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Terms used to describe horse colors aren’t familiar to everyone. So here, we explain the basic terminology, patterns, and genetics of equine coat colors.
Common horse coat colors are Sorrel, Bay, Palomino, Dun, Dapple gray, Buckskin, Roan, Paint, Appaloosa, Gray, Chestnut, and Black.
But before we dive into the details, here are pictures of standard horse colors: (click the word below the image for detailed information about the color in the photo)
Horses’ coat colors are derived from one of two possible base pigments: red or black, which means that every horse has a gene for either of these pigments. Bay is also considered a base color by some people.
Extention genes control the production of red or black pigments. So in basic terms, every horse coat color starts with a red or black base, and modification or dilutions of the base create various coat colors.
These new colors are identified by terms typically unique to the description of horse colors, such as bay, sorrel, chestnut, and roan, to name a few.
1. Sorrel coat colors
Origin of Sorrel term
Sorrel is likely a reference to the red color found in the sorrel herb. Sorrel herbs are plants with bright green leaves and dark copper-red stems and veins.
But the first uses of “sorrel” as a term describing horse coat colors trace back to the mid 14th century and is likely from Od French sorel for sor “yellowish-brown.”
Sorrel color description
Sorrel horses are entirely copper-red, including their coat, mane, and tail. It’s the standard chestnut horse to most people. However, in the western horse world, these animals are sorrel horses.
Sorrel horses are red. Because red is recessive, they must carry two copies of the red factor (e) allele. When an animal has a gene with identical alleles, they are homozygous.
The A agouti gene only affects black pigments, so it isn’t visible in a Sorrel horse’s coat. Though the agouti gene isn’t visible, a Sorrel can carry the gene and pass it to its progeny.
Breeds with Sorrel coat colors
Popular breeds with Sorrel coat colors include Thoroughbred, Belgian draft horses, Tennesse Walking Horse, and Quarter horses. Sorrel coloring is prevalent in most breeds.
2. Bay coat colors
Origin of Bay term
Bay can be a body of water or a type of window. But when used by equestrians, it describes a specific horse coat color and pattern.
The earliest use of bay to describe a horse’s coat color traces to the 14th century. It has Anglo-French origins and is from the Latin word badius, meaning “chestnut-brown.”
Bay color description
Bay horses have reddish-brown coat colors with black points and black skin. “Points” are a horse’s mane, tail, ear edges, and lower legs. There are many shades of the bay, such as blood bay and sand dun.
Color variations of bay horses
- blood bay
- bay dun
- sandy bay
- bay roan
- amber champagne bay
- silver bay
- bay pinto
- leopard bay
- wild bay
Bay horses are black-based and have the black gene (“E”), also known as an extension; this is needed to produce black pigment. The black gene is influenced by an agouti gene (“A”).
The agouti gene controls the distribution of black pigments to the horse’s points. Bay horses are expressed genetically as either E/Aa or E/AA.
Horse breeds that have Bay coloring
Bay is a primary horse color and is found in almost every breed. They are common in Thoroughbreds, Clydesdales, Standardbreds, and Quarter horses.
3. Palomino coat colors
Origin of Palomino name
Palomino horses are mentioned throughout history but by various names, such as the golden horse and golden dorado. The first use of Palomino to describe these beautiful animals’ coloring is relatively new compared to Sorrel and Bay.
The earliest use of Palimino I saw occurs in the late 19th century. Palomino is Spanish and translates in English to “young dove.” Young dove is an apt description based on the Palomino’s cream-colored coat.
There’s also a Royal Palomina family in Spain, and some horse enthusiasts claim this family is the genesis for the horse’s nomenclature, which may be correct. The etymology of Palomino is Latin palumbinus, which translates to “wood pigeons.”
Palomino color description
Palomino is a color breed of horses that exhibit yellow or gold coat colors, with white or light cream manes and tails. Palomino’s may have evolved in the deserts of the middle east.
Scientists theorize that the horses’ light-colored coats camouflaged them from predators and protected them from the blazing sun.
