What is The Difference Between a Paint and Pinto Horse

What is The Difference Between a Paint and Pinto Horse

Maybe you’ve seen a horse that appears to have a two-colored coat. The horse may have even looked like it had spots from a distance. Then you asked what type of horse that happened to be. 

“That’s a Paint,” one person might say.

“That’s a Pinto,” another person might say.

Horses with two-colored coats are commonly called Paints and Pintos. The terms are often used interchangeably. There is, however, a clear difference between these two different horses.

What is the difference between a paint and a pinto horse?

A Paint Horse Is an Actual Breed of Horse

A pinto horse, like a Paint horse, has a coat color that is usually patches of white with a secondary color. The difference is that a pinto horse can be of any horse breed, whereas a Paint horse is an actual breed of horse. 

The American Paint Horse has the pinto coloring of the coat, but must also have a verifiable pedigree. American Paint Horses must have Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse lineage to qualify under the current breed standard. That means every Paint horse is a pinto, but not every pinto can be a Paint.

To register, there must be at least one recorded parent with the American Paint Horse Association and both parents must be a Paint, a Quarter Horse, or a Thoroughbred in lineage.

That’s not to say the terminology is incorrect. A horse that is spotted is correctly identified as a pinto horse if the coat coloration is patch-like in construction. If the horse is spotted in a manner that is similar to a Dalmatian or a leopard, then the horse is closer to an Appaloosa than a pinto in most instances.

A horse should only be referred to as a Paint if it has a verifiable ancestry or the conformation of the horse is similar to what the standards of an American Quarter Horse happen to be.

Is It Possible to Have a Solid Paint or Pinto Horse?

Because pinto horses receive their name because of the specific structure of their coat, it is not possible for a pinto to be of a solid color. Two pinto horses may have an offspring that has a solid-color coat, but because pintos are “color breeds,” the offspring is technically not a pinto – even though it may be referred to as such because of its parentage.

Paint horses are a little different. The American Paint Horse Association states that a “good horse is a good horse, regardless of its color.” The breed association recognizes that not every qualifying Paint horse may have a flashy coat pattern. As long as the horse has a verified registry that would qualify it as a Paint, it is allowed to register.

There are some registration advantages to having a solid-color Paint. The registration fee in the United States is about 20% of the normal registration cost when the horse is a verified solid-color paint. Referred to as a Solid Paint-Bred, these horses qualify for the breeding programs and official designation as a Paint, despite the color of the coat.

That makes it possible for every Paint to find a home, even if the horse does not have the pinto coloration that draws so many people to this breed.

What Are the Paint and Pinto Patterns That Are Seen?

There are several different patterns that can be seen in both Paint and pinto horses. The most common pattern is called “tobiano.” This spotting pattern offers rounded markings, white legs, and white along the back between the dock and the withers. Most horses have a vertical pattern to their coat and additional white coloration than the darker coat color. The ideal patterning is close to a 50/50 distribution of both coat colors. All tobiano horses have at least one tobiano parent.


Here are the other coat pattern options that can be seen in both Paint and pinto horses.

Overo: The technical definition of this pattern is “not tobiano, but still pinto.” The patterns can be very different from each other, with irregularities throughout the coat, with jagged markings instead of rounded ones. The white coloration of the coat rarely crosses over the back of the horse with this pattern. It is possible for an overo horse to come from two solid-colored parents.

Tovero: This pattern is a mix of the overo and tobiano patterns. It occurs when the horse has multiple spotting patterns within its lineage. Any combination is possible within this pattern, including mostly white and mostly dark coats. Because of the potential mix of genetics, these pattern characteristics may show traits which seem to come from different breeds.

Dominant White: This pattern creates a coat that is mostly white, but not a true white. The darker coat color may be quite small and may be featured on one area of the body only. One of the rarest forms of this pattern is called the “medicine hat,” where the dark coat color is around the ears and the top of the head of the horse, but the rest of the body is of the white coat color only.

Within the overo pattern are several different options that may be displayed on Paint and pinto horses. There are three specific options that are commonly seen when a horse does have an overo coat.

•    Frame Pattern: This overo pattern has horizontal white patches that have crisp, but jagged edges on the coat. The head, neck, and body typically see a high distribution rate of the white patches. Many horses with a frame look to them have a modest coat pattern that can make it difficult sometimes to associate the horse as being a pinto or part of the Paint breed.
•    Splashed Pattern: This overo pattern offers horizontal white markings with smooth edges that come to a crisp conclusion. The horse often appears to have lowered its head into a bucket of white paint with this pattern. There are significant patterns on the face especially, but the rest of the body may have it as well. This pattern also has a congenital deafness trait linked to it.
•    Sabino Pattern: Although sabino horses are often confused for roans, this lightly spotted patterning shows white on the belly, legs, and face that offer spots instead of a blended coat. Paints have sabino horses directly associated with the overo pattern, but other breeds that recognize pinto horses may classify the sabino pattern as being a separate coat option.

The goal for the coat patterning is to create a condition that is called “chrome.” Chrome Paints or pintos have a visually appealing pattern to the coat. Because Appaloosas are also described by this term with their attractive patterns, there can be some confusion in the description of certain horses when it is used.

I’ve Been Told I Have a Solid Pinto Horse…

Some pinto horses may appear to have a solid coat color, with white markings along the forehead and below the knees like many other breeds. In this circumstance, it is not unusual for that coloration of horse to be referred to as a solid-color pinto, but the term is somewhat confusing.

First of all, the horse is clearly not of a solid color. There are white markings on the horse. What makes it difficult to classify the horse as a pinto is the fact that the markings on the horse mimic other markings which meet breed standards. In this circumstance, some breeds may require DNA testing to determine the presence of pinto markings to allow the horse to be fully registered.

Another option for pinto horses is to have a “shield” coat. This type of coat consists of one dark or one white patch, located on the chest, while the remainder of the coat is of the opposite color. It is possible, though rare, for the medicine hat look to combine with the shield look on some Paint and pinto horses.

Why Are Paint and Pinto Descriptions Used Interchangeably?

In the 19th century, American writers referred to any spotted horse as a “painted” horse. The description was often used for the semi-feral Mustangs roaming the U.S. West, but grew in literature to refer to any type of horse with a unique coat. Even Appaloosas were described as “paints” in early literature.

There is also the usage of these horses by the tribal cultures in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many used their horses for battle and would give them their own war paint as part of the preparation process. The horses were called “paints” at that point because they had been outfitted for war.

What is the difference between a Paint and a pinto horse? The answer has to do with the breeding of the horse. When there is a verifiable pedigree as a Thoroughbred or a Quarter Horse, then it can be a Paint. Otherwise, the horse should be referred to as a pinto and may qualify to register as a color breed instead. 

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