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There are four basic horse colors: black, bay, brown, and chestnut. (Five if you count white, which is usually not included because it is simply a lack of one of these other types of pigmentation.) When we begin to consider different dilutions and patterns of these base colors, the resulting range of coats presents endless variation.
– So how many different horse colors are there really?
In this article, we’ll describe every known variation of color and pattern seen in horses around the world. We’ll start basic colors described above, and then move on to the genes which cause various other colors and a wide array of patterns.
Lets dive in.
1. Black Horses
It’s rare to see a true black horse. Occasionally horses with very dark brown coats are mistaken for black but show their true colors in direct sunlight. Black horse breeds include Friesian, Murgese, and Mérens horses.
Most black horses will eventually fade in the sun. Horses that don’t are referred to as jet or raven black.
Seal brown horses have a black base coat lightened by the Agouti gene. They have a very dark coat and black points, with lighter areas around the eyes and muzzle, and near the top of each leg. This results in a gorgeous gradient on each individual from almost-black to light reddish-brown.
2. Bay Horses
Bay horses have black points. When speaking of horses and other animals, the word points describes their mane, tail, ears, and legs. Some breed registries use the word brown to describe dark bays, but generally brown is only used to describe horses that have brown points.
Bays are often reddish brown, but their colors range from golden yellow to almost black. There are three main shades of bay:
Dark Bay: These horses can be a very dark shade of brown.
Mahogany Bay: These horses are a beautiful dark reddish brown.
Blood Bay: This is the most commonly known variety of bay. Their coats are a rich, vibrant reddish brown.
There are other variations as well. Cherry bays are a medium shade of red. Golden bays are relatively rare. There are also sandy and light bays.
3. Brown Horses
Whereas bay horses have black points, brown horses have brown points. When speaking of horses and other animals, the word points describes their mane, tail, ears, and legs.
The coats of brown horses range from tan to very dark brown.
4. Chestnut Horses
A chestnut horse has red points rather than black points. Their mane, tail, ears, and feet are the same shade of reddish-brown as their coats or may be even lighter.
Some chestnut horses have beautiful golden manes that are significantly lighter than their reddish-brown coats.
There are three main shades of chestnut:
Sorrel: This is the most common variety of Chestnut. The copper color of sorrel horses resembles new pennies.
Liver Chestnut: These horses have coats that are a dark reddish brown, similar to fresh liver.
Flaxen Chestnut: This term describes chestnut horses of any shade that have light-colored flaxen manes and tails.
5. White Horses
White hair is simply a lack of pigmentation, which has multiple potential causes.
Horses with two copies of the cream gene, described in detail below, may look white. These horses are called cremellos; they often have blue eyes.
Sometimes the white patterning described later in this article results in a horse that is completely white. Horses with two copies of the sabino gene are almost always fully white.
One rare mutation called the dominant white gene results in horses with white hair, pink skin, and brown eyes. There is also an extremely rare gene unique to Camarillo White Horses.
6. Gray Horses
Most gray horses were not born gray. They carry a gene that causes their coat to turn gray eventually — either the coat as a whole or patches of it. Here are some common types of gray horses:
Steeldust: This type of gray is an even mix of black and white, giving the horse a salt-and-pepper look.
Dapple Gray: This word describes a gray horse with white dapples (spots or patches).
Rose Gray: Horses with red goats and the graying gene will fade to a shade referred to as rose gray.
Flea-bitten: These horses are almost completely gray with specks of color.
Sometimes a gray horse coat will become fully white.
Blue roans are basically gray, since their coats are an equal mixture of black and white hairs.
When a horse’s base color is diluted by a particular set of genes, it creates new coat colors that are usually a lighter version of the base color. The most common dilution genes are cream, dun, champagne, and silver.
The cream gene is incompletely dominant, which means that this trait will be more pronounced if horses receive one copy of the gene from each parent.
One cream gene lightens bay to buckskin; these horses are yellow, cream, or gold.
