established color patterns: Tobiano (pronounced: tow be yah’ no), overo (pronounced: oh vair’ oh) and tovero, (pronounced: tow vair’ oh), a classification used to describe horses with markings similar to both the overo and tobiano patterns. Paint horse color patterns can have white and any one of traditional equine colors – bay, brown, chestnut, dun, grulla, sorrel, palomino, gray, black or roan.
According to APHA, horses of the tobiano pattern display “The dark color usually covers one or both flanks. Generally, all four legs are white, at least below the hocks and knees. Generally, the spots are regular and distinct as ovals or round patterns that extend down over the neck and chest, giving the appearance of a shield. Head markings are like those of a solid-colored horse – solid, or with a blaze, strip, star or snip. A tobiano may be either predominately dark or white. The tail is often of two colors.
On an overo patterned horse: “The white usually will not cross the back of the horse between its withers and its tail. Generally, at least one and often all four legs are dark. Generally, the white is irregular, and is rather scattered or splashy. Head markings are distinctive, often bald-faced, apron-faced or bonnet-faced. An overo may be either predominantly dark or white. The tail is usually one color.” Coat patterns that don’t fit neatly into either of these two classifications are listed as tovero.
The annual APHA trail rides at Fort Robinson occur each September, a time that Mike Morava, Fort Robinson’s superintendent, says ideally fits into the park’s annual schedule of activities. Nebraska’s official state park season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day and Morava and his wranglers look forward to APHA’s arrival as the park’s summer activities begin to wind down.
“We’ve enjoyed meeting riders from all over the country, and they’ve always been impressed with the complete package of facilities and services that the park offers. The fort’s stables, corrals and lodging facilities are among the best for organized equestrian events, and the Pine Ridge near the park offers scenic beauty and trails suitable for new riders and their horses, as well as trails that even the most experienced riders will find challenging. The park staff provides meals, our facilities include the larger meeting rooms, lodging, and campgrounds the riders require, and our wranglers help plan and participate in the trail rides and other activities.
“APHA’s activities and programs are also a real benefit to the park as well – they usually end their stay at Fort Robinson with a fund-raising banquet on Friday, and we’ve been able to refurbish and build onto our equestrian facilities through the riders’ and APHA’s generosity.”
Alice Singleton, of Arkansas, has ridden every APHA trail ride at Fort Robinson since the first event in 1995.
“The APHA Fort Robinson trail ride is by far our favorite and our members commonly refer to the visit to the Pine Ridge as the “Cadillac” of all trail rides,” she said. “We’ve ridden from coast to coast, but Fort Robinson is certainly our favorite. The wranglers could all be professional clinicians – they keep everything moving safely and Mike and his wranglers have the talent to spot potential problems and solve them before something happens. They really make this ride safe for all caliber riders. The opportunity to ride in Ash Creek and the beautiful buttes around the park is wonderful – every day is an absolute delight. We’ve made every one of the Fort Robinson rides and the friendships we’ve developed during this ride over the years will last a lifetime. It just gets better and better each year.”
During the weeklong series of trail rides, Morava and the wranglers begin with shorter, less difficult rides to acclimate riders and horses to the Pine Ridge, and by the week’s end the APHA riders take on evermore challenging terrain and trails. The Friday trail ride is considered the highlight of the week.
“We begin early on Friday,” Morava explains, “leaving the mare barn facilities usually right at sunrise and riding into the Red Cloud Buttes between the park and Crawford where the group has a chuck-wagon breakfast at the very top edge of the buttes overlooking the park and the White River Valley. After a hearty breakfast, the trail winds through the buttes, actually overlooking Giant’s Coffin, Saddle Rock and the other formations. We occasionally see bighorn sheep, deer and other wildlife and stops along the trail provide some of the best overlooks above Crawford and the fort.”
As the riders descend to the base of the buttes, Morava and his wranglers put the APHA riders to work, herding some of the park’s longhorn cows and their calves into the rodeo arena at the west edge of Crawford.
“The riders get to experience the color and excitement of the historic longhorn trail drives that brought the first cattle into and through northwest Nebraska in the mid- to late-1800s as drovers led wild longhorns out of Texas following the Civil War,” Morava said. “Driving the longhorns and their calves to the arena gives us the opportunity to sort and select longhorns for the park’s breeding program, and there are usually a few exciting moments as the riders and horses that don’t have an opportunity to work longhorns try to keep the herd lined out and heading in the right direction.”
Once the longhorns are secure in the rodeo arena, the APHA riders trail into nearby Crawford. The sight of the boldly patterned horses and riders on the Crawford’s streets and sidewalks is a tame re-enactment of the annual arrival of trail-weary, gun-toting cowboys of the old west.
“The longhorn drive gets really exciting for a lot of horses and riders,” Singleton said. “Actually helping out with the longhorns is certainly one of the memorable highlights of the week at Fort Robinson. It isn’t difficult at all to feel that Crawford hasn’t changed much from the early days and we enjoy the opportunity to cool off in the shade provided on main street. The Fort Robinson trail ride is great and we really look forward to coming back each fall. Hope to see you at the fort during the ride.”