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Equine coat colours

Do you know what makes a horse gray with white hair, why a horse which has a mixture of black and white hair is called a blue-roan, and what is the difference between a buckskin vs a dun horse? If yes to any of these, or simply want to learn more on horse color genetics and coat colours then this is the place for you. There are more basic colors than you might think, even when you exclude patterns like spotted and bluble.

Please note, that this is only a basic article about horse colours. If you look for something more detailed we can recommend you a great article called Horse Coat Colors at equishop.com.

The base colors

There is an entire spectrum of colors. But you might not know that only two of these colors are used to make each of these colors. We have many colors due to the fact that there are different combinations of genes and different amounts of one gene.

  • Black – A horse that has a black basecoat will have black tips (the ears. mane. tail. and legs). Black, bay, buckskin or perlino can all be found with a black foundation.
  • Red – A horse with a red-colored base coat will not have any black spots, unlike horses with a black mane or tail. Red colors include chestnut, pearl, and cremello.
  • White – A good art teacher will tell anyone that white isn’t actually a shade of color. This holds true even for horses. Ok, so white is a hue but it’s not actually a colour. It’s the lack or pigment (the natural color of tissue) that makes hair white.

The impact of pigments

The definition of pigment in the dictionary is “natural color of tissue”. This can have an impact on the horse’s coloring. If a part of a horse is devoid of pigment, then the hairs that will grow from that area will be white. This is why we should protect them against the sun’s ultraviolet rays just like we protect ourselves.

A darker horse will have a higher level of pigment than a lighter horse. Certain colors, such the cremello or perlino, have a lower percentage of pigment. However, this is combined with the presence white hairs that will make the coat lighter. It would then be the base coat that would need to be considered when identifying the horse’s color.

What are the primary colors of horse coat?

Different genes and different dilutions enable you to create a wide range of colors and pattern but each one will have the same basic coat color, which is black, bay, brown, and chestnut.

black horse photo
Photo by marneejill

Black

True black horses are often mistaken for true white horses. This is due to the fact that dark brown horses are frequently mistaken for Black horses.

There are two types true black horses. They are fading (or faded), black and nonfading, also known as blue-black. Genetically there are no differences between the two types of true black horses, but fading and browning horses can occur if they spend too many hours in the sunlight. Another distinctive characteristic of true black horses is their presence of black spots. Even though bay or dark brown horses appear black, they have black hairs.

Some black foals may be born pure white, but others are born dark gray, dun, with a black mane, tail, and dorsal stripe. When they shed their hair the black becomes apparent.

bay horse photo
Photo by Christopher Combe Photography

Bay

A bay horse can have a body as light as a reddy brown or as dark and chocolatey as a chocolate brown, but as their base colour is black, it always has black points. A bay’s body color is a combination of any shade of brown. However, there are three primary shades.

Dark Bay horses – Sometimes called “black bay”, these horses have a very dark, brownish body.
Mahogany Beach – These horses have an eddy-brown, dark body color.
Blood Bay – Also called red bay, these horses sport a bright reddy-chestnut body color.

brown horse photo
Photo by pburka

Brown

Some refer to brown horses simply as bays. The main difference is the fact that brown horses do not have black points. Brown horses will also have light brown and tan colored hairs around the eyes, muzzles and flanks.

chestnut horse photo
Photo by Five Furlongs

Chestnut and sorrel

As you might expect from the color, all sorrel and chestnut horses have the black gene. Therefore they have no black spots. Additionally, their manes and tails can either be the same or lighter chestnut than the body. There are many variations of the bay coat, but here are three:

  • Liver-chestnut – As you probably guessed, this is a deep reddy color which is sometimes called a brown or brown chestnut.
  • Flaxen Chestnut-The mane and tail of the flaxen chestnut horses will have a lighter, flaxen colored mane and tail. The body will be any color of chestnut. While they might appear identical genetically, they are very different from the Palomino.
  • Sorrel is far and away the most common chestnut color. It’s a deep-reddy-tan colour that’s thought to be the same shade as a newlyminted penn.

A footnote to the British heavy horse breed of the Suffolk Punch is the chestnut color. However, the breed registry spells the color differently. They drop first ‘t and instead use chesnut.

grey horse photo
Photo by mnapoleon

Gray colors and patterns

All gray horses, regardless their birth color, will have black skin. That is why they are considered gray. Some horses are born gray but others are not. Horses that carry the graying gene, or the gray modifier, begin to ‘gray in’ and can either turn completely gray or take on a range of colors.

The dominant gene for graying is the graying gene. It will eventually cover the original colors. Some registries don’t allow horses with the graying gene to be registered in the main register, especially if they have a strong emphasis on one particular color or pattern. Although there is only a 50% chance of passing the gene on, either one or both parents must be gray to produce a gray-colored horse.

  • Steeldust: A dark gray which is a combination of white and darker hairs. Gives off a salty, pepper appearance.
  • Dappled Gray: A gray coat with white spots, also known as “dapples”, over it.
  • Rose Gray- Horses born with either a bay or chestnut foundation coat will grey out with a rose or pink tint.
  • Fleabitten horse – The horse appears completely grey, except for the appearances of specks.

