Equine Color Genetics

A Guide to Equine Color Genetics and Coat Color

Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price

What is the difference between a sorrel and a chestnut? What is the difference between a paint and a pinto dog? How do you breed them? Learn more about the genetics of coat color and equine colors by consulting our guidelines.

Are you confused about horse coat colors? As long as there has been a horse, the puzzle of what color to call one shade or another has existed. Although there will be much more debate about certain colors, the information we have gathered will allow you to identify sixty common (and not so common) hues in horsedom. We have also simplified the “equine colour genetics talk” to help you understand what combinations can produce these colors, and provided resources that will allow you to dig deeper into color breeding.

Two basic pigments are responsible for the color of an equine’s skin: red and black.

Stacey Nedrow – Wigmore

To get things rolling, did you know that gray is not considered a color but a pattern of white hairs. Continue reading!

Equine Color Genetics

The ABCs of Color

The subhead should actually read “The A’s & B’s Color” For visual identification, we have divided the standard color classifications into two groups: horses with black points (mane and tail), and horses with non-black point (think chestnut).

Black and red are the basic color pigments for horses. These pigments are inherited traits. Red is recessive, and black is dominant (see “Glossary” below).

To create the rainbow of colors we see today, each pigment can be modified using other genes (such as the dilution gene). You’ll be able to see that dilution can actually reduce the black of a horse with a black genetic point, thereby shifting him into the nonblack-point category.

To count the primary colors of the horse world, you will only need two hands and two fingers.

The black-point colors include bay, brown, grulla and buckskin.

Other black-point colors include champagne, chestnut/sorrel and cremello.

Variations within the primary categories of human hair blond, brunette, and redhead would require more than 12 fingers to count. You can be colorblind if you add the white-pattern colors gray, paint/pinto and roan to your identification.

We have grouped the equine colors based on whether or not there are black points. Then we added a section to include white-pattern colors. In the form of a “sample genealogical recipe,” we have also provided a broad example sire and dam color to help you understand how such offspring could be produced. Although you won’t get your desired color by breeding with those parents, it will help you hedge your bets. (See “Genetics 101” below for more information about color genetics.

Black-Point Colors
The black manes, tails and legs of all the colors can be used to visually reduce their visual impact. Tip: Focus on the leg color to avoid confusion. Manes and tails may fade in sunlight.

Bay: The Body colors range from reddish brown to washed out yellow. They can be mixed with darker or lighter hairs and have dark eyes.

Sample genetic code: BayX any color

Examples of colors:

  • Blood bay: a rare dark, blood-red shade (almost purple).
  • Cherry bay: Medium shade of the most reddish of bays.
  • Golden bay: A rarer, lighter, and more golden-toned version of the usual bay.
  • Mahogany bay: A bay so dark it’s almost black.
  • Sandy or light bay: A light, yellowish-colored shade of red.
  • Sooty bay is a darkened bay caused by the sooty effect (see “Glossary”) below).
  • Standard bay: Reddish-brown medium color without any mix of darker and lighter hairs.

Black: A solid black body, legs and mane; dark eyes. Not all black horses have the same coat color. Those that do not fade in sunlight are called “jet” or “raven black.

Example genetic recipe: Any color, any color; bay any color (needs to be a bay parent with a recessive dark gene).

Brown: The body is either brown or black, with lighter colors around the muzzle and eyebrows, quarters and flank, flank, and girth. These areas are sometimes called “mealy” (see the “Glossary”) Dark eyes. Not all registries consider brown a distinct color. It is a shade or bay.

Sample genetic code: Bay any color; brown any color; black any color.

Color variations:Seal Brown: A black horse with a mealy appearance.

Buckskin This dilute version (see “Glossary”) of bay can range in color from cream to a yellowish- or orange shade; it also has dark eyes. Buckskins can be confused with duns. However, “buckskin” today refers to tan or yellowish-colored horses with black points and no dun-like primitive markings (see the “Glossary”) The term “zebra dun” is used to describe buckskin-colored horses that have primitive markings.

Example genetic recipe: Cremello, buckskin X any colour; palominoX bay; and black Xbay (a recessive-cream gene is required for a black parent).