Two cream genes will lighten brown and bay horses to a color called perlino. Some perlino horses look almost white, while others have blondish coats and bright golden manes.
Chestnut horses with one cream gene are palominos. Palomino horses have very light reddish coats; their manes and tails are such a light shade of yellow as to appear almost white. Palominos usually have dark eyes.
Golden palominos are a bright golden color with white manes and tails. The palest palominos are sometimes called isabelos.
Chestnut horses with two copies of the cream gene are cremellos. Cremello horses are a solid cream color; these horses are sometimes called pseudo-albinos, but they don’t have pink eyes.
One cream gene lightens black horses to smokey black, which may fade to a dull brown in the sun. Two cream genes lighten black horses to smokey cream; they may or may not have cream-colored manes.
Seal brown horses (that’s horses with a black base coat lightened by the agouti gene) with one or two cream genes are designated brown buckskin or brown cream, respectively. Brown buckskins are often identical to brown horses, but may throw diluted foals.
This is a simple dominant gene, which means that carriers of this gene look the same whether they have one copy or two.
The dun gene lightens the body color but leaves stripes of darker color along the back (this is called a dorsal stripe or lineback) and on the upper legs, often called primitive markings because they are characteristic of ancient breeds of horses. They usually have dark eyes.
Horses with bay base coats and the dun gene are simply referred to as dun horses, or sometimes classic dun. They have a sandy body color with dark legs, mane, and tail.
Grullo horses have a black base coat that’s been lightened to gray on their bodies (but not their legs) by the dun gene. These horses range from pale gray to a dark, smoky silver. They are sometimes referred to as blue dun, gray dun, or mouse dun.
Smokey grullos also have one copy of the cream gene.
Red dun horses have a chestnut base coat. Their body colors range from pale peach to a deep golden red. The dorsal stripe along their back is a darker reddish brown, as are their legs, mane, and tail. The lightest ones are called clay or apricot duns.
Yellow dun horses carry one copy of the cream gene in addition to the dun gene. They have yellow bodies, black points, and primitive markings.
Dunskin horses have bay base coats, primitive markings, and one cream gene. They are also called zebra dun. The palest horses of this description are called silvery duns.
Dunalinos have chestnut base coats lightened by cream and dun genes.
This simple dominant gene lightens both body color and eye color. Champagne foals have pink skin and blue eyes. As they age, their skin develops freckles and the eyes darken to light brown or amber. Many champagne horses have a pearly, metallic sheen.
Gold champagne horses have a chestnut base coat, resulting in a golden horse with a very light-colored mane and tail. They look similar to palominos, but the eyes are a lighter color.
Gold ivory champagne horses have a chestnut base coat and one cream gene. These horses are a shining white. They look somewhat similar to cremellos but have freckled skin and light eyes.
Amber champagne horses have a bay base coat, resulting in a golden horse with brown points. Amber ivory champagne horses have a chestnut base coat and one cream gene, resulting in a cream-colored horse with a light brown mane and tail.
Sable champagne horses have a brown base coat, resulting in a grey-brown horse with brown points. Sable ivory champagne horses have a brown base coat and one cream gene, resulting in a golden-colored horse with slightly darker points.
Classic champagne horses have a black base coat, resulting in a variety of shades. These horses can look gray, but in the sunlight their coats may have a green or lilac sheen. Classic ivory champagne horses are often a shining white-gold color.
Horses of any base coat color that possess the champagne gene and two copies of the cream gene are called double cream ivory champagne. These horses have iridescent, nearly white coats with pale skin and very faint freckling.
Also called the barlink factor, the pearl gene is a relatively recent discovery. This recessive gene will only affect color if a horse carries two copies. Pearl horses are similar in appearance to cremellos and perlinos. They often have blue eyes.
The silver gene is simple dominant. Also called silver dapple, this gene usually only affects black pigment. It does not affect coat color horses with a chestnut base coat, but may cause them to have lighter manes and tails.
Some black horses with the silver gene have a very dark coat with a silvery mane and tail. These are called silver dapple blacks. Many horses with this gene will fade to dappled chocolate or silver-brown over time. Some have beautiful, silvery, star-like spots all over their body.