Dilution genes

A mixture of any one or more of these base colors will result in a new range that is, in most instances, lighter versions of their original color.

buckskin horse photo
Photo by Five Furlongs

Buckskin

As you can probably see, buckskin comes from a bay mare. However the light coloring is due to one copy (or a dose) of cream gene. This gene can be referred to as a dilution genetic, meaning that the coat goes from being brown like a bay mare to becoming a yellow, cream and/or gold color.
A buckskin Horse is a bay-bred horse with a cream deficiency gene.

Champagne horse photo
Photo by Carrot Mama

Champagne

This rare coat color is caused by the presence a champagne gene. The gene can cause hazel colored eyes in horses. Some horses may not have it.

The base color of the horse and the number of copies of the gene that the horse has will affect the colour of the champagne.

  • Gold Champagne- A chestnut horse whose parents have inherited the gene. This means they have two copies.
  • Amber Champagne is from a bay-bred horse. The number of copies of this gene will determine how intense the amber.
  • Sable Champagne: This is the result from a dark brown or seal brown horse carrying one copy (or more) of the gene.
  • Classic Champagne-Black horses with the champagne genetic (regardless about the number) will give you the classic champagne color.

Champagne horses are rare and can have any color with at least one cream geneAmber Champagne

Cremello horse photo
Photo by Rennett Stowe

Cremello

The creamlo color can range from pale cream-colored to light tan. It is caused by two copies the cream gene that a chestnut (or sorrel) horse inherits from their parents. Cremello is often mistakenly thought to be white. However, both are genetically different.

Perlino

Like the cremello the perlino coloring is caused in part by the presence two copies the cream gene. But this time the base is bay. The cream gene causes a body to develop a tan or orange color. The eyes are often blue. However, the points are typically darker than other parts of the body. These can vary from a reddish or rusty shade to a more blue one.

Smokey Cream

Although almost identical to perlino or crèmello, smokey cream has a distinct genetic make-up. All colors are created by two copies if the cream gene. The base color, however, is black in this case.

Horse with dun gene. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_adult_female_Campolina_Primitive_Markings.jpg

Dun

Dun genes, again a dilution-gene, can change the color of a horse, but not just the color. Primitive markings also known as dun genes, this gene can cause a dorsal streake to travel along the horse’s back to the tail.

Horses of both red and black colors can be affected by dun genes, though the results will vary depending o the base color.

Grullo, also known as blue dun is a result of a black-colored horse having the dun modificare gene. The gene will allow the black hair to become silvery, smokey or mousey but still retain its primitive markings.

  • Red Dun – This color is due to the presence dun gene (in a chestnut/sorrel horse). The coat is lighterened to a pale, yellow or tan which makes primitive markings stand out more.
  • Classic Dun- Sometimes called a bay dune or zebra dune, these horses have an elongated golden coat with black markings. As you can probably see, the bay horse has the gene that gives the color.
  • Yellow Dun- Also known to be a buckskin, this gene is present in any dun horse that also carries a cream gene. A combination of both genes will result is a light golden hair with primitive markings.

You can get the color of the dun mare in many shades

Mushroom

You might not believe, but this gene will cause a horse to have a pale tan hair color. To my knowledge, I have never seen a black based horse with the mushroom gene.

Pearl

This dilution genes is often called the “barlink factor”. It will lighten the coats of red horses to an Apricot color, and sometimes also cause the horse with blue eyes. Some horses will also inherit the cream gene which lightens their coats, making them similar to the perlino cremello.

palomino horse photo
Photo by Carrot Mama

Palomino

Its name is derived from the golden palemino grape. The cream gene that is present in one chestnut or sorrel mare’s copy gives the color its name. The color range could be as much as three shades lighter or darker, to the same extent as a newly minted coin of gold. The body color may be as light as a creamllo but could also be as dark as chocolate, although the tail and mane will always be either flaxen- or white.

Silver Dapple

Any color horse can carry the silver, or Silver dapple genetic. However, this gene will only affect horses with a dark coat. The body coat, also known as chocolate flax, flax, and taffy will be a dark chocolate color. The mane or tail will always be white. It is similar in appearance to the Black Forest Horse, though it has a different color genetically to a true silver daapple.
Silver dapple horses can be blackened with the silver gene

Smokey Black

A smokey black horse will have black hair that looks washed. The presence of any black base color’s cream gene can result in a smokey black colour.

Pangare

The pangare modifier will cause lighter hairs (or’scattered”) to appear all over a horse’s bodies. This will cause the base coat lighten.

Sooty

This gene can exist on any type of base coat. The sooty or modifier will darken your hair by causing dark hairs to appear over your entire body. However, the mane & tail are often not affected.

Brindle

This coat pattern, which is more common in non-horses than in horses, can be found on any color base and is often called tiger stripes. The pattern is characterised by zebra or tiger stripes that cover the entire animal’s body. Sometimes, however, the stripes can be darker than the color of the body. In this case, it is called reverse-brindle.
White coats with patterns

White horse hairs result from no pigment. This means that while the hairs can appear alone (such as in the case with the dominant white), it tends to be overlaid by other colors. This creates a variety of color patterns.