Variations of Palomino coat colors
- Light Palomino
- Golden Palomino
- Chocalote Palomino
- Pearl Palomino
- Champagne Palomino
Palominos have a chestnut base and a cream dilution gene. The genotype ee creates a chestnut base coat color, and the genotype C Ccr at the C locus dilutes the red coloring in the chestnut to yellow pigment.
There are many variations to the basic Palomino genetics; some variances create deeper gold and yellow coloring in the horse’s coat. To increase the chances of producing a Palomino foal, cross a Palomino with a cremello or Perlino.
Many breeds have Palomino coloring; however, quarter horses have the vast majority of horses with Palomino coloring. It’s believed that more than 50 percent of all Palominos worldwide are quarter horses.
4. Dapple Gray coat colors
Origin of the Dapple Gray name
Dapple gray horses have a gray coat with dark rings across most of their body. The circles are dapples. Thus the name is a description of the color pattern.
Dapple gray color description
As stated above, a dapple gray is a horse with a gray coat displaying dark circles over lighter hair. The dapples typically cover most of the horse’s body and produce a unique and beautiful pattern.
Dapple gray genetics
Dapple gray horses have a standard gray genetic base. This means they have a dominant gray gene that dilutes the base coat color gene. It’s not a stand-alone color gene.
Genetically created dapples are caused by the deactivation of the dominant gray gene in certain spots on the horse’s coat. This type of dappling is called “true dapples.”
A horse may exhibit “bloom dapples,” which look similar to a true dapple. Bloom dapples result from good conditioning and a proper diet, not genetics. Bloom dapples come and go, but true dapples are always present.
Breeds with dapple-gray horses
Dapple gray is standard in many horse breeds, with gray horses, and grays are typical in most breeds. Lipizzaner, Andalusians, and Percheron are horse strains with the majority gray coloring.
5. Dun coat colors
Origins of Dun term
Dun is an Old English word with a Germanic origin. It was likely a reference to dusk and evolved to mean dingy brown. It may also have its roots in Gaelic. The Gaelic word donn means “dull; dark brown; dark.”
The earliest use of “dun” to describe a horse is in the late 14th century. Reference to “dun horses” is used by both Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Description of Dun color pattern
Dun horses have a dull yellow or tan coat with dark points and primitive markings. Points are the mane, tail, ear tips, and lower legs, while primitive markings are dorsal stripes, horizontal stripings on the upper legs, and sometimes a line across the withers.
All Dun horses have a clean, crisp dorsal stripe, and most have dark-tipped ears. Distinguishing a dun is tricky because countershading, sooting, or other color modifications mimic dun color patterns.
Various shades of Dun Color
The most common dun is tan with black points (classic dun), but there are many variations and different colored dun horses.
- Bay Dun
- Blue Dun
- Red Dun
- Grulla Dun
- Zebra Dun
- Claybank Dun
- Classic Dun
- Mouse Dun
Dun Color Genetics
A dilution allele gene creates dun color coat patterns. The gene lightens the base coat of a horse but doesn’t affect the primitive markings or points. Every dun horse has at least one parent with a dun gene.
The dun gene is dominant and illustrated by “D.” Dominant genes always affect the animals’ color patterns. The dun dilution creates colors ranging from light shades of yellow to dark gray and many variations in between.
Breeds with Dun horses
The dun pattern was prevalent in ancient wild horses to camouflage against predators. However, in domestic horses, the color pattern is not seen as frequently.
Like their ancestors, wild breeds such as the Przewalski’s horses, Tarpan, and Konik are predominately duns. Not all domestic breeds carry dun marking, but the markings are found in many such as Quarter horses, Icelandic, Norwegian Fjords, and others.
6. Buckskin coat colors
Origin of the term Buckskin
First used in the 13th century, buckskin was used to describe the skin of a buck. By the late 18th century, the term was used to describe a kind of soft leather made from deer hides.
Buckskin was also a nickname for the Continental troops in the American Revolution because they often wore clothing similar to the Native Americans made from deer hides. I’m not able to locate the earliest use of the term buckskin to describe a horse.
