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How to Tell the Difference Between Paint & Pinto Horses

Many people who are new to horses are confused by the difference between Paint and Pinto horses- and, if we’re honest- so are many veteran riders and horse owners.

So how can we understand the difference between these two seemingly identical terms? Simply put, when someone talks about a Paint horse, they are talking about a breed. But when someone talks about a pinto horse, they are talking about a color. Pinto horses are marked by- typically large- spots, splotches, socks, and facial markings that make the horses look half one color and half another color.


✔️ Refers to a specific breed

❌ refers to color


❌ Refers to a specific breed

✔️ refers to color

Paint Horses

Additionally, paint horses have a specific stock-horse type body type and are closely related to the American Quarter Horse. To register a horse with the American Paint Horse Association, both the sire and the dam (mother and father of the horse) must each be registered paint horses.

Because breeding is more important than color to this breed registry, horses don’t have to be pinto colored to be registered! The APHA has a special “breeding stock” division for Paint Horses- by breeding- who lack the spots, splotches, and socks that mark a pinto horse.

In this article we discuss the difference between a Paint horse and a pinto horse, how they got their names, and what the heck a piebald horse is.

Pinto Horses

Pinto horses, however, may be of any breed or type. The word “Pinto” simply refers to the color. A Saddlebred, for example, may be a Pinto, but could never be a Paint. Pinto horses come in all shapes and sizes and they can have brown spots, black spots, or other colors (such as tan/palomino, grey, or roan spots). A color-based registry has opened for Pinto horses. Instead of genetics as the qualifier for horses entering the registry, color is. Any non-draft, non-appaloosa colored horse may join the Pinto Horse Association of America. Pinto horses are not accepted in multiple registries (and thus, owners have their own color based registry when different breeds of horses – all with the same color pattern- can compete in competitions and horse shows).

So as you can see, the difference is that while most Paints are pintos, only some pintos are paints! At first, it seems the difference between paint and pinto is confusing, but as you can see with this explanation, the difference is really not too difficult to understand.

Pinto horses are multi-colored, usually brown and white – or black and white. Be careful around veteran riders about confusing pinto horses with Paint horses. Paint horses are a breed of horse with pinto coloring. Pinto is a term describing markings-only that can be used to describe pinto colored horses of any breed.

A paint horse standing in a snowy field

Sometimes horse owners who choose a horse based on the color of its coat get a bad rap horse world – like people who build a wardrobe of clothes with a designer label but little style.

However, if horses are your hobby, you choose involvement because it’s fun! You get to do whatever you like as long as no horses are harmed!

If having a horse with a flashy color is fun for you there’s no reason to feel bad about that! Just make sure that your focus on purchasing a flashy pinto or paint horse is kept in check. Balance it with reminders about careful horse shopping, reading between the lines of horse for sale ads, and asking the right questions before you buy.

What is a Piebald Horse?

Piebald is another word for horse with large patches of white fur mixed with black fur. While small spots are referred to as Appaloosa markings, when the spots are large the horse is a pinto. The term piebald is more often used in Europe and the United Kingdom than in the United States.

I remember reading one of the most popular horse books, National Velvet, as a horse loving kid. It was there I learned about the piebald markings on the mount ridden by the book’s heroine. The horse was referred to often as simply “the piebald” which sent me to the dictionary, even then, to learn more about this unique horse color term.

Why are horses called paint or pinto?

While Europe favored solid color horses in the past, Spanish riders were more open to unique coloring. This is largely why the term pinto (which means “painted” in Spanish) became a common English language term to describe a horse with large spots. It also explains how “paint” became another word to describe these horses- as the Spanish word became translated into English and popularized. The first pinto horses came to America with the Spanish conquistadors and escaped to form Mustang herds – which often included horses with paint or pinto coloring.

How Many Colors of Spots on a Paint Horse?

With the exception of rare genetic mutations, paint and pinto horses have no more than two colors: A primary base coat color plus the bold white markings emblematic of a pinto coloring. Tricolor paint horses have not been identified.

Note that bay (a brown horse with black mane, tail, and sometimes legs) may make a pinto appear to be three colors, but when the base coat is bay there will never be clear separation between white, brown, and black spots. Similarly, horses going grey may change color unevenly, creating the appearance of a tri-color paint- however their coloring is still white + basecoat modified by the grey factor.

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Book cover starting and running your own horse business.

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Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

Great article on the differences. I appreciated it.


Monday 19th of June 2023

I tried to make this just a comment, not a reply. A bay horse by definition has black mane, tail, and lower legs. No sometimes. Have you read the books by Sponenberg and by Gower on coat color genetics? A bit old now but still useful references. According to Sponenberg, the word paint can be used as a color descriptor as well as a breed.