Spotted

Six different patterns of leopard-spotted coats can be attributed to the leopard complex genes. Apart from the spotted hair, the leopard complex gene is responsible also for other characteristics, including a white and black sclera (the outer part of the eye that is normally dark colored in horses), muzzle, muzzle as well as pink and brown mottled skin and striped hooves. However, not all horses that have the gene will be affected by spots. Most horses will also display other characteristics, even horses of solid color.

  • Leopard – Sometimes called full leopard, horses with this design will have a white body with black or brown spots on the legs and head. Leopard-spotted horses, like the saying says, will never change their spots.
  • Near Leopard – This coloration is not like the leopard. Horses with this coloring will have a darker head and leg than the leopard. Sometimes, even a section of their body. As the horse ages, the horse’s darker color will fade and it will appear as if the horse has a full leopard pattern.
  • FewSpot Leopard- FewSpot Leopard horses will have white fur with very few’splashes.’ These’splashes are around the neck, head and flank.
  • Blanket – While there are many blanket types, the basic idea is that a horse should have a dark body with a covered rump.
  • Spotted – The horse’s white, rump may cover most of its body and their hindquarters.
  • White – This is the same as the spotted blanket. The white area will cover most of your horse but, in this case, you’ll only have a few spots.
  • Frosted, also known as frosted-hip, is a pattern that doesn’t use blankets. The horse wears a few white spots above their rump to give it the appearance they are frosting.
  • The snowflake – Many people refer to the pattern as an “inverted leopard”, but it’s not. Although the horse may have a dark-colored, white-colored body, the spots look more like snowflakes. Many snowflake horses are born in solid coats that gradually gray, often with the horse becoming roan.
  • Marble – A horse with this design often looks like a roan, but the white strands of hair will leave ‘vanish marks. These give the appearance and feel of spots.

Spotted horse coat patterns are all due to the leopard complex gene

pinto horse photo
Photo by watts_photos

Pinto

The pinto pattern is any base color that has large white patches over the entire body. Some breeds, such the Paint Horse, describe the coat according to its pattern. Other breeds (mainly in UK) describe it using a mixture of colors.

  • Tobiano – Also called toby, this condition is caused due to the tobiano trait. The horse will have large white areas in addition to a darker color base. Typically, one or both of the flanks will have color with small white patches. Tail and theme can also be white.
  • Overo, Spanish for “like a egg”, gives an idea of how irregular the pattern looks. Like tobiano the horse has dark skin, but the white areas don’t extend to the back. Instead, they are limited to the legs and the head.
  • Tovero – This is a mix between the tobiano und overo patterns and usually has characteristics such as blue eye.
  • Sabino- Technically, this term refers only to any Sabino 1-related pattern. But it is also used to describe a horse who has the same pattern as the Sabino 1 gene. Sabino horses are typically dark-colored with white spots or spotted on their belly, chin, and hocks.
  • Piebald is a term used most often in the UK and for the Gypsy Horse, which refers to horses with black and/or white patches.
  • Skewbald- This pattern describes a coat that is made up of patches of white and other colors, such as the piebald.

Pinot or paint coloring always creates a striking design

roan horse photo
Photo by meike_g

Roan

Although the term refers specifically to the roan gene, it also describes a horse with an even mix white and brown hairs across their entire body. The head, tail, and legs can all be darker. Despite the large amount of gray hairs present, roan doesn’t become grayer with time.

  • Red Roan – Also called strawberry-roan, the base colour of this roan (also known as strawberry roan) is chestnut. However, the body and mane will both be roan with the tail and mane being the same color as the body, if it did not have white hairs.
  • Bay Roan: Bay Roan is the basic color of bay-roans. A bay horse will have a bay mane, and a black tail.
  • Blue Roan – The blue roan will appear similar to grullo. It will have a darker, more mature head and won’t lighten as they age. Like all roans it will also have an even amount of white hairs. While grullo’s hairs will be lighter than the grullo’s, their hairs will be lighter.
  • Rabicano is sometimes called white ticking. This is because the pattern’s lighter color (which is only on the belly, flank, legs and tail) is due to the Rabicano Modifier gene.

Roan horses are able to be one of the following four shadesRed Roan

white horse photo
Photo by Andreas Wulff

True White

Although gray horses don’t seem to be rare, truly white horses (i.e. It is possible to find a horse with pink skin, brown eye and white hair. This is because horses can only be white in three different ways.

  • Dominant white Gene – Also known for white spotting and a collection of genes known as ‘W,’ this gene group is responsible for the creation of a true White Horse.
  • Sabino: Horses with two copies (or more) of the Sabino 1 genes will be 95% white.
  • Lethal-white syndrome – A condition more commonly associated with some breeds (such a Paint Horse), it is caused by a horse that has two copies or the frame overo gene. This will create a white foal and prevent the colon developing properly. Although foals with this illness will usually die within three to five days, it is not uncommon for them to be euthanized because they can often be very painful.

Anja Benjamin

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