New film explores theory around ancient origins of the appaloosa horse

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A new documentary drama about a woman’s search for the possible origins of the appaloosa horse breed is hitting the big screen later this year.

The film True Appaloosa is the result of a chance viewing of a Conor Woodman documentary about travelling in Kyrgyzstan by New Zealand foundation appaloosa breeder Scott Engstrom.

New Zealand foundation appaloosa breeder Scott Engstrom travelled to Kyrgyzstan seeking spotted horses.
New Zealand foundation appaloosa breeder Scott Engstrom travelled to Kyrgyzstan seeking spotted horses.

US born Engstrom, who has lived at the top of New Zealand’s South Island since the mid 1990s, saw a horse in the documentary (Around the World in 80 Trades) that Woodman had traded during his journey. She thought the horse looked a lot like the appaloosas on her farm.

The spotted appaloosa has been recognised as a breed since about the mid 1940s, after a group of breeders got together to form the first stud book, based on horses who were originally selectively bred by the Nez Perce tribe.

But in recent years, cross-breeding has eroded many of the bloodlines and the original type of the breed. There are only a handful of breeders world-wide who work to maintain the old bloodlines dating back to the early 1900s, avoiding crossing the horses with other breeds such as the quarter horse, which is common in the US. It is not know how many true foundation appaloosa horses remain today, but there are estimated to be fewer than 200.

Engstrom has been breeding foundation appaloosa horses since the mid 90s, and has built up a sizeable herd.

Three of Scott Engstrom's foundation appaloosa horses.
Three of Scott Engstrom’s foundation appaloosa horses.

After seeing the 80 Trades show, Engstrom contacted Woodman, the show’s presenter, and from their discussions about the origin of the breed, the film was born. Engstrom, at the age of 69, packed her bags to join Woodman and a film crew in Kyrgyzstan to find the horses and see if there were any more.

Woodman said: “Scott and I exchanged quite a few emails about the Appaloosas and I also started to talk with my friend Munarbek Kuldanbaev, who had initially helped me buy horses when I made the 80 Trades show. Eventually we all started to get excited that we might be onto something.

“The problem was that we needed to find that horse that I’d sold years before to an unknown farmer. Then in 2012, Munarbek contacted me to tell me that he’d tracked down where the farmer was from. I thought – ‘OK, now’s the time to put up or shut up’. So I emailed Scott and asked her if she was serious. Because if she was, then it was time to go to Kyrgyzstan. I think she booked her ticket that day!”

For Engstrom, it was the adventure of a lifetime. “I would do it again in a heartbeat!” she says.

“The first time I saw that first herd coming over the hill, I cried like a baby… such tears of joy!  I will never forget it ever. It was almost surreal and what a blessing to know that this special breed still exists in the wild and it tells you they are survivalists.

“The Kyrgyzstan men are wonderful horsemen, having been raised since early childhood on horses. It was such a pleasure to watch them handle the horses and not a mean thing was done with even the most wild.

“One of my biggest thrills was being called into the makeshift enclosure by the head stallion to say hello. Yes, he was wild as.  He had placed all of his mares and foals (about 20) behind him and then looked at me and started to chomp like a foal would do,” she said.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I went through the gate in with him and he proceeded to sniff and then let me touch him all over. It was almost like an out-of-body experience and oh so special.  He picked me to be his friend.  He must have sensed somehow that I was not the enemy. I would bring him home in a heartbeat if we can arrange it.  He is solid as, but all Appaloosa and producing some gorgeous foals.”

Engstrom has used only foundation lines on her appaloosa stud farm.
Engstrom has used only foundation lines on her appaloosa stud farm.

Woodman says as the action was being filmed, he didn’t know how it was going to end.

“I wanted to stay true to the spirit of adventure and the journey into the unknown.

“I knew all along that Scott might be wrong and if she was then we were going on a wild goose chase. But something about that blind faith attracted me to her story. How many people just up sticks, fly to the other side of the world, meet up with some guy they’ve never met before and agree to ride off into some of the most inhospitable mountains in the world just to see if their ‘crazy’ theory is right or not? On every level it’s madness. But I must confess I like a bit of madness.”

