Horses of Gold: The Palomino in History and Folklore
Prized for its striking golden coat, the palomino has a rich and ancient history spanning from imperial China to the Mexico. The horse of choice for both royalty and Hollywood, it has been immortalised in art, myth and film across cultural boundaries and continents.
A colour, not a breed as some suppose, the palomino is defined by its golden body coat and silver-white mane and tail. There is some variation within this spectrum – the gold may be rich and deep, or pale and creamy. This unusual colouration is caused by the dilution gene known as the ‘cream gene’ acting on chestnut base coat, transmuting copper into gold.
The when and why the name ‘palomino’ began to be applied to such golden-coated horses is uncertain, though a number of theories circulate. Palomino is a Spanish term meaning ‘dove-like’, which may refer to the paleness of the palomino coat. It may also have originated with Juan de Palomino, a conquistador, known for riding a golden stallion, or the yellow-coloured Spanish grape known as ‘palomino.’
The variation occurs in a large array of breeds, including the Quarter Horse, Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred and Australian Stock Horse. Perhaps unexpectedly, the palomino colouring has also been known to appear in Thoroughbred lines and though rare, is recognised by various international stud books and the Jockey Club.
Due to the prevalence of palominos in American breeds, many have presumed they initially originated there. In actuality, the golden horse has existed for thousands of years prior to the horse’s reintroduction to the New World following their extinction there in the Pleistocene period, with the Spanish occupation of the land in the 15th century.
It is theorised the initial population of palominos sprung up in the Middle East, and were subsequently spread through trade and conquest millennia ago across the continents of Europe and China. It is popularly thought the palomino may have occurred as an adaptation camouflaging wild horses against the desert sands. Indeed the Coast Guard in the United States used palominos to patrol beaches during World War II precisely because they blending seamlessly with the sandy environment, making them indistinguishable by enemy warships at sea.
Irregardless of where precisely the first palominos emerged, the remains of the great ancient empires of Rome, Greece, Persia, Mongolia, China and Japan all feature imagery and stories of golden horses. The immortal Xanthus, meaning ‘golden’ pulled the chariot of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad and was gifted speech by the gods. Statuary has survived from Imperial China of horses featuring the palomino colouration, clad in tack coloured the distinctive blue reserved for royalty, suggesting the palomino was privileged to those of high social status.
We can see evidence of palominos in early Europe from the tapestry of Bayeux which depicts the Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066, where William the Conquerer fought the English. The Crusades saw further palominos transferred to European soil. Upon being defeated by the Europeans in battle, the general Saladin gifted two stallions to Richard the Lionheart, one grey, the other golden. Many crusaders spoke of other golden horses ridden by their enemies, and likely a number of horses where returned with them to their homeland as the spoils of war, injecting further colour into European bloodlines.
However the palomino still remained rare, and indeed still does today proportionally speaking. We can thank one woman for its more widespread dissemination, over the blue roan and other rare colours for example – Queen Isabella of Spain. A fearsome warrior queen who united her power and armies with Ferdinand of Aragon, together they conquered large regions of Europe. Famously, Isabella pawned her jewels to fund Columbus’s explorations, which led to the discovery of the Americas and enormous wealth for her nation.
One of the great Queen’s weaknesses was the deep passion she evinced for palominos. She kept hundreds in her personal stables and forbid anyone but royalty or nobility to ride or possess a golden horse. It was of great importance to her that palominos be established in the New World and she sent a shipment of one of her stallions and a number of mares to her viceroy in Mexico specifically for that purpose. From there they spread to Texas and California and the rest of North America – their descendants appearing in many United States bred horses today.
Palominos are known in Spanish as Isabellas, and in English speaking countries this term is applied to palominos displaying a pale cream-gold coat. However whether or not that is due to remembrance of Queen Isabella’s favouritism for the coat colour is uncertain – or her underwear.
According to folklore Queen Isabella refused to change her undergarments until her husband returned from a battle she expected would be won within a matter of days. This battle extended on for months, and by the time Ferdinand returned, the overworn clothing was a brownish-yellow, hence the origin of the term ‘Isabella’ to describe a light beige. Historians have suggested the term coincidentally shares the name with the Spanish Queen, potentially deriving instead from the Arabic word ‘izbah’, translating to ‘lion-coloured’ often applied to ermine furs traded from Arabia to Europe in Elizabethan times.
The twentieth century has seen a number of prominent palominos rise to fame. Bamboo Harvester, known more popularly as ‘Mister Ed’, was the star of his own TV show in the 1960’s, and Trigger, Roy Rogers famous mount in his Western films had almost as much star power as his rider. Thowra, the main character of the Silver Brumby series of books by Elyne Mitchell, draws the obsessive attention of man for his cream coat and silvery mane and tail.
With enhanced understanding of equine genetics and an increased demand for unusually coloured pleasure mounts, a number of studs have begun to target the colour specifically in their current breeding programs. After thousands of years, the human fascination with horses of gold remains as steadfast as ever.
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Lynghaug, F. 2009. The Official Horse Breeds Standard Guide: the complete guide to the standards of all North American equine breed associations, Voyageur Press, Minneapolis.
Hamilton, A, 1950. ‘Galloping Gold’, Popular Mechanics, pp. 84-87.
Quinion, M. 2003, Isabelline, World Wide Words, http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-isa1.htm
Stewart, G. 1996, The Palomino Horse, Capstone Press, Minnesota.