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Horses may show a variety of patterns and markings on their face, which enhance their individuality and look striking. Although some horse breeders frown upon these white marks, often they lend horses a spectacular visual appeal. But why do horses have white markings on their face at all?
Everything you need to know about horse face markings includes the fact that the markings have a genetic and environmental basis. Blazes, strips, and snips are most common, while bald face, medicine hat, apron, and badger are more rare white colorations on a horse’s face. These markings may be connected or in isolation.
If your horse has a jaunty white shape across his face, you might be wondering what you should call the marking. Here some answers to how these iconic white markings found their way onto our modern-day horses and how to tell them apart.
What Kinds Of Horse Face Markings Are There?
White markings are an essential distinguishing feature in horses and add personality to individual horses’ faces. White markings are also important identifiers of a particular horse such as whorls and leg markings to aid in potential situations such as loss or theft. Although each horse is unique in its facial characteristics as we are, they fall under several broad categories of coloration.
The placement and shape of your horse’s white markings and where they are situated determines what category of facial markings your particular horse has. Don’t worry if your horse may not fit neatly in the designation, as one may have a particularly unique combination of markings.
1. The Blaze Pattern
The blaze pattern of white on a horse’s face is one of the most common types of coloration on horses today. A blaze begins at the horse’s forehead and runs down the nose’s bridge to the bottom of the nose or mouth. They can either be symmetrical or irregular in shape and distinguished from the stripe pattern due to their increased width.
2. The Star
The star is a patch of white hair found on the forehead of a horse. The star may vary from diamond in shape to an irregular splotch of white.
Located parallel and above the center of the horse’s eyes, the star may be larger or smaller, depending on the horse, but typically the skin under the star will be a lighter color than the surrounding skin.
Stars may be more challenging to detect on grey horses as they fade with age and come in a wide variety of designations and shapes.
The American Jockey club designation of stars breaks up the star shapes into:
- A Small Star refers to a star less than one and a half inches wide
- A Large Star– a star is more than three inches wide
- Diamond Shaped Star has the four-pointed shape of a diamond
- Left/Right Pointing Diagonal Stars are usually a thin marking that points towards the horses left or right ear
- Horizontal Stars are also typically narrow and lie parallel to eye level
- A Vertical Star – has a generally up and down shape
- A Curved Star is thin and typically shaped like a ‘C’ or a crescent moon, and its open side may face left, right, the top of the head, or open towards the bottom of the head
- The Oval Star has an egg shape or rounded appearance
- The Heart Star takes on the form of a heart
- Irregular Stars are designated when the star does not conform to a standard shape
- Triangular Stars follows the shape of a triangle
- A Pointed Star may have one or more points, and if it has only one point, one should note the direction.
- A Bordered Star has a mix of white and coat color at the edges of the shape
- A Mixed Star shows a mixture of white and coat color hairs in a star shape and is often called a Faint Star.
3. The Strip
The strip (or stripe) is a line of white that runs more or less evenly white that runs more or less evenly down the middle of a horse’s face. The strip is usually relatively narrow compared to a blaze and generally runs along the nasal bone. Equestrians also refer to a strip as a ‘stripe’ or a ‘race’ when it follows a slightly wavy course.
One usually describes a strip by its width, length, and type. Depending on its formation, one may refer to it as connected, disconnected, or broken.
4. The Snip
The snip is a white marking between a horse’s nostrils where the pink skin beneath is often visible. Snips may often extend down to the nostril itself as well as the upper lip and may connect to a blaze and strip in combination. Snips may be a tiny patch of white or larger, incorporating the whole nose.
5. Chin Or Lip Spot/Patch
Chin spots are flesh or white-colored spots typically small in size and occur in the upper or lower lips or the chin. They may vary in size from a coin size patch to larger areas of discoloration.
6. Bald Face
A bald face coloration is one of the most dramatic horse facial markings and is also known as a ‘white face.’ A bald face is not a reference to hairlessness but to the fact that almost the entire head of a horse is colored white. This white typically covers one eye and runs down the whole front of the face, often extending down the sides.
This type of coloring is common in Pinto and American paint horse varieties and, although eye-catching, is prone to several related health risks. Horses with extensive white facial coloration may be susceptible to deafness and are prone to sun damage in the form of cancers. This coloration may also manifest with one or both blue eyes and extend down to the muzzle.
Ermines are darker colored spots found within an area of white facial coloration. They may vary in shape, from round to asymmetrical. Also known as Bend-or spots or Smut spots, these irregularly placed spots may range from dark red to black. Typically this coloration is seen on chestnuts, palominos, and darker horse breeds and appears as the horse becomes older.
A traditional blaze or strip does not always continue its course down a horse’s face smoothly but breaks off only to resume again lower in the face. People call these markings an ‘interrupted’ blaze or strip.
9. Medicine Hat
The medicine hat facial coloration is an unusual hat-like coloration, where the face is almost entirely white with a small area left of the horse’s primary colors at the top of the head. These white colorations lend a horse the appearance of wearing a hat of their primary coat color above the white.
First Nation legend tells of these rare and coveted facial markings, which they believed to possess enhanced powers of protection and aid the rider in the hunt. Often Native Americans painted the white areas of the horses’ faces potent symbols to enhance the mystical powers of the hatted steed, and theft of another tribe’s medicine hat horse was considered an evil omen.
