Is the Appaloosa good at jumping?

Question: I’m thinking of buying an Appaloosa for jumping and cross country. Is this breed good at jumping?

Answer from April Reeves: The Appaloosa can be a fairly good jumping horse. Let’s go over some of it’s attributes.

First, the original foundation Appy’s had really good bone. Their legs were almost indestructible, and because of their spotted coloring, they tend to have great feet. Their bone joints seem to take a bit more abuse than many of the other breeds, especially their back hocks.

They are strong and clever, with willing minds and generally lots of ‘get up and go’ when you need it. Their bodies have good muscling, the kind you need to power over wider fences. They have a jumping style that’s unique to them also: their strong hindquarters have an extra push and they tend to look ‘spring loaded’. This may be why many of them are in the jumper arena and not the hunter arena.

A few things have happened along the way in the last 20 years that have given the original Appaloosa a bit of a set back for jumping, in my opinion. Crossing them with Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses did change some of their original structure, especially in the legs and feet. Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses are not known for being superior in this area, and some of the foot problems have been passed ‘on, such as smaller, narrow feet, cracking, splitting and general poorer structure. Also, the disappearance of their coloring has changed the Appy’s foot, as the ‘striping’ that was prevalent in the older stock was what gave them the strength and elasticity (the blending of both white and black horn).

While many would state that there are specific breeds that are best for jumping, with ALL breeds, the ability to jump depends on several factors. 1. Build. Is the horse built appropriately? Does he have the muscling in the shoulder and hindquarters? Is his back too long? Is his neck long and placed well? 2. Bone density and feet. Does the horse have enough foot to resist the impact damage? Are his bones capable of the same, with good structure, density and angles? 3. Attitude. Is he a willing partner or challenging?

I have had the honor to show and jump some very fine Appaloosas. One in particular, Miss Friskee, was one of the horses I did my highest jump on (5’9″). Although she had every ounce of ability, it was staying on that powerful leap she gave that was the challenge. It’s almost like a deer. But once you get the hang of this unique ability, all other horses seem to be easier. Not all Appaloosas today jump with this characteristic, but I have a student who has a ‘leaper’. Her little tail of about 20 hairs goes straight up in the air on every jump, no matter how small.

When you look for your Appy jumper, there are several things to check for before you look further. And do this BEFORE you fall in love with them.

First, is feet. If the horse has small, narrow or crooked feet in any way, I say thanks to the owner and walk away. There is no substitute for feet.

Next, there are structural sections on the horse that take a lot of punishment during jumping. Besides the legs, the shoulder is one of the areas that older jumpers tend to have chronic pain. Shoulders are not attached by bone: they stand alone, attached by powerful muscle and ligaments. They have no collar bone like humans do. This enables the horse to use that shoulder as a shock absorber, galloping at high speeds smoothly and effortlessly. In a jumper, look for strong muscles, and good sloping angles to the shoulder. If the horse has depth and width, carry on. If he is narrow and ‘weedy’, or very upright, walk away, especially the Appy’s with narrow shoulders and wide hips. All that weight will be bearing down on the shoulder of the horse on landing.

Next comes legs. I start from the side, and if any front leg is over or under at the knee, it’s a no. This is one area where Appaloosas shine. I have rarely seen one who is over or under at the knee. Next, are the front legs straight when viewed from the front? If the base is wide, but they come down and meet at the hoof, walk away.

Are the back legs reasonably straight? I have found that a slight cow hocked horse can jump and withstand abuse well. Also, it’s not easy finding a perfectly straight back leg. The side angles need to be correct. When the horse stands square, are the back legs nicely under or camped out? When a horse is standing square, from the side, if you drew a vertical line from the back point of his hip, down, does that line run along the back side of his back leg, or does his back leg stand out or in from that line? If it does not line up along the back of his leg straight all the way down, walk away. I have found the Appaloosa to be one of the better breeds for good leg structure.

Do his hocks have ample bone? Jumpers break down in the back hock area as this joint is one of the last joints to push and move.

Crooked legs - toed out - long, weak pasterns

Crooked legs - toed out - long, weak pasterns

Pasterns: too long is weak, too short is uncomfortable. The pastern angle must match the shoulder angle. When the horse walks, how much ‘give’ does the pastern have? Too much give, where the fetlock joint ‘falls’ down when he walks or trots, means he will give out sooner. Not enough ‘give’ and he is set up to take too much vertical impact, which over time, will break down.

When looking for a jumping horse, if the physical structure does not match these qualifications, you run the risk of putting valuable time and energy into a horse who may break down just at the point where he is getting good at his job. There is no point in taking a horse who is not meant for jumping and trying to make a jumper out of it.