He says the film had changed his life.

“It’s my first time directing, which presented a whole new challenge on top of being the guy in front of the lens. But more than that, it’s reaffirmed my faith in following your heart and never taking no for an answer when you’re convinced you’re right. Scott is a massive inspiration to anyone to do exactly that. Her drive and her unbridled courage in making this journey should be an example to us all. And don’t forget she was 69 years old when she did it.”

True Appaloosa will be showing at various film festivals around the world later this year and in 2015.

The movie True Appaloosa – Quest for the Secret Horse  can be bought or rented online.

Scott Engstrom and director Conor Woodman on the trail of spotted horses in Kyrgyzstan.
Scott Engstrom and director Conor Woodman on the trail of spotted horses in Kyrgyzstan.

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15 thoughts on “New film explores theory around ancient origins of the appaloosa horse

  • January 26, 2015 at 9:00 am
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    I just watched the programme on finding the true Appaloosa which I found delightful. It brought tear to my eye.
    Seven years ago I got my first introduction to this breed, when I acquired a young crossbred filly. Her pedigree is quite a combination, sire and appaloosa Thoroughbred cross and dam an Irish Sport. She is a big girl, standing at 16.2hh but the appaloosa characteristics are all very strong, the coat, eye, spotted skin, thin forelock, striped feet, fantastic well squared conformation. Quite a strong ‘personality’ insisting on being included in all decisions. One aspect that I felt you programme may have helped me to understand is that I found she is very intolerant of sugar rich foods and grazing, exhibiting excessive glycogen/ polysaccharide storage. Diet management has been a real challenge in dairy pasture Cheshire. Seeing the origins of this horse in the sparse mountain regions of Kyrgyzstan and hearing the nomadic breeder speak of the legend of their history and hardiness has helped put the final piece in to the jigsaw of an understanding of my girl. I do not know whether other Appaloosa owners have experience of this issue. Literature indicates it is a fairly prevalent condition in this ( and a number of other, mainly American lines ).

    Loved the programme, what a fantastic experience.
    Kristine Lewin

    Reply
    • June 19, 2015 at 1:33 am
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      Hi Kristine;

      I just found this site by chance & what a pleasure!! I can not wait to see this movie!!! Hope I can find it to buy…. I was very interested in what You said about Your Mare’s diet! I have a 14 yr. old 90% foundation bred mare and She has developed the “thick Neck” , (often) a sign of excessive glycogen. Can You tell me do You use a supplement with Her hay for this? I am interested in Your program??
      Thank You , in advance 😉
      Constance Strait

      Reply
      • October 22, 2020 at 10:32 am
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        Hi Constance, The very best feed I have found is Lucerne (alfalfa). They do very well on it year’round. Not cheap in New Zealand, but worth every penny.
        Scott

        Reply
  • October 18, 2015 at 6:38 am
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    We saw your documentary last spring at our Sun Valley, Idaho film festival and cried along with you! What a thrill after all you false starts to come across this herd of true Appaloosa horses in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan. My husband and I and a few fellow hiking friends are coming to New Zealand in April 2016. After our Milford Trek, we would truly love to come visit your ranch and meet you in person. I will email you and hope this will be possible.
    Sandra & John Flattery

    Reply
    • October 22, 2020 at 10:39 am
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      Dear Sandra and John, I’m still thrilled that you brought me See’s Peanut brittle. I lost my internet two years ago and am finally playing catch up. How the world has changed since your visit. I have to say I am a big Trump supporter having worked on Capitol Hill for three different Congressmen…two Dems and one Rep. That was 50 years ago and the Hill was very corrupt then. Anyone outside of the beltway would have my vote. I’m also convinced that anyone on the Hill longer than two years has already been corrupted. I just go out and hug my beautiful Appaloosas. I am sooo lucky to have them in my life!!!
      Scott

      Reply
  • March 4, 2019 at 4:30 pm
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    What a wonderful movie, a real documentary movie,so very interesting . I have loved Horses all my life and I too cried tears of joy at finding the true wild Appaloosa horses in that valley. You were right all along, you knew in your gut you were right.
    Wonderful, keep up all your good work
    You are an inspiration
    Thank you
    Lydia evanko

