Real Horse Colors and Equine Color Genetics

By Kerstin Wellman - All photos ©Christiane Slawik

History and fiction are full of famous horses distinguished not only by their talent but also by their color---Man O' War was known as Big Red; Native Dancer was called the Grey Ghost; the Black Stallion is beloved by generations of horse lovers; and who doesn't know Trigger the golden palomino? As the saying goes, a good horse is never a bad color, and the equine palate is rich with an abundance of hues.

That said, many people are surprised to learn that all horse colors are actually built on one of only two base colors, black or chestnut. Various genes act on these colors and dilute them, resulting in a broad spectrum of colors. Some genes have an affect on both colors, and a few affect only one color or the other.

THE BASE COLORS:

From the elegant Friesian to the fictional favorite the Black Stallion, black horses have a mystical appeal for many horse lovers. True black is unusual in a number of breeds, such as the Arabian or the Thoroughbred, while other breeds are defined by it, like Friesians and Merens ponies. It is a relatively simple color, but it does vary in shade from blue-black to silvery-black and occasionally even coppery-black. Some black horses remain black all year long, and some fade to a chocolaty brown color when exposed to sunlight.

black 1 black t
Black Black

 

Chestnut Hanover
Chestnut

Chestnut is a common color found in most breeds. The Suffolk Punch is exclusively chestnut, many Belgians are chestnut, and on rare occasions, even Friesians can be chestnut. The color can vary dramatically in shade, from golden red to flaming red to copper and to dark liver. Some have flaxen manes and tails that contrast appealingly with their coats. The term "sorrel" is often used interchangeably with chestnut and frequently refers in particular to flaxen chestnuts.

 

Liver Blond Chestnut
Liver Chestnut Blond Chestnut

 

AGOUTI:


The agouti gene affects only black pigment, so while it dilutes the body color of black horses, it does not change chestnut coats.

Bay is probably the most common of all horse colors, and it is the result of the agouti gene acting on a black coat. The gene dilutes the body color to brown while leaving the points (mane, tail, and lower legs) black, and it too can vary greatly in shade, from golden brown to bright blood red to rich mahogany. The popular racehorse Seabiscuit, the legendary Arabian sire Khemosabi, and the famous barrel racer Scamper were all bays.

bay1 Maghogany Bay
Bay Mahogany Bay

 

Seal Bay
Seal Bay

 

A variation of the agouti gene produces the color known as brown or seal brown. Seal brown horses have coats that appear black but that have distinctive areas of lighter brown hairs on their muzzles and flanks. Both Seattle Slew and Ruffian, two of the greatest racehorses of all time, were seal brown.

 

 

CREAM:

Palomino
Palomino

The cream gene affects coat color differently depending on whether a horse has inherited one copy of the gene or two. Two cream genes have greater color diluting power than just one.

When one cream gene is combined with a chestnut coat, it produces the lovely golden color known as palomino. The color can vary in shade from pale gold to bright sunny gold to golden chocolate, and it is accented by a white mane and tail. Palominos have always been popular with the public and are still often seen in parades and circuses. Roy Rogers' mount Trigger and the famous "talking" horse Mr. Ed are probably the best-known palominos.

The cream gene can also act on bay, creating the color buckskin. It too can be found in a variety of golden shades, but unlike palominos, buckskins have black points. The color is frequently associated with Quarter Horses, but it can be found in a number of breeds from Welsh Ponies to Thoroughbreds. Ben Cartwright's horse Buck on the TV show Bonanza was a popular buckskin.

buckskin

Buckskin

 

A single copy of the cream gene does little to alter a black coat; the color is called smoky black, and it is virtually indistinguishable from seal brown or sun-faded black. The color can be hard to identify without a genetic test.

Perlino
Perlino

Horses that inherit two copies of the cream gene, one from each parent, look quite different from palominos, buckskins, and smoky blacks. The resulting coat colors, known as cremello, perlino, and smoky cream, are all luminous pale cream colors with blue eyes. "Double dilutes" as they are known are unfortunately frowned upon in some registries, but as the genetics of equine color have become better understood in recent years, they are gaining greater acceptance. The American Quarter Horse Association, for example, recently opened their registry to include cremellos, perlinos, and smoky creams in 2003.

 

 

DUN:

Like the cream gene, the dun gene also lightens a horse's coat, but it can act on both base colors. Chestnut becomes a sandy color with reddish points called red dun or claybank dun. Bay is likewise transformed to a golden tan color but with black points. It is usually referred to as bay dun or zebra dun. When combined with black, the dun gene creates a mousy grey body color with black points that is commonly called grullo.

Red Dun Grullo
Red Dun Grullo

 

Duns are characterized by primitive markings known as "dun factors" which include a dark dorsal stripe that runs down the middle of the back, zebra-like stripes on the legs, and sometimes a dark shoulder bar or facial mask. The various stripes are thought to help provide camouflage. The Kiger Mustangs such as Mesteño and much of his family are well-known duns.

Yellow Dun Dun
Yellow Dun Dun

 

SILVER DAPPLE:

Silver dapple black
Silver Dapple Black

Like agouti, the silver dapple gene affects only black pigment, changing it to a chocolaty brown color. Silver dapples, or taffies as they are known in Australia, tend to look quite similar to normal bay or black horses other than their flaxen or silvery grey manes and tails. Many black-based silver dapples fade to a rich chocolaty brown or tarnished silver color in summer, and some develop the lovely dappling that gives the gene its name. The color is found in a variety of breeds, such as the Rocky Mountain Horse, the Shetland Pony, and the Comtois.

