Complex leopard spotting not always the height of fashion

Leopard coat patterns in horses have gone in and out of popularity throughout the ages, new research suggests.
Leopard coat patterns in horses have gone in and out of popularity throughout the ages, new research suggests.

Researchers have used DNA analysis to discover that there have been wide variations in the prevalence of complex leopard spotting in horses over the millennia, including since the start of domestication.

The international research project, led by scientists at the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, analysed 96 archaeological bones and teeth of horses originating from the late Pleistocene to Medieval times.

They found that although a considerable number of domestic horses from the early Bronze Age (2700BC to 2000BC) were genetically identified with leopard spotting complex, the coat colour seemed to have almost disappeared at the end of this period.

One reason might have been that homozygous animals were night-blind, in addition to the white coat colour. The ability to see is important for communication, orientation, the search for food and avoiding predators. Therefore, night-blind animals barely had a chance to survive in the wild. In human care, night-blind horses are described as nervous and timid, and can be difficult to handle at dusk and darkness.

appaloosa_5954About 1000 to 1500 years later the leopard complex again occurred increasingly, they found.

The coat colour was reintroduced into the domestic gene pool from numerous wild animals existing in those days.

After the Iron Age a renewed upswing in leopard complex spotted horses was reported.

“The behaviour of breeders and their preferences changed at that time, as it does today,” said Arne Ludwig from the Leibniz Institute, who led the study.

The changing interests in leopard complex spotted horses can also be recognised in Medieval times, where they enjoyed a high reputation, as paintings and text samples demonstrate.

They were among the favourite animals of the nobles and were considered symbols of chastity.

They were also favoured in the Baroque period before they appeared to go out of fashion again.

Today, spotted coat patterns occur in many breeds and breeders have shown an increasing interest in recent years.

”If the theory of the alternative selection applies then it can explain how genetic diversity in domestic populations could be preserved in spite of relevant selection for or against a certain characteristic,” Ludwig said.

“The problem in breeding nowadays is that we cannot go back to the appropriate wildlife species, because they are simply eradicated or the wild types vanished by selection.

“This has to be evaluated negatively for the gene pool of today’s domestic animal breeds. The missing genetic diversity highly restricts the possibilities of breeding in the future.”

Examples of leopard complex horses in human artefacts and culture.
Examples of leopard complex horses in human artefacts and culture.

Pictured, from left:

(a) the panel of the dappled horses —‘Le panneau des Chevaux ponctue´s”, Cabrerets, Lot France (Photo from P. Cabrol, Centre de Pre´histoire du Pech Merle).

(b) There are several examples of spotted horses in the art of ancient Egypt dating from 1500 to 1300 BC.

(c) The mosaics from North Africa are from the Dominus Iulius at Carthage. (d) This Persian plateau was passed from conqueror to conqueror until the arrival of the Muslims from the South in 640 AD. Persian art objects from that time to the present show spotted horses, suggesting that spotted horses were common in Persia since before the Muslim conquest. © Spanish Jennet Horse Society

(e) Chinese horse sculptures dating to 600–900 AD.

(f) The mosaic (Spain 975 AD) is from the Beato de Gerona Codex, dating to 975 and attributed to the Abad Domenicus.

(g) The famous eighteenth century painting from John Wootton titled “Lady Conaway’s Spanish Jennet” is owned by the Marquees of Hertford.

(h) A modern Knabstrup horse from the famous horse breeding farm ‘From schu¨tzenden hand’ (Werpeloh, Germany) showing leopard complex spotting. © Thomas Hackmann

Pictures show horses at Earina Appaloosa Stud.


Ludwig A, Reisman M, Benecke N, Bellone R, Sandoval Castellanos E, Cieslak M, Fortes GG, Morales-Muñiz A, Hofreiter M, Pruvost M (2014): 25,000 Years fluctuating selection on leopard complex spotting and congenital night blindness in horses. PHIL TRANS R SOC B 20130386;

4 thoughts on “Complex leopard spotting not always the height of fashion

  • December 9, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Well, I would like to say it is good research, but it is full of misinformation and assumptions. All fewspots, leopards and snowcap Foundation Appaloosas do not have night blindness. Their DNA is totally different from that of Knabstruppers and Nordikers…no …that’s right NO similarities in DNA at all. AND, as will be shown in the new movie, True Appaloosa (, there are very old genes which can be used in this day and age for the leopard complex in Appaloosas. I wish scientists would share their findings. it would make life much easier, but because of looking for funds for their research, they don’t. I find it very frustrating.

  • December 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

    The someone better tell my apps they are night blind bc they dont know.I have had all leopards w no vision issues and a solid who was completely blind and was never fearful. She was confident and fierce.

    • December 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      Are they homozygous or heterozygous? I think the article said that homozygous leopard-spotted horses were night-blind but if the night-blindness gene is recessive then heterozygous leopard-spot horses wouldn’t be night-blind.

  • June 17, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    I had my near leopard Appaloosa for 36 years and he had no vision issues whatsoever. He could still jump a course of 3 foot 6inches at age 34 and was never lame, sick or sorry in all that time.


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