    Reply
    • August 4, 2020 at 8:32 am
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      What do DNA studies say about the origins of the appaloosa?
      Thank you,
      Mark Whitcomb

      Reply
      • October 11, 2020 at 2:33 am
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        Hi Mark,

        First recording of Appaloosa history seems to be in the caves of Peche Merle in France some 25,000yrs ago. Michael Hofreiter and his team of international researchers analysed DNA from teeth and bone samples from horses found near the famous caves, that show cave paintings including spotted horses. The team has demonstrated that the leopard spotting complex (LP) phenotype was also already present in ancient horses and was accurately depicted by their human contempories 25,000 yrs ago.

        Reply
      • October 22, 2020 at 10:09 am
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        Hi Mark,
        I hope you watched the end of the movie where Gus Cothran explained they group with my horses..old foundation lines from the Pacific Northwest. I traveled many miles to find each of the mares and stallion I brought to New Zealand. New Zealand has all crossbreds unfortunately. They don’t have any idea what a true Appaloosa really is. I have believers here after bringing them 26 years ago now. They only look at the spots which in their eyes means they are an Appaloosa. The solids are just as special and still produce beautiful color. I’m still trying to get the word out!!!
        Have a good day! Scott

        Reply
        • October 23, 2020 at 9:20 am
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          Scott:
          As I recall, the DNA results stated that the asian horses and the American
          horses had shared ancestors.
          This is not inconsistent with the American Appaloosa coming from the Spanish stock after 1492.
          Ddid I miss anything here?
          Thank you,
          Mark Whitcomb

          Reply
  • May 1, 2020 at 10:54 pm
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    My grandfather grew up in Wolf Point Montana. He told many stories about his favorite Appaloosa horse as a boy. The Appaloosa has always been my favorite because of their unique spots and my grandfather’s wonderful stories. They are a beautiful breed. Keep up the great work preserving this “True Appaloosa” bloodline. There is something amazing and magical about this breed. It is a true spirit horse. Our family is Anishinaabe and Tribal members of the Ojibwe Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe in Northern Wisconsin. I enjoyed the documentary very much.
    Regards,
    GinnyK.

    Reply
    • October 22, 2020 at 10:16 am
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      Hi Ginny! You made my heart smile! I have a lovely mare named Wyakin (Spirit in Nez Perce). She had a drop dead colt which I have named Spirit and, boy, does it fit. He knows how gorgeous and very smart he is. I have today 26 very special spirits here and they give me such joy. Makes life worth living for sure. I wish everyone had the pleasure of owning a foundatiion Appaloosa! It would be a better world for sure.
      Scott
      Earina Appaloosas

      Reply
  • June 17, 2020 at 4:19 pm
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    I’ve known since I was a kid that the appaloosa didn’t descend from Spanish stock. I made that realization looking at a ceramic bowl that depicted a Chinese cavalry man mounted on a spotted horse. I totally believe the breed was brought to the west coast of the Americas by the Chinese in ancient times, probably on the big treasure fleets. along with a lot of other things. I’ve read accounts of the Spanish finding pockets of horses along the west coast a long time before the horses got loose from them in the east and tribes like the Commanche began riding them.

    Reply
    • October 22, 2020 at 10:27 am
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      Hi Shawn, I’ve got to say something which is very important. The Nez Perce have not kept written records, but they have been in the Pacific Northwest for at least 10,000 years. Their people came to the U.S. via the Bering Strait and brought their horses with them. When I was sitting in the yurt with the Kyrg people, I would have sworn I was sitting with the Nez Perce in their teepee. I tried to get Ancestry.com to research their bloodlines but they were not prepared to do that. It has been done now and they are all related….truly. The Han Dynasty sent troops to the Kyrg area to buy many of their horses and they would not sell them, so they stole them. The Emperor had over 600,000 of this breed when he died. He knew all too well of their value and “spirit.” I’ve lived in the wrong century. Just thought you should know. Hope I didn’t offend you.
      Scott

      Reply
      • October 23, 2020 at 9:23 am
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        Is it not possible that the Spanish got their horses from the asian stick before they brought them to North America?

        Reply

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