Color variations:

  • Dusty buckskin is a dark brownish-yellow shade.
  • Golden buckskin is a dark gold shade.
  • Silvery buckskin is the lightest shade, almost as light as a silvery-colored buckskin.
  • Sooty (or smutty), buckskin: Dark shade of buckskin because of a sooty effect. (see “Glossary “).<
  • Yellow buckskin: A medium shade of yellow. This is the “standard” buckskin colour.

Grulla This is a color that results from a dun dilution in black hair or seal-brown hair. You should look for dark hair, dark primitive markings, and dark eyes.

Example genetic recipe: Grulla any color; any dark X black; or any bay X (if the bay parent has a recessive gene for black).

Zebra dun Horses have a body similar to buckskin but have primitive markings. They are more tan than most buckskin horses, which tend to have a lighter, brighter shade. These are the most widespread linebacked duns (see “Glossary”)

Sample genetic formula: Zebra Dun X any colour

Color variations:

  • Coyote Dun: Black shading on the hips, back, and withers that resembles a coyote coat.
  • Dusty dun is a rare, beige color that looks almost like grulla, but has a dark head and a black or dark body.
  • Golden dun is a deeper shade of yellow.
  • Peanut-butter dun is a tan body in a peanut butter hue.
  • Silvery dun is the palest shade in zebra dun.

Non-Black-Point Colors
You can visually distinguish certain base colors by the presence of points. The following can be done the same way.

Champagne: This term refers to a dilution genetic that affects hair pigment and skin color. It makes red hair turn gold, and black hair turns chocolate-colored. Your horse may be born with the black gene, but the champagne gene makes it brown. This effect can be visualized by comparing a chocolate Labrador Retriever to a black Labrador Retriever. Keep in mind, as a way to identify the champagne gene, that it always results in lighter skin and darker eyes. This can be attributed to amber-colored eyes, which can become almost brown with age.

Sample genetic combination: Champagne, or any champagne variety color X.

Color variations:

  • Gold champagne (genetically chestnut), golden-yellow body, legs and mane; red/gold tail and mane. These were known and registered as light-skinned palominos for many years. Even though horses of this shade may look a lot like cremellos in certain cases, the amber eyes are the truth.
  • Amber champagne (genetically Bay): Gold body; Chocolate mane, tail, and legs.
  • Champagne (genetically dark): A khaki-colored body with almost greenish highlights. The mane, tail, and legs of champagne are chocolate. This color is a hallmark of the Tennessee Walking Horse breed.

Chestnut/sorrel (see “Sorrel Versus Cherry” below): The red factor is represented by reddish or copper-reddish legs and body. The mane and tail can have the same color as the body, or they can be flaxen or nearly black. Dark eyes. North American chestnuts/sorrels can be named only by their body color, leaving out the mane or tail colors. Flaxen chestnuts are an exception.

Example genetic recipe: Any color, X any color (except for cream colors).

Color variations:

  • Dark (or liver chestnut): A liver- or chocolate brown body, mane and tail, as well as legs. This subgroup can have different shades and is sometimes called “dark liver chestnut” or “light liver chestnut”.
  • Flaxen chestnut is a combination of a chestnut body and a flaxen tail.
  • Light chestnut: Also known as “sandy-colored chestnut”, a dog with a sand-colored mane, tail, and body.
  • Red chestnut: Copper-penny-colored, or redder body and mane, tail, and legs.

Cream or crèmello: The double dilutions of chestnut/sorrel result in a color that is almost white. The coat can be described as ivory, with a white mane and tail; pale pink skin; blue eyes.

Example genetic recipe: PalominoX Palomino; buckskinX buckskin, buckskinXbuckkin; blackXpalomino; buckskinXbuckkin; blackXblack (in each instance, the parents of black children must have a hidden-cream gene).

Color variations:

  • Perlino: Similar to cremello but with a small amount of color (cream, coffee-colored, etc.) retained in the tail, mane and lower leg. Perlino refers to a double dilution.
  • Perlino in smokey cream or smoky: Same as perlino but with more pigment retained in the mane, tail and (in some cases) on its body.

Red dun Horses with a dominant dilution genetic are tan to reddish brown to yellow and could be mistaken for chestnuts, except for their primitive markings (most often a dorsal or “lineback”) and dark points. They lack the black points that are characteristic of buckskin, grulla, or zebra duns. The mane, tail, and legs may be darker than the body; dark eyes.

