What Is A Dapple Gray Horse? (A Complete Guide)

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Dapple is a stage of horse coloration typically seen in young adult gray horses. Dappling is a desirable feature of the horse, but it will continue to get lighter as it ages. Dappling is characterized by dark rings of light and dark hairs scattered over the body of the horse. 

Dapple Gray Horse

Is Dapple Gray A Breed Of Horse Or A Color?

Dapple gray horses are not a breed of horse. Dapple gray is a horse coat color that can appear in many different breeds of horses. Although it is most common in breeds of Arabian descent, it is also fairly common in other breeds.

Dappling is one of the progressive stages of a horse having a gray coat color. A gray horse can be born with a base in any color. It is primarily dependant on the color genes present in the horse and its parents.

When a gray horse is born, white hairs begin to appear fairly quickly. These white hairs become progressively more widespread as the horse gets older. These white hairs mix with the hairs of the base color, which can vary depending on the breed.

Graying occurs at differing rates. Some horses gray very quickly. Other horses gray very slowly. Typically, when the horse has reached adulthood, most of its grays have become entirely white. However, many will retain a mixture of lighter and darker hairs.

The dapple pattern commonly appears when the horse is a young adult, although it is not the only manifestation of graying. Sometimes a horse can develop a coloration resembling a roan coloration. This coloration has a more uniform mixture of dark and light hairs.

As the gray horse ages, the dappling pattern will either disappear, transform into an almost complete white, or develop into a flea-bitten gray pattern. A flea-bitten gray horse typically has a specific genetic makeup resulting in gray-colored speckles over a white coat.  

What Are The Characteristics Of A Dapple Gray Horse?

  • Body: Can be born any color but will lighten with age until entirely white. Dapple or pigmented speckles may develop in young adulthood as a transitionary stage.
  • Head/Legs: Typically, the head is the first part of the body to lighten. Legs are typically the last part of the body to turn lighter.
  • Mane/Tail: May not gray at the same time as the body. Typically does not dapple or speckle but can be lighter or darker than the body color.
  • Skin: Black skin is usual unless the horse has white markings at birth.
  • Eyes: Dark brown unless other eye color genes are present.
  • Genetics: When the gray gene is present in the horse, it will always turn gray. In other words, the gray gene dominates all other horse colors. 

What Are The Stages Of Gray Color Changes?

Dappled grays are merely a stage in the larger coloration changes of gray horses. The coat color of gray horses is characterized by a progressive depigmenting of hair colors, and the stages of graying tend to vary widely.

Different breeds of horses take different amounts of time to turn gray. Even individual horses within a given breed vary significantly in the amount of time it takes to go from one stage of graying out to another.

Progressively changing hair colors mean that the same horse will have a different appearance over time. Often this results in the need to change the color listed on its breed registry papers.  

Let’s look at the different stages of graying and see where the dapple gray stage appears.

Foals

A few white hairs appear within the first years of a gray horse’s life, especially as their foal coat begins to shed. Some foals will have gray around their muzzle and eyes, while others will not show any white hairs at all until they become yearlings.

Young Gray Horses

In this intermediate stage, the horse will be in the early stages of graying out. White hairs are mixed with whatever their darker birth color was.

Dark bay and black horses will have white and black hairs mixed on the body in a salt and pepper pattern. This is sometimes called iron or steel gray and is the most common form of intermediate gray, giving the horse a silvery coat.

A reddish tinge called rose gray is also possible and is most often associated with horses born bright bay or chestnut.

As we will discuss below, younger horses that are just beginning to turn gray can sometimes be confused with roans. However, true gray horses will continue to lighten while a roan will not.

Dapple Gray

A dapple pattern forms by rings of darker hair filling in with lighter hairs. These rings are scattered all over the horse’s body.

Not every gray horse will dapple, and some other breeds and colorations will also produce dappling, but it is pervasive among gray horses, typically when they reach the stage of young adulthood.

Dappling is often considered a desirable feature of the horse, but it does not last long. Gray horses continue to lighten as they get older.

Late Stage

In this later stage, the horse is not entirely white, and some areas, especially near the legs and flanks, will retain some of the original coat color.

Complete Depigmentation

At this stage, nearly every hair on the horse’s body is white. All traces of dappling are gone, and the horse is likely finished changing colors.

Some horses progress to a flea-bitten pigmentation, which we will discuss below.

At this late stage, the only way to distinguish a gray horse from a white horse is by their underlying skin color. In white horses, the skin color is pink. In gray horses, the skin color is black, and so is the area around the eyes and muzzle.

Flea-Bitten Gray

Sometimes a gray horse will develop a speckled pattern on its white coat. This is usually known as ‘flea-bitten, and it is most common in heterozygous grays.

Typically the flea-bitten coloration will appear after the horse has gone completely white. Speckling amounts vary between horses, and the density of the freckles may increase as the horse gets older.

Some horses will only have a few freckles that can only be seen by closely examining the horse. Others have a high density of freckles and can be mistaken for sabino horses.

Blood Marks

Bloody shouldered grays (also sometimes called ‘blood marks’) are related genetically to flea-bitten grays. These horses have heavy pigmentation on one area of their body, usually the shoulder.