Description of Buckskin horses
A standard Buckskin horse is the color of deer, faded tan with a black mane, tail, and lower legs. However, there are variations of the coat colors from a light creamy yellow to dark golden.
Various shades of Buckskin
- Buttermilk Buckskin
- Dusty Buckskin
- Sooty Buckskin
- Standard Buckskin
- Silver Buckskin
- Brown Buckskin
- Golden Buckskin
The creme dilution gene tones down the base coat colors but doesn’t affect the agouti gene direction of the black pigments to the points. The combination of genes results in a tan horse with black points.
Breeds with Buckskin coloring
Buckskin is a common coloring in many breeds, such as the American Quarter Horse, the Andalusian, Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, and many pony breeds.
However, some horse registries don’t accept buckskin-colored horses. For example, Arabians, Friesian, and Shire horse associations are a few that find buckskin unacceptable coat colors.
7. Roan coat colors
Origin of the term Roan
Roan first used to describe horse color coats traces to the mid 16th century. The term is based on French meaning “reddish-brown,” or possibly Germanic, and they used “reudh” to describe red horses.
And finally, in Spanish, “Roano” is a name for a boy or used to describe a person with reddish-brown skin. In Spanish literature, “Roano” is sometimes translated in English as the color of a red horse.
Description of the Roan pattern
Roan horses have dark coat colors interspersed with individual white hairs. Typically their faces and lower legs remain solid color. The influence of white hair mixed evenly with the base color creates a frosted appearance.
Various Roan coat colors
- Blue Roan
- Red Roan
- Bay Roan
- Palomino Roan (honey roan)
- Buckskin Roan
- Rabicano Roan
A Roan horse coat is created by the presence of a roan gene (R), mutating a horse’s base coat color. It is a dominant Rn allele, and when paired with the “e” chestnut, it results in a red roan horse.
When the roan gene influences the “E” black gene, the outcome is a blue roan, and if it’s present in a bay, it produces a bay roan.
Breeds with Roan coat colors
The Roan color pattern’s in many horse breeds. They are common in the American Quarter Horse, Paso Fino, and Belgian breeds. However, Thoroughbred and Arabian associations do not permit the registration of Roan-colored horses.
8. Paint coat colors
Origins of Paint name
The noun “paint” originated in 13th century English from Old French peintier “to paint,” from the Latin word pingere of the same meaning.
Horses we know as modern Paint horses were originally called spotted horses and pintos. It wasn’t until 1962, when The Paint Association was formed, and they defined Paint horses.
Paint horse description
Paint Horses come in many color combinations of white and other colors, such as chestnut, bay, black, sorrel, palomino, gray, or roan. No two paint pattern is precisely the same; not only do colors vary, but so do the shapes and locations. The designs are infinite, much like fingerprints.
- Tobiano Paints
- Overo Paints
- Tovero Paints
Paint horse genetics
Tobiano is the only spotting pattern that is created by a single gene, symbolized by TO. It restricts the pattern of white hair with any coat color and has underlying pink skin.
Overo is an umbrella term that includes three genetically distinct paint patterns: frame overo, sabino, and splashed white. Not a lot is understood about the genetics that creates overo patterns.
But it’s widely accepted that one or more dominant genes influence their patterns. However, this is still a theory because it’s also possible that one gene and a modifier creates the pattern.
Horse breeds with Paint coat patterns
The American Paint Horse is a breed, but in certain situations, it can be registered as an American Quarter Horse as well. There are also breeds such as Clydesdales with patterns similar to paints.
9. Appaloosa coat colors
Origin of the name, Appaloosa
Appaloosa horses likely were named after the Palouse River in Idaho. The settlers called the horses from the Nez Perez region Palouse horses, and eventually, the name morphed to Appaloosa.
In Louisiana, we have a town called Opelousa, which translates to the “black body” from Choctaw. Although Opelousa and Appaloosa sound similar, it’s not likely to be the basis for the animal’s name.
Description of Appaloosa horses
Appaloosa horses’ coat colors are a combination of base color and an overlaid white spotting pattern. The most familiar design is a white spotted pattern over the horse’s haunches.