Sample genetic combination: Any color, any dun color, any dun X every color.

Sample shades of body color:

  • Apricot dun: a pale peach-skin or apricot-skin hue.
  • Claybank dun is a pale shade that ranges from pale straw to yellow clay. It’s characterized by a yellow-colored cast to the hair and a mane or tail mostly made of cream or white.
  • Red dun with a sooty effect: Sooty red.

Palomino This is the color of chestnut with a cream-dilution factor. You should look for a clear-yellow to rich gold body. Manes and tails tend to be white or pale. Dark eyes are also common.

Sample genetic combination: CremelloX chestnut (will always yield palominos); CremelloX any colour; PalominoX chestnut; PalominoX any other color; PalominoX any other color; BuckskinX any colour; Black X all colors (if the black parent has a hidden-cream gene).

Color variations:

  1. Isabelo: The palest palomino color or darkest cream with amber eyes.
  2. Sooty (or smutty), palomino: Black shading mixed with yellow hairs; can look very dark and difficult from a chestnut.

Silver Dapple: This dominant gene lightens black pigments (such like points). While it does not affect red body pigment, it can lighten the manes and tails of red horses. The “silver gene” is now known as the “silver mutation,” since only a small percentage of horses have dapples. It is rare in North America, other than in pony breeds (think chocolate-colored Shetland with flaxen mane tail and gaited breeds like the Rocky Mountain Horse).

Sample genetic ingredient: Silver Dapple X any colour.

Color variations:

  • Silver-dapple bay: Body red; mane, tail flaxen or mixed with; legs light; eyes darker.
  • Silver-dapple black: Body chocolate-silver, mane and tail flaxen (or white); legs chocolate brown; eyes are dark.

Patterns in White

Gray is a color that you might associate with horses. However, it’s actually a pattern of white-colored hairs. Appaloosa, pinto/paint and roan are all considered patterns with white patches. This is how it works.

Appaloosa, or spotted horses: Although there are many leopard-patterned horse breeds around the world, Appaloosas are most well-known, especially in North America. The dominant gene for the leopard pattern produces coat patterns with dark or white spots, blankets, and “varnish”. (see below). White sclera around the eyes, mottled pigment on the skin and/or genitals, and striped hooves are all characteristics of this factor. Appaloosas can have a sparse tail and mane.

Sample genetic combination: AppaloosaX Appaloosa; AppaloosaX any color.

Color variations:

  • Blanket: A dark body covered in a blanket of white hair. The hips and loins may have darker spots. Mane, tail, and legs are dark. Eyes are dark.
  • Few-spot leopard: White body and legs, with a few dark spots scattered about; white mane; dark eyes.
  • Frost: A roaning-type, white spreading over the croup or hips; dark eye.
  • Leopard: White body with many dark spots on legs and body; mane and tail mixed; brown eyes.
  • Snowflake: White patches that measure up to 3 inches in diameter, sprinkled over a darker background color.
  • Varnish roan is not a roan. It’s a combination of dark and white hairs that displays the leopard complex. The bone areas, such as the withers, hip, and stifle, are darker than the rest. This is the opposite of “frosty” roan.

Gray is A dominant pattern that is caused by individual white hairs. These horses are usually born with colored hairs and gradually acquire white hairs over time. Their body, legs, and mane are all gray, while their eyes are dark. There are many factors that affect the speed at which graying takes place. All gray horses eventually become white or fleabitten (see below). Although some horses retain their color for longer periods of time, all horses eventually turn white if they live long enough.

Sample genetic combination: Any color X any gray.

Examples of coat patterns:

  1. Dapple gray is dark dappling visible on young gray horses before “whiteing out.”
  2. Flea-bitten grey: Small flecks of color (generally black or red) are left in the coat.
  3. Iron gray is gray without dapples.
  4. Porcelain grey: Older gray horses with white pigmented skin.
  5. Rose gray: pinkish-gray body color; dark eyes. This is not a permanent color but a term to describe a stage of gray that a young bay- or chestnut-hued horse might go through as he becomes grayer.