10. Badger Marking
This unusual facial marking occurs when the horse’s base color occurs in a strip down their face, superimposed on a white underlay. One could think of this coloratura as a type of reversed blaze, where the head is white, and the blaze is the horse’s primary coloration.
11. Apron Marking
The unusual ‘Apron’ markings are similar to the extensive bald face coloration. However, the white is narrower up between the eyes and widens out further down the muzzle. Above the eyes, the white strip is narrower and usually does not extend the entire width between the horse’s eyes. The lower white areas encircle the lower head, appearing much like a lady’s apron.
12. Combination Markings
Nor every horse’s facial markings can fit neatly into one designation. The markings on a horse may combine a star and a snip or an interrupted blaze. When a horse has two or more different facial markings, they are referred to as combination markings, reminding us that each horse is unique.
History Of Horse Coat Colors
Experts believe that humans first forged their relationship with the noble horse almost 6000 years ago in Central Asia (the area now known as Kahaskistan.) This relationship would change the face of transport, trade, and war and impact human history in countless ways. The horse also underwent some fundamental changes through domestication, including coat coloration, such as the white markings often found on modern horse’s heads and lower limbs.
According to archeologists, our modern horse’s ancestor, Hyracotherium (also known as Eohippus), dates as far back as the Eocene period 35-55 million years ago. These early horses migrated from the northern hemisphere and emerged as the genus Equus in North America some 2.6 million years ago.
Experts generally agree that the original coat colors were light brown, ranging from yellowish to light brown with darker points of the mane and tail with a dominant dun dilution. This dun hue would be the coat color more likely to provide protection and camouflage against predators. Early in the Holocene period, black and appaloosa coloring were already evident in primitive horses.
Although horses are only technically capable of producing two pigments, environmental and climatic factors may have prompted putative coat color variations by dilution, redistribution, and lack of pigmentation. Domestication brought confinement of primitive herds, and the concurrent restrictions in mating brought about a variety of new colors, including today’s widespread diluted coat colorations.
The white in a horse’s coat rests on the base coat color, with specific genetic directives that prevent color development due to the absence of melanocytes on that part of the body. So essentially, the white markings are not a lack of pigment in the melanocytes but a lack of melanocyte itself in the affected area.
What Causes The White Markings On A Horse’s Face?
Scientists consider the Przewalski horse (Equus caballus przewalskii) the closest living relative wild relative of the horse species, and these horses show no white markings. Because Primitive cave paintings make no reference to white colorations and the lack of this trait in primeval Asiatic horses tend to suggest that these white colorations were the product of domestication.
Over a century of scientific study, researchers agree that the inheritance of white facial markings is a multifaceted phenomenon. With a heritability of 0.75, research suggests that the phenotypic variance of white facial markings is determined ¾ by genotype and a ¼ by environmental factors. Early studies indicate that the environmental factors are due to accidental and random events on the migration, proliferation, and survival of the melanoblast.
Recent studies on Swiss Franches-Montagnes horses extend the hypothesis of genetic heritability and environment, isolating MITF and MCIR over the KIT gene mutations.
Their results were as follows:
- The MITF gene was responsible for 23 percent of white marking variance in all types, while KIT was responsible for only 10 percent.
- MITF was responsible for 41 percent of all variance of white head markings in Chestnut Horses, while KIT only influenced 22 percent of the genetic variance.
What Are MITF, MCIR, And KIT genes?
- MITF or microphthalmia-associated transcription factor genes are essential for pigment cell function and activate other genes in the pigmentation process, including melanocyte movement and proliferation.
- MCIR gene or melanocyte-stimulating hormone receptor gene controls the production of the protein melanocortin 1 receptor, which is essential for normal pigmentation.
- KIT or Proto-Oncogene, Receptor Tyrosine Kinase is a Protein Coding gene responsible for the white spotting patterns in horses such as Sabino 1, Roan, and dominant white patterns.
What Is A Blaze Marking On A Horse?
A blaze is a distinctive band of white that runs from a horse’s forehead to the nose and sometimes further to the horse’s mouth. Unlike a strip or stripe, the white area is broader and more visibly distinctive.
Why Do Horses Have A White Blaze?
A horse’s blaze is due to hereditary KIT genes responsible for the white patterning in horses and MITF and MCIR genes accountable for pigmentation and melanocortin production, which creates the coat colors we see in horses.
What Is The Mark On A Horse’s Forehead Called?
A mark on a horse’s forehead is typically called a star and may have many shapes, including a triangle, heart, and diamond. If the pattern is merely a small collection of white hairs and base coat color, you will refer to the mark as a ‘faint star.’
What Marking Does A Horse Have If It Has A White Mark All The Way Down Its Face?
If the white mark obscures the base coat color from the horse’s eye area to the muzzle or the mouth, you would call the horse a ‘bald face.’ If the darker coat shows on the sides, you would call it a blaze. If the horse has a white face and base coat around the ears and forehead, your horse will be wearing a ‘medicine hat.’
The complex genetic interplay that created the prominence of the white facial markings of horses is a challenge to understand, but the beauty of a blaze and the pink skin of a snip is easy to see.
Markings make our treasured horses as outwardly individual as their natures, and every horse lover knows, each horse is truly unique.