Silver grullos have a black base coat lightened by the dun gene.
Silver dapple bays often have red bodies with flaxen manes and tails.
The roan gene causes the depigmentation of individual hairs, resulting in white hairs mixed through the base color. Roan horses look this way from birth, whereas gray horses change and fade over time. It does not affect the mane, tail, or lower legs.
Chestnut Roan horses have white hairs interspersed with their chestnut base coat. Both chestnut roans and bay roans are sometimes called strawberry roans or red roans.
A bay roan will still have black points.
Black roans have a black base coat. These horses are often called blue roan.
The roan gene also affects horses which carry the cream gene, resulting in palomino roans.
Rabicanos horses have similar patterning caused by a different gene. The white hairs on these horses mainly occur on the throat, chest, and belly.
13. White Patterning
Pinto horses can have one of several spotted patterns of white markings.
Tobiano may be prominently white or dark (their base coat color). Most tobianos have four white feet. They may also have small or large patches of white on the head, chest, and flanks. These white patches usually reach across their backs, and the patterning is usually rounded. Their tails may be two distinct colors.
Frame overos have a predominantly base-colored topline with splotches of white on their sides and necks. Their feet are usually dark. This gene is lethal in foals with two copies; these foals are all white and born with an underdeveloped digestive system.
Horses with only one copy are not usually adversely affected, but white heads in overo horses have been linked to deafness. Their eyes are sometimes blue.
Tovero horses have both of the genes mentioned above. They often have blue eyes. Many toveros are predominantly white.
Sabino horses can present with a variety of different patterns ranging from completely white to base colored with socks and a blaze. Many sabinos have dappled white spots on their belly and hocks. Their mane and tail may have white in them as well. Their eyes are sometimes blue.
Piebald is a term used to describe horses with a black basecoat and white patches. The term skewbald describes horses with any other color of base coat.
Splash white horses may have white faces, legs, bellies, necks, and/or hocks. Their backs are usually dark.
The spotting pattern characteristic of the Appaloosa breed is caused by a group of genes known as the leopard complex. These horses have mottled skin, striped hooves, and white sclera (that’s the white part of the eye in humans; most horses have dark sclera).
Leopard Appaloosas are almost completely white, with the base color appearing in small spots all over the horse’s coat. Near leopards have a darker head and legs. FewSpot leopards are mostly white with only a few spots of color.
The term blanket refers to a coat pattern of white markings on the back of darker appaloosas. These can be small patches or can cover most of their body.
Bay and Chestnut horses sometimes have pangaré coats, which are much lighter along their inner legs, belly, and flanks. These horses also have lighter hair around their eyes.
This modifier causes black hairs intermixed with bay, brown, or chestnut base colors. It is referred to as sooty because it looks as if a bucket of soot was just dumped on the horse’s back. It can mimic primitive markings or be more evenly distributed, causing dark colors like black liver chestnut.
Sooty palominos look very similar to chestnut horses.
This rare pattern can be found on any color of base coat. It causes zebra- or tiger-like stripes on the body of the horse. Usually the stripes are darker than the base color; if they’re lighter, it’s called reverse brindle.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The 5 Basic Horse Coat Colors?
The five basic colors are black, bay, brown, chestnut, and white.
Some registries don’t count white as its own category, since it results from a lack of pigmentation. All white horses also carry genes for one of the other four colors, and there is no guarantee that the offspring of two white horses will also be white. Even the rare Camarillo White Horse often produces foals of a different color.
What Are The Most Common Horse Colors?
This varies by breed. Most American Quarter Horses are sorrel, chestnut or bay. Chestnut and bay are much more common than the other colors overall. Black is more common than white.
What Is The Rarest Color Of Horse?
The rarest color may be true blue roan. These horses have an equal mix of black and white hairs throughout their coats.
Brindle patterns are very rarely seen in horses.
True white horses are very rare. There are only 20 Camarillo White Horses in the world.