Have you ever wondered what makes a horse with white hair gray, or why a horse with an even mix of black and white hair is called a blue roan or even what the difference between a dun or a buckskin is? If you answered yes to any of those, or just want to know more about horse color genetics and coat colors then you’re in the right place. Even when you take patterns such as spotted and brindle out of the equation there are over a dozen different basic coat colors and that’s without including rarer colors such as champagne or silver dapple.
The two base colors
While there’s a whole spectrum of different colors you might be surprised to know that every single one of them is derived from just one of two different colors, black or red. The reason we have a whole palette of colors is, in most cases, due to different combinations of genes or different quantities of the same gene.
- Black – A horse with a black base coat will have black points (the ears, mane, tail, and legs). Colors with a black base are black, bay, buckskin, grullo, perlino as well as blue and bay roan.
- Red – Unlike the black base coat, horses with a red base won’t have any black points, regardless of how dark their mane and tail may appear. Colors with a red base are chestnut, cremello, and pearl.
- White – Any art teacher will tell you that white isn’t actually a color and this is kind of true when it comes to horses too. Okay so white is a hue instead of a color but when it comes to horses it’s actually the lack of pigment (the natural coloring of tissue) that makes the hair white.
The effect of pigments
The dictionary definition of pigment is the natural color of tissue which is why it can have such an effect on the color of a horse. If part of a horse has no pigment at all then the hairs that grow out of that area will be white, which is one of the reasons why we need to protect them from the sun’s UV rays in the same way we do ourselves.
Dark horses, on the other hand, will have a higher concentration of pigment whereas lighter horses will have a lower concentration. Some colors, such as the cremello and perlino have a lower concentration of pigment that is diluted with the cream gene which, along with the presence of white hairs will make the coat even lighter, in these cases, it would be the base coat that would be considered when identifying the horse’s color.
What are the basic horse coat colors?
Different genes and dilutions help to create a wide array of colors and patterns but every single one of those will have a basic coat color of black, bay, brown, or chestnut.
Some people say that a true black horse, like a true white horse, is extremely rare but this isn’t quite true because they’re not actually rare but are, instead, uncommon. This is because dark brown horses are often mistaken for black horses.
There are two types of true black horse, fading (or faded) black and non-fading black which is often referred to as blue-black. Genetically there’s no difference between the two but fading black horses can fade to a brown color if they spend too much tie in the sun. Another distinguishing feature of a true black horse is the presence of black points. Dark brown or bay horses may appear black but the presence of higher hairs around their eyes, muzzles, and flanks indicates they’re not black, one a black horse these hairs will be black.
Some black foals are born pure black but most are born dark gray or dun with a black mane, tail and dorsal stripe, as they start to shed their coat the black begins to appear.
The body color of a bay horse can be as light as a reddy-brown or as dark as chocolate brown but because their base color is black they always have black points. While the body color of a bay can be any shade of brown there are three main shades:
- Dark Bay – Sometimes called black bay, these are horses with a very dark brown body color.
- Mahogany Bay – These horses have a dark reddy-brown body color.
- Blood Bay – Also known as red bay, these horses have a bright reddy chestnut body color.
Some people refer to brown horses as bays but the main difference is that brown horses don’t have black points, although if their body color is very dark then so will their mane and tail be. Brown horses will also have light brown or tan colored hairs around their eyes, muzzles, and flanks.
Chestnut (and sorrel)
As you’d expect from the color all chestnut and sorrel horses have the red rather than black gene, as such they don’t have any black points and their mane and tail are either the same shade of chestnut as the body or lighter. Like the bay coat there’s a lot of different shades but three main ones:
- Liver Chestnut – As you can probably guess the color is a dark reddy chestnut which is sometimes referred to as a brown chestnut.
- Flaxen Chestnut – The mane and tail of a flaxen chestnut horse will a lighten flaxen color while the body will be any shade of chestnut. While it may look similar genetically it’s very different from the palomino.
- Sorrel – Sorrel is by far the most common shade of chestnut and is a deep reddy-tan color that’s said to be the same color as a newly minted penny.
As an interesting footnote the British heavy horse breed, the Suffolk Punch, is always chestnut in color but the breed registry spells the color slightly differently, they drop the first ‘t’ and instead spell it chesnut.
All gray horses, regardless of the color they’re born, will have black skin which is why they’re classed as gray rather than white. While some horses are born gray most aren’t but because they’re carrying the graying gene (or gray modifier) they begin to ‘gray out’ and either become completely solid gray or any one of a range of different variations.
The graying gene is a dominant gene which means that it will eventually cover the original color which is why some registries (especially those that have an emphasis on a certain color or pattern) won’t allow horses with this gene to be registered in the main registry. In order to produce a gray horse, one or both parents will need to be gray, although there’s only a 50% chance they’ll pass the gene on.
- Steeldust – A dark gray that is an even mix of white and dark hairs, giving a salt and pepper appearance.
- Dappled Gray – A gray coat that has white spots (known as dapples) over it.