Andalusian Horse

Dapple Gray Horse Breeds

Gray horses, and therefore the potential for dappling, can occur in many breeds of horse. About 1 in 10 horses carry the graying gene. Graying is commonly found in warmblood horses and least common (although still existing) in Thoroughbreds.  

The most common horse breed in which graying occurs are as follows:

  1. Arabian
  2. Thoroughbred
  3. American Quarter Horse
  4. Welsh pony
  5. Percheron
  6. Andalusian
  7. Lipizzaner

Gray horses, and therefore the potential for dappling, can occur in many breeds of horse. About 1 in 10 horses carry the graying gene. Graying is commonly found in warmblood horses and least common (although still existent) in Thoroughbreds.  

1. Arabian Horse

Originating from the Arabian Peninsula, hence its name, these are among the most recognizable breeds in the world. Arabian horses that appear white are, in fact, gray horses, which is a common color of this breed.

2. Thoroughbred

These hot-blooded horses were developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gray is a standard color, but so are bay, brown, chestnut, and black. The term Thoroughbred should be distinguished from pureblood. 

3. American Quarter Horse

Gray is a common color for the American quarter horse. The development of these horses dates back to the 17th century. American Quarter Horses are known for their ability to reach speeds of up to 55 mph over short distances.

4. Welsh Pony

Welsh ponies, cobs, and other closely related breeds are frequently gray, but they can also come in black, chestnut, or bay. These ponies were mainly used as working horses on farms but are now popularly used in equestrian competitions.

5. Percheron

Percherons are a breed of draft horses bred initially as war horses. They are typically black or gray and frequently dappled when they are young adults. Arabian blood was added to the breed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

6. Andalusian

About 80% of Andalusians are gray. Andalusians are closely related to another horse that is well known for dappling: the Portuguese Lusitano.

7. Lipizzaner

Lippizens carry the dominant gray gene. Therefore the majority of horses in this breed are gray. Lippizan foals are typically born black or bay, slowly becoming gray over time. It can take between six and ten years for them to become entirely gray.

How Much Does A Dapple Gray Horse Cost?

Many horses carry the gray gene from Arabians and their various descendants, from Thoroughbreds to Libizanners. The cost of these horses can vary widely depending on their pedigree and training.

Dappling is a desirable feature to have in a horse and something frequently seen at horse shows. Even though it is not permanent, it can add to the cost of the horse. 

How Do You Breed A Dapple Gray Horse?

You cannot specifically breed a dapple gray horse. You can, however, breed a gray horse. Any horse that carries the gray gene from one of its parents will eventually ‘gray out.’ This is because the gray gene is dominant.

Although it is a fairly common occurrence among gray horses, there is no guarantee that a gray horse will dapple.

Can Dapple Gray Horses Turn White?

Those unfamiliar with horses and how coloration works often confuse white and gray horses, but there are some important differences.

Most dominant white horses have blue eyes and pink skin. Dark eyes and dark skin beneath a white coat, on the other hand, is characteristic of a gray horse.

There are some cases when the line between a genetically white horse and a genetically gray horse can become even more muddled. Gray horses with a homozygous cream coat are often born with pink skin, white or nearly white hair, and blue eyes.

In these cases, DNA testing is often required to clarify the horse’s genetics. But in general, the following rule holds true: gray genes do not affect eye and skin color. Thus grays have dark eyes and skin, while white horses have pink, unpigmented skin.

What Are Other Horse Colors Sometimes Confused With Gray?

In addition to white horses, there are a few other horse colorations that can often be mistaken for gray. This section will look at how to distinguish gray horses from diluted, roan, and rabicano colorations.

Dilution Genes

A dilution gene acts to create lighter coat colors in any living creature. Diluted or lightened coat colors have something called melanocytes. Melanocytes are skin color-producing cells that turn the coat lighter or darker.

The dilution genes present in horses create a variety of colorations, including creme, pearl, dun, silver dapple, and champaign coloration. Any one of these colorations can produce dappling, especially in young adult horses.

Blue dun, grullo, or mouse dun look like they are solid gray. The dun gene causes this by acting upon a horse’s black base. With dun horses, all of their hair is the same color, and there is no mixing of dark and white colors. These horses do not dapple, nor do they get lighter with age.

Light cream color horses such as cremello, perlino, and smokey cream have their colores produced by the cream gene. These horses, along with horses possessing pear and champagne genes, can have dappling.  

The silver dapple gene does not belong to a gray horse. This gene acts on a black coat and dilutes it to a dark brown or flaxen color. Silver dapple horses will not lighten unless a parent possesses a gray gene, which will dominate.

Roan/Rabicano

Horses in the intermediate stages of graying or who are heavily flea-bitten can sometimes be confused with rabicano or roan horses.

There is an easy way to distinguish roans from grays. Roans have white hairs on top of a dark base coat. The head and legs will be darker than the rest of the horse’s body. Gray horses, on the other hand, have lighter heads, especially around the muzzle and eyes.

Appaloosa horses sometimes have a varnish roan coloration which can sometimes be mistaken for gray. This is caused by a different genetic mechanism, though, and is distinguishable from grays in that they do not become pure white.

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