Pinto/Paint Their coats have asymmetrical patterns of white spots and irregular patterns. There are many background colors that can exist. Mane, tail, and legs can vary depending on the genetic coat pattern (see below); your eyes can be either dark or light.

A sample genetic recipe: Any paint/pinto X any colour

Color variations:

  • Overo: can be predominantly white or darker, and is usually characterized by dark legs and feet, as well as a head marked with white extensively. A deafness has been associated with excessive white on the overo head. Some legs may display similar markings to horses with solid-colored bodies. The white spots are usually found in the middle of the neck and body, and rarely cross the topline between the tail and withers. They are often irregular and described as “splashy” or scattered. They are typically one-colored, with the tail and mane being one color. Eyes can be either dark or light. (Caveat – Breeding too many dogs can lead to a fatal genetic defect called “Lethal White Syndrome”. See “Glossary.”
  • Sabino An overo pattern which often involves lots of white on the legs or face. The body spots, which are usually found on the belly, appear as roan-colored, speckled or (rarely), white patches with sharp edges. Most sabinos have roaned or flecked skin. The mane and tail can be colored or mixed with white, while the eyes are either dark or blue. Minimally marked sabinos have no body spots, and only white leg markings (such “high white”, which extends above hocks or knees), and extensive facial white (such that which dips below the chin). These horses can have spotted offspring, but they are not classified as spotted.
  • Tobiano : has a dark colored covering on one or both flanks. All four legs are usually white under the hocks and knees. The mane and tail can be white and dark. Spots are usually regular and distinctive, appearing as either ovals or circular patterns that run down the neck and chest, and often cross the back. The head is dark and usually has markings similar to a solid-colored horse’s star, blaze, etc. Eyes are dark. Notice: Homozygous tobianos (see “Glossary”) usually wear a 100 percent patterned jacket.
  • Tovero A spotted mixture of overo andtobiano characteristics.

Roan This dominant genetic effect causes white hairs to mix with the base-coat color all over a horse’s body but not the points. True roans are those who are born roan, or shed to that color after losing their foal hairs.

Sample genetic formula: Any color, any roan.

Color variations:

  • Blue roan: Intermingling of white hairs with black; dark eyes.
  • Frosty roan is a unique and uncommon roaning pattern. It features a mixture of white hairs (like frost) mostly on the bony areas, such as the hips and down the spine.
  • Red roan, or roan over the bay: White hairs mixed with bay hairs; dark eyes.

There you have it. There are many colors in the equine world that you can identify.

The editors would like to thank D. Phillip Sponenberg (DVM, PhD), Professor of Pathology & Genetics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg; Ann T. Bowling (PhD), University of California Veterinary Genetics Laboratory in Davis, California, for their assistance with this article.