- Rose Gray – Horses that are born with a bay or chestnut base coat will gray out with a red or pink tint.
- Flea-bitten – The horse looks completely gray except for the appearance of specks or flecks of color.
When any of the basic colors mentioned above are mixed with one or more dilution genes they will produce a whole new range of colors that are, in most cases lighter versions of their base color.
As you can probably tell from the black points and lighter body, buckskin is a bay horse but the light coloration is caused by a single copy (or dose) of the cream gene. This gene is a dilution gene, so the coat fades from the brown of a bay horse to a yellow, cream, or gold color.
This is a rare coat color that is created by the presence of the champagne gene which, like the cream gene is a dilution gene. Most, but not all horses, with this gene will have hazel colored eyes as well as pink mottled skin which can be bright blue or pink at birth.
The shade of champagne that is created by this gene is dependant on the base color as well as how many copies of the gene the horse has.
- Gold Champagne – A chestnut horse that has inherited the gene from both parents, ie they have two copies of the gene.
- Amber Champagne – Is from a bay horse, the intensity of the amber will be determined by the number of copies of the gene.
- Sable Champagne – This is the result of a dark brown (or seal brown) horse having a single copy of the gene.
- Classic Champagne – Black horses with the champagne gene (regardless of the number of copies) will produce the classic champagne color.
The cremello color, which can range from pale cream to light tan, is produced when a chestnut or sorrel horse has two copies of the cream gene (which means that they’ve inherited it from both parents). Cremello is often mistaken for white but they’re both genetically different, with a white horse, unsurprisingly, carrying the white gene.
Like the cremello, the perlino color is caused by the presence of two copies of the cream gene, although this time the base color is bay. The cream gene causes the body to lighten to a tan color that can sometimes appear orange. The eyes are often blue while the points are still darker than the rest of the body but can range from a reddish color to a rusty one.
While being almost identical to the cremello or perlino the smokey cream is genetically different. All of the colors are caused by two copies of the cream gene but, as the name suggests, in this case, the base color is black.
Instead of altering just a color the dun gene, which again is a dilution gene, can also affect the characteristic markings on the horse. Known as primitive markings, the gene can also create a dorsal stripe that travels along the back of the horse to the tail as well as zebra markings on the lower legs.
Horses with both a red or black colour both be affected by the dun gene although the results will vary depending on the base color.
- Grullo – Also known as blue dun, this is caused by a black horse having the dun modifying gene. The gene will cause the black coat to lighten to a silvery, smokey, or mousey color although the primitive markings will still show through.
- Red Dun – The red color of the red dun is caused by the presence of the dun gene in a chestnut or sorrel horse, the coat is lightened to either a pale yellow or a tan which makes the primitive markings much more obvious.
- Classic Dun – Sometimes referred to as a bay dun or zebra dun, these horses have a golden coat with black markings. As you can probably guess, the color is caused by the presence of the gene on a bay horse.
- Yellow Dun – Also called a buckskin dun this occurs when any dun horse also carries the cream gene. The combination of both of these genes will produce a light golden coat with black points and primitive markings.
You might not believe it but this really is a dilution gene that will, when present in red based horses, produce horse with a pale tan coat. To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a case of a black based horse carrying the mushroom gene.
This dilution gene is often referred to as a ‘barlink factor’ and will lighten the coat of red horses to an apricot color and commonly also cause the horse to have blue eyes. Some horses will also have the cream gene that will lighten the coat even further, making it similar in appearance to the cremello or perlino.
Taking its name from the golden palomino grape, the color is the result of the one copy of the cream gene being present in a chestnut or sorrel horse. The color range is said to be anything from three shades lighter or darker to that of a newly minted gold coin. The body color can be as light as a cremello but can also be a deep shade of chocolate although the mane and tail will always be flaxen or white.
The silver, or silver dapple gene can be carried by any color horse but will only affect those with a black coat. Sometimes referred to as chocolate, flax, or taffy, the body coat will be a deep chocolate color while the mane and tail will always be white. The appearance is similar to that of the Black Forest Horse, although in that breed to color is genetically different from a true silver dapple.
A smokey black horse will have a black coat that appears to be washed out which is why they’re sometimes mistaken for faded black horses. The smokey black color though is caused by the presence of the cream gene on any black base color.
The pangaré modifier will cause lighter hairs to be ‘scattered’ over a horse’s body causing the base coat to lighten, this is especially evident around the muzzle, belly, and flank of the horse.
This is a gene that can be present on any color base coat and has the opposite effect to that of the pangaré modifier. The sooty gene (or modifier) will darken the hair by the presence of dark hairs over the whole body, the mane and tail are often unaffected.
More common in other animals than it is in horses, this coat pattern can be present on any base color at all and is sometimes referred to as tiger-striped. It’s characterized by zebra (or tiger) stripes that cover the whole body, they’re normally dark but occasionally the stripes can be lighter than the body color, if this is the case then the pattern is known as reverse brindle.