Should your Appaloosa meet these requirements, explore the rest. What type of temperament does he have? While most negative equine temperaments are human error, how much can you handle or improve? I check to see how spooky the horse is, and what is his reaction to scary things? How much ground work am I willing to do? If the horse is built perfect, I’m willing to do lots of groundwork. I have found Appaloosas tend to need desensitizing, but once you establish this, they become solid, reliable partners that don’t require continual re-establishing like the hotter breeds do. Once they get it, they get it.

Good Front Leg Form Over Fence

Good Front Leg Form Over Fence

And finally, can the horse jump? If you are looking at an Appy who has no jump experience yet, ask them to put the horse on a lunge line and see if it will go over a few small jumps, 6 inches to 1 foot if possible. Watch for the style the horse uses. Does the horse pull it’s front legs up, or does it shove them under it’s shoulder? You want a horse with a good tuck up front. Those horses who drop their legs under their front chest have to not only jump higher to get over, but need longer time to bring the legs forward to land, and can get into serious problems if they get into trouble. If the horse has this style, walk away. If it tucks well up front, watch his body style. It’s called ‘bascule’. The horse tends to ’round’ his body up and into an arc, stretching his neck forward and down.

Front Legs Too Far Back Over Fence

Front Legs Too Far Back Over Fence

Watch that the horse does not plow through the jump. Horses that tend to be lazy or plow through, can be difficult to retrain. Once they know how easy it is to knock something over, it’s difficult to get that out of their heads. Appys have dense bone structure, and can get into this style if allowed. They are very smart, and often see no reason to use effort when it’s easier to simply move the jumps aside.

If you notice he jumps with his head high and his back hollow, it is likely you may never train this out of the horse. There are horses on the circuit today who jump with this style, just from the sheer power these horses have to launch themselves. If your Appy jumps ‘flat’ but has exceptional power, and you are looking for a jumper, not a hunter, and are hoping to do the 3’6″ to 3’9″ courses, take another look.

Good Form

Good Form

Appaloosas tend to be brilliant at powering over almost anything. If everything else looks good (feet, legs, muscle, structure, temperament), and at the end the horse jumps flat but powerful, keep the number and keep looking. But look quickly. This may be the right horse.

One jump that tests for bascule is an ascending spread. Horses have to stretch and round to jump this well, and it tends to ‘teach’ the horse a bit more style. If you set up a very small jump, with a one foot spread, one foot high at the back and 6 inches at the front, this may test the horse’s ability better. Once the horse is comfortable with this, spread the little jump out 6 inches.

Appaloosas are very versatile and make great companions. They are very pretty as well, especially the spotted ones. If you get a good Appaloosa, and work it carefully, you will have a great horse at the end of the day.

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4 responses to “Is the Appaloosa good at jumping?

  1. I wish I could find this to show you. In the ’80’s sometime before ’86 I watched a show jumper named “crocodile”, a beautiful appaloosa, jump 7′ fences indoors on cable TV. I will never forget that competition. It came down to Crocodile and a thourobred mix much larger than Crocodile and Crocodile lost out to only that one horse in the jump off. It was incredibile to see him jump fences that he or the rider could not see over. Yes appaloosa’s CAN jump!

    • They sure can! At least the older original breeding had some level of ability. Once their feet and legs were changed with the infusion of quarter horse and thoroughbred blood, it did set them back a bit. It was the heavier legs and great feet that helped them in the past, plus their minds! I use to show jump a 15HH Appy mare, and our top height was 4’7″! In those days we also had a palomino quarter horse (Goldfinger) that made 6’2″ at the BC International Horse Show in the early 70’s.

  2. i have got a tbxconnemmaraxarab who has showjumped all her life and i am looking to get a good potential showjumping foal out of her and i have got the chance to put her with a full appaloosa, would this be a good conbination to a get showjumper?

    • Hi Yvonne,
      It could end up being a very poor cross. Without knowing the breeding or size and conformation of the mare and stallion, I can’t make an accurate guess. Also, the history of the stallion would help: what was his career? What traits did he pass on to his foals? Age? Lineage?

      We often acknowledge the good points of our horses over the “other points”, and assume the foal will inherit only those. Unfortunately, the opposite can happen, and I have seen crosses where every flaw was inherited!

      And without any idea of how the mare will produce, it’s a guessing game that could end up in a horse you have trouble selling. Cheap horses cost the same to feed as expensive ones.

      If it’s a show jumper you want, breed to a show jumper. If your mare has any flaws (and they all do), pay very close attention to what the stallion produces. Make your judgments on your mare truthful (don’t inflate her qualities).

      With the price of feeding foals to the age of 5 (when you would start over fences) you may as well buy something. A weanling out of decent stock in the US right now is quite affordable.

      And despite conformation and breeding, good jumpers are only good with proper training.

      If you can supply photos and links to the stallion I’ll take a look at them.

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