Glossary

Allele A pair of genes that is located in the same place on each member of a pair chromosomes. It transmits characteristics that are inherited. (See “Heterozygous”, “Homozygous.”
Base colors These are the building blocks for all equine colors. They are black (chestnut/sorrel) and red (chestnut/sorrel). These colors are the foundation from which all colors can be created via genetic modification.
Bend Or and Bend’Or Spots Random dark patches on a chestnut/sorrel backdrop, ranging from small to large in size, and usually dark red, brown, or black in colour. It can also occur in other colors, but it is less common. Named for a Thoroughbred horse.
Bloodmarks: Large, distinct color patches (usually red), that can form on gray horses over time.
Dappling Roundish-shaped clusters with lighter pigment, surrounded by dark borders. Dappling is generally considered to be a sign of good health. These patterns are likely to reflect blood flow patterns in horses’ skin. They could also indicate subtle variations in hair texture or growth patterns that make the dapples standout.
Dilution Different genes that “tone down” basic colors literally make the most powerful dilution. A black made dilutive by a bay will become buckskin, and a chestnut will become palomino.
Dominant Gene: A gene which can hide another gene so that its presence is known in every generation. Compare to “recessive genes.”
Heterozygous A pair that isn’t identical on one chromosome. This means they don’t always breed according to the type of the involved color.
Homozygous A pair that is identical on one chromosome. This allows for true breeding of the particular color.
Lethal White syndrome: This fatal condition can develop when an overo is crossed to an overo and produces a homozygous foal. These foals are healthy, strong, and have solid white bodies with blue eyes. It is not immediately obvious that these foals lack vital nerves in their intestinal tract. This results in a constriction through the which material cannot pass. They usually die in three days. If you are looking for color in your overo, you can breed it to a stable horse. A 50-50 chance of obtaining a spotted foal will be possible, the same odds as when breeding overo to undero without taking any risk.
Lineback, also known as “dorsal stripes”: This is a so-called “primitive marking” (see below), that is darker than the base colour and results in a stripe running down the horse’s back. This is usually associated with lighter colors such as duns.
Mealy A genetic mutation that causes pale or yellowish areas in the lower belly, flanks and behind the elbows. A horse that is essentially black but has a brown muzzle, and other mealy markings (often called “mealy-mouthed”) would be an example of the mealy effect. This effect can also be applied to chestnuts, which may have multiple shades of red.
Pigment: Color.
Piebald: An older English term used to describe any black-and-white-colored horse.
Primitive markings Darker than the base colors, including dorsal strips (lineback), withers strip (cross), bars at the hocks and/or over the knees (zebra stripes or tiger stripes), concentric rings around the forehead (cobwebbing, spiderwebbing) These markings are most common on dun-colored horses but may also occur on other colors such as bay or chestnut. These markings are not uncommon in primitive breeds but can also be found in highly developed breeds.
Rabicano Similar to roan except that the white hairs are concentrated at the flanks. They can also be scattered. White hairs will be found at the tail base, which is a characteristic of the rabicano. Also called “skunk tail” and “white ticking.”
Recessive Gene: A genetic that is able to be hidden by another gene, but will be discovered in future generations. Compare to “dominant genes.”
Skewbald An older English term that describes white spots on any other color than black (see “Piebald” above).
Sooty Also called “smutty.” Dark shading along the back, shoulder, and croup of a horse’s genome that results in dark horses. It’s like he’s been covered with soot.

Sorrel Versus Chestnut

Is your chestnut really a sorrel or a chestnut? Is that sorrel actually a chestnut? It all depends, and it’s subjective.

Different breeds use these terms to refer to different genetic variations and shades of color. Draft-horse breeders reserve the term “sorrel”, for chestnut horses that have the mealy effect (see the “Glossary”) superimposed. The American Quarter Horse is an exception to this rule. They use the term solely based on the breed’s body color: “Sorrel” means red or lighter shades of chestnut, with or without the mealy effect.

Another approach is to use “sorrel” as a description of a light chestnut with flaxen tail and mane, although it’s rare. The common thread to “sorrel”, despite the fact that Quarter Horse enthusiasts and draft-horse fans use different logic, is its reference to lighter-colored chestnut horse.

The bottom line? Bottom line? “Chestnut” is the most common term, at least in an abstract sense, unless you are into Quarter Horses and draft breeds. If your breed registry is applicable, check with them. You can ask them what colors they recognize so that you can accurately describe the horse’s colour for registration purposes.

Paint? Pinto? What’s Right?

What is the difference between a pinto and a paint? If you refer to breed associations, rather than color patterns. Sometimes a Paint may be a Pinto and vice versa.

Confused? Let’s find out how it works.

The term “paint” or “pinto” refers to the presence of asymmetrical white spots patterns on the horse’s coat. They are often interchangeable in this general sense. Because in years past, the term “paint”, was used to describe a piebald horse (see also “Glossary”), confusion has lingered over their proper usage. “Pinto” was used for skewbalds or piebalds (see “Glossary”) again. No wonder we were mixed up!

Trend is to abandon the dated English color descriptions and embrace genetically distinct coat patterns like overo or tobiano.

There is still confusion when the terms “paint”, “pinto” and “pinto”, are used to identify breed names. The American Paint Horse Association of America and the Pinto Horse Association Of America provide documentation about pedigree qualifications for genetic color patterns. The bloodlines are what makes the difference between these two registries.

Paint Horses (those that are registered by the APHA are of Western stock type. They are restricted to horses of documented and registered Paint Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred breeding. The PtHA registers horses of similar stock type and allows registration of miniature horses, ponies, and horses derived form other approved breed crosses such as Arabian Morgan, Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, and some warmblood registries. Double-registering Paint Horses as Stock or Hunter Pintos is possible for most.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top