White coats and patterns
White horse hairs are the result of no pigment at all which means that, although the hairs can appear on their own (such as the case of the dominant white), they tend to appear over the top of other colors which results in a number of different color patterns.
There are six different spotted coat patterns that are all caused by the leopard complex gene. As well as the spotted coat this gene is also responsible for other characteristics such as a white sclera (the hard area around the outside of the eye that is normally dark-colored in other horses), pink and black mottled skin around the eyes, muzzle, and genitals and striped hooves. Not all horses with the gene will display spots but most will show the other characteristics, even on solid colored horses.
- Leopard – Also known as full leopard, horses with this pattern will have a white coat with either black or brown (red) spots over the entire body including the head and legs. Just as the saying goes leopard spotted horses will never change their spots.
- Near Leopard – Unlike the leopard pattern, horses with this coloration will have a darker head and legs and occasionally part of their body will be darker too. As the horse ages, the darker color will fade and the horse will appear to have a full leopard pattern.
- FewSpot Leopard – FewSpot leopard horses will have a white coat with only a few ‘splashes’ of color around their head, neck, and flank.
- Blanket – There are a number of different blanket patterns but they generally involve a horse having a dark body (including the head and legs) with a white patch or blanket, over their rump.
- Spotted – The white rump, which can cover most of the horse’s body as well as their hindquarters, will be covered in spots that are the same color as the rest of the horse.
- White – Like the spotted blanket, the white area can cover most of the horse, but in this case, it’ll have very few spots if any at all.
- Frosted – Sometimes called frosted hip, this pattern is different from other blanket patterns because the horse doesn’t have a blanket at all, instead, they have a few white spots over their rump which gives the impression of frosting.
- Snowflake – Some people refer to the snowflake pattern as an inverted leopard but this isn’t quite the case. Yes, the horse has a dark-colored body with white spots, but the spots are much smaller and look a little like snowflakes. A lot of snowflake horses are born with solid coats that gray out with age, often resulting in a roan colored horse.
- Marble – Horse with this pattern often looks like roans but the white hairs will form ‘vanish marks’ that give the appearance of spots.
The pinto pattern can be any base color with, often large, patches of white over the whole body. Some breeds such as the Paint Horse describe the coat by the pattern while others (albeit mainly in the UK) describe it by the combination of colors.
- Tobiano – Sometimes called toby, this is caused by the tobiano gene and results in the horse having large white areas over a darker base color. Typically one or both flanks will have color with white patches while theme and tail can be both colors.
- Overo – Overo is Spanish for ‘like an egg’ which gives you some idea of the irregularity of the pattern. Like tobiano, the horse has a dark base color but this time the white patches don’t cover the back and are mainly, although not solely, confined to the legs and head with the horse having blue eyes.
- Tovero – This pattern is a mix of both the tobiano and overo pattern and normally includes characteristics such as blue eyes.
- Sabino – Although it does technically refer to any pattern caused by the Sabino 1 gene, its also used to describe a horse that has the same pattern (even if it doesn’t have the gene). Typically sabino horses will be dark-colored with white patches or spotted over their belly, chin and hocks.
- Piebald – Most commonly used in the UK and with the Gypsy Horse breed, piebald is used to describe any horse with black and white patches of color.
- Skewbald – This pattern refers to a coat that has patches of white and any other color except black, like the piebald its mainly used in the UK and to describe the Gypsy Horse.
While it does refer to the roan gene it’s also a general term that describes a horse that has an even mix of white and other colored hairs over their entire body (not always but the head, mane, tail, and legs are often darker in color). Despite the presence of a large number of gray hairs, roan doesn’t gray out with age.
- Red Roan – Also called strawberry roan, the base color of this roan is chestnut, and while the body will be roan the mane and tail being the same shade of red as the body if it didn’t have white hairs.
- Bay Roan – The base color of bay roans is bay which is why a roan horse will often have a black mane and tail.
- Blue Roan – While the blue roan will look similar to grullo it’ll have a darker head and won’t lighten with age, as with all roans they will also have an even mix of white hair while the grullo will have lighter hairs instead of white.
- Rabicano – Sometimes called white ticking, this pattern isn’t a true roan because the lighter color (which is normally only present on the belly, flank, legs, tail, and head) is caused by the rabicano modifier gene rather than by white hairs.
While gray horses aren’t rare at all, a truly white horse (i.e. one that has pink skin, brown eyes, and white hair) is probably the rarest color around. This is because there are only three ways that are horse can be truly white.
- Dominant White Gene – Also known as white spotting, this is a group of genes (known as ‘W’) that are all known to create a true white horse.
- Sabino – Horses with two copies of the Sabino 1 gene will be truly white 95% of the time.
- Lethal white syndrome – More commonly associated with some breeds (such as the Paint Horse) this is a genetic disease (caused by a horse having two copies of the frame overo (or ‘W’) gene) that will produce a white foal but will also prevent the colon from developing properly. Sadly foals with this disease will normally die within three days but because this is often painful the foal is more often than not humanly euthanized.
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