In addition to a distinct coat color pattern, Appaloosa horses share other characteristics such as striped hooves, mottled skin, and white sclera noticeable in their eyes.
Various Appaloosa Coat Patterns
- Blanket – Solid white area over the hip area with a contrasting base color.
- Spots – Large dots of white or dark colors over all or a portion of its body.
- Blanket With Spots – A white blanket combined with dark spots on the white. The spots are typically the base color.
- Roan/Marbleized – White and dark hair mixed, creating the appearance of white flecks in the coat.
- Roan Blanket – A roan pattern over a section of the body, typically the hip area.
- Roan Blanket With Spots – A roan blanket with white and dark spots in the affected area.
- Solid – An acceptable base color without a contrasting the Appaloosa pattern, but with mottled skin and another breed characteristic.
- Leopard pattern: Predominately white body covered with dark spots creating the appearance of a leopard.
- Snowflake: A dark coat with white dots, predominately over its haunches.
Two genes must be present to create an appaloosa pattern. The Leopard Complex LP allele gene controls the existence or absence of appaloosa characteristics, and the other gene is a modifier of the color pattern.
The extent of the Appaloosa pattern is determined by the number of LP alleles and the presence of modifying alleles. Horses that carry one LP allele will show some Appaloosa characteristics.
Horse breeds with LP allele genes
The LP gene is considered the Appaloosa gene, but other breeds carry the LP allele, such as the Knabstrupper, Pony of Americas, Andalusian, and Paso Fino.
10. Chestnut coat colors
Origin of the term Chestnut
Chestnut horse color is a reference to the dark, reddish-brown color seen on chestnut trees fruit. It’s from Middle English chesten, and Old French chastaign, both with roots in Latin.
Chestnut is used in the 14th century to describe a specific tree, but the earliest use to describe a horse’s color I found was in the mid-1800s.
Description of Chestnut horses
Chestnut horses have red coats and manes and tails of the same or lighter hues. They have no black hair and range from a light red, like peach, to a deep dark red, almost black.
- Liver chestnut: These are the darkest chestnuts, some are so dark they could be mistaken as black.
- Flaxen chestnut is any chestnut horse with manes and tails that are straw-colored, or lighter than the body color.
- Sorrel: Reddish-copper colored coat. It’s the most common chestnut shade.
- Light chestnut: is a term used to describe a pale chestnut, with the mane and tail the same color.
Chestnut horses have an extension locus (E). This gene halts the production of black pigments and causes the production of red pigments. There are three alleles of the chestnut extension gene, E+, e, and ea.
Horse breeds with Chestnut coloring
Chestnut is one of the most common equine colors and is present in almost all horse breeds. Some horses, such as the Haflingers, are exclusively chestnut, and others like the Belgian are predominantly chestnut.
11. Gray coat colors
Origin of Gray
Gray is Old English from græg. The spelling difference between the U.S. spelling (gray) and British spelling (grey)arose in the 20th century. Reference to “gray” horses traces back many centuries.
Description of gray horses
A gray horse can be born any color and progressively turn gray. Most horses are almost entirely white by six years old. Gray horses have dark skin, which differentiates them from white horses. White horses have pink skin.
Variations of Gray Coat Colors
- Steel Grey/Iron Grey: A horse with white and dark hairs evenly intermixed, creating its dark gray appearance.
- Dapple Grey: A horse with a gray coat overlaid with lighter rings of gray hairs across the animals’ entire body.
- Fleabitten Grey: A light gray horse with dark flecks of hair throughout its coat.
- Rose Grey: A gray horse that was born bay or chestnut and is in its early stages of graying. The condition creates a rose hue.
Gray horse genetics
A dominant gray gene (G) creates a horse’s gray coat. The impact of this dominant always changes the base color coat gray. The gray gene isn’t a color gene but rather a dilution gene.
As a horse grows older, the color dilution continues to lighten the animal’s hair color but doesn’t change a horse’s skin or eye color. However, there are instances of depigmentation of the skin around the eyes, mouth, and anus