Last Updated on June 28, 2020 by Allison Price
Gray horses are dark when young but they lighten as they age. Most horses gray out by an average age of 10 or 12. Some horses gray faster or slower than this, some never turn grey or white in a proper way. Some breeds and lines have exceptionally fast graying. We will discuss more about this thing in this article.
The Process of Graying in Horses
The process of graying in horses is the same with why our own hair goes grey with age. In humans and horses, hairs do not grow forever but are regularly replaced instead. In the case of human hair, each hair grows in one to three years before it is fully shed and replaced. New pigment cells need to be produced to color the hair every time a hair grows. These pigment cells proliferate from precursor cells. But we only have limited supplies. As we age, we run out of pigment cells. It leaves our hair a paler shade and eventually white. Horses without the gray gene go through this same process. They begin to lose pigment in their hair with age. But horses with grey gene have a surprising mutation that speeds up this process.
Grey Horse Breeds
Grey can be found in a large proportion of modern horse breeds. But like black breeds, there are a few which are known specifically for their glorious grey coat. A grey horse is generally born with color. But its coat is affected by a grey modifier. It means that with every shedding, there is more and more grey hair in their coat. It is slowly making them lighter and lighter until they go almost pure white. You can get an idea of how old a gray horse is by how dark his coat is.
The gray gene causes continuous depigmentation of the hair. It often results in a coat color that is almost completely white by the age of 6-8 years. Horses that inherit progressive gray can be born with any color. Then, they gradually begin to show white hairs mixed with the colored throughout the body.
- As the horse age, grey modifier removes pigment from hairs and skin
- Pigment is deposited in the gut and intestines
- Graying differs between horses and breeds
- First signs of graying are often seen around the eyes
- The grey gene is dominant. It does not skip generations
Rare Horse Colors
Pure albino gene is fatal in horses. They do not develop properly in the utero. If they survive until birth, they die shortly after.
A true white horse is very rare. A white animal can carry a white gene and give it to their offspring. It takes two parents with white genes to produce a pure white horse.
There are two types of black horses, fading black and non-fading black. Fading black horses fade out with age. But a non-fading horse retains their deep black color throughout their life. And that is what makes them rare.
Buckskin color comes from the addition of a creme dilution gene on a bay. Even a single dilution of a creme gene is able to produce blue eyes. They are also rare because they are reliant on creme gene. This gene is elusive and can be difficult to reproduce even if both parents carry it.
It is usually the result of a paring between a palomino and a liver chestnut animal. It is considered a palomino because it is created by the creme dilution gene.
Silver Dapple Horses
The silver dapple color is a result of a silver dilution gene on a black base. It is indeed a rare color. Gaited and mountain breeders call it chocolate. Iceland breeders call it blue silver.
Flaxen Chestnut Horses
It is a horse with a chestnut base affected by a flaxen color modifier which turns the mane and tail flaxen in color. This color modifier only affects chestnut animals. It is still a mystery gene that is believed to be recessive. This modifier is often found in Haflinger Horses.
The graying gene is found in all breeds of horse. It has the ability to mask all other colors or patterns. Pinto, appaloosa and roan white patterns are included. The graying process is like that of humans. The animals are born with their base color and become gray with age. The process often starts when foals shed their coat. But can wait several years to show. Graying will progress at different rates in different horses. But horses will eventually turn white.
Every grey horse will go through a variety of stages during the graying out process. It also varies by horse, breed and local conditions. The different stages are categorized below.
Steel or Iron Gray
This is in the early graying process on a black base. It is a sign that the horse is still young. The horse will sometimes have a bluish tint. It can be mistaken for a grullo or blue roan.
This is in the early graying process on a bay or chestnut base. The coat will sometimes have a rosy or pink shade. They can be mistaken for a red roan.
This is the second stage of greying. It occurs between the ages of 4 to 12. Any base color can display dapples. They are patches of the base color surrounded by grey hairs.
As gray animals age and become whiter, some will keep flecks of their base color. Fleabitten grays are rarer than regular grays. Their spots can change or even pop up after the graying process is complete.
This is the final stage of the greying process. It occurs when all pigment in the hair is gone. A white grey coat denotes a mature animal. At this stage, it is usually impossible to tell what their original base color was.
We know how human hair turns grey and eventually white with age. In general, horses show a similar phenomenon of hair silvering with age. But it starts at, or soon after, birth and continues until all the pigment in the body hair, mane, and the tail is gone. The speed of color loss varies. Horses that have two gray genes often go white faster than horses with only a single copy of the gray gene.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!