 

CHAMPAGNE:

Horses carrying the champagne gene often have a shimmery metallic sheen to their coats, and they usually have hazel-colored eyes. They also have freckled skin, especially on their muzzles and around their eyes. Champagne combined with chestnut is called gold champagne, and the resulting color looks very much like palomino. When found in conjunction with bay or seal brown, the colors are known as amber champagne or sable champagne, and they resemble buckskin horses with faded brown points. Classic champagne, champagne acting on black, is a dark dove grey color that is similar to grullo. The champagne colors are very popular in gaited breeds such as the Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horse.

 

ROAN:

Bay Roan

Roan horses can be any color, and they are distinguished by a sprinkling of white hairs throughout the body of the coat. The points and the head however tend to remain solid-colored. Strawberry roan and red roan are sometimes used interchangeably, but generally they refer to chestnut roans and bay roans respectively Black roans are frequently called blue roans because the white hairs mixed into the black coat give it a bluish hue. The champion cutting mare Bet Yer Blue Boons is a beautiful chestnut roan.

Red Roan Blue Roan
Red Roan Blue Roan

 

GREY:

Dapple Grey Lip
Dapple Grey

Grey horses can be any color at birth, such as black, palomino, or dun, but they slowly lighten as they age until they are nearly white. Many grey horses develop striking dapples during the course of the graying process, and some bays and chestnuts go through a phase known as "rose grey" where their coats have a pinkish rosy hueOccasionally, grey horses retain small flecks of color known as "flea bites." The Olympic gold medal winning show jumper Cedric is a flea-bitten grey.

Rose Grey Grey
Rose Grey Grey

 

APPALOOSA:

Appaloosas are famous for their spotted coats and have long been prized by horsemen. The appaloosa pattern comes in several variations. Varnish appaloosas have a roany-looking coat with smudges of color on the head, shoulders, knees, and hocks but very few if any spots.

Varnish

Varnish Roan Appaloosa

 

Blanket appaloosas have a white blanket across their rump and barrel studded with spots. Leopard appaloosas are all white or nearly so and are covered in spots. Snowcap and few-spot appaloosas look like blanket or leopard appaloosas respectively, but like varnish appaloosas, they have few if any spots. With or without spots, most appaloosas do have certain distinctive characteristics such as mottled skin, striped hooves, and white sclera around their eyes. Both DZ Weedo and Sheik af Hallundbaek are examples of horses with appaloosa coloring.

Blanket App Leopard
Blanket Appaloosa Leopard Appaloosa

 

TOBIANO:

Tabino
Tobiano

Like all pinto patterns, tobiano is a pattern of white markings overlaid on a horse's coat color rather than a color itself. The pattern usually leaves areas of color on a horse's head, chest, and flanks, and nearly all tobianos will have white crossing their topline as well as four white feet. Many people associate the tobiano pattern with Paint horses, but it can also be found in breeds like the Trakhener, the Icelandic, and the American Saddlebred. The part-Arabian TS Black Tie Affair is a very typically marked black tobiano.

 

 

FRAME OVERO:

The frame overo pattern creates patches of white on the sides of the neck, barrel, and rump with white rarely crossing the topline. Frame overos often have large white markings on their faces. Like tobiano, frame overo is most common in Paints, but it does occur rarely in other breeds such as the Thoroughbred and the Miniature Horse. Fleetstreet Max is an excellent example of this pattern on a chestnut coat.

Frame Overo Overo

 

TOVERO:

When tobiano is combined with another pattern such as frame overo, the resulting pattern is often called tovero. Many toveros tend to look like tobianos with an over-abundance of white patterning. Breyer's stunning Western Elegance model sports a dun tovero coat.

 

SPLASH WHITE:

The splash white pattern is aptly named. Horses bearing this unique pattern appear to have been dipped in paint with splashes of white usually covering the head, legs, belly, and the tip of the tail. Most splash white horses have blue eyes. The pattern is relatively rare, and the best-known splash white is probably the Abaco Barb stallion Capella.

 

SABINO:

Sabino
Sabino

The sabino pattern is similar to splash white in that it creates white markings that seem to flow up from the underside of the horse. A typical sabino will have a big blaze that extends onto the chin, tall stockings, and patches of white on the flanks or barrel. Not all sabinos are so dramatically marked however, and some may sport just a blaze and socks and maybe a small belly spot. On the other end of the spectrum, some sabinos are so extensively marked that they are nearly all white. Breyer's Salpicado is a lovely example of a sabino.

 

 

DOMINANT WHITE:

The dominant white pattern is expressed very similarly to sabino, and for a number of years, the two patterns were thought to be the same. Dominant white was only definitively identified as a separate pattern in 2007. The beautiful Thoroughbred stallion Sato sports the dominant white pattern over a palomino coat.

 

PINTALOOSA:

As the name suggests, a pintaloosa is the result of a pinto pattern combined with the appaloosa pattern. Pintaloosas usually have a recognizable pinto pattern overlaid with a spotted blanket. The Connoisseur model Inconspicuous is a classic example of the combined patterns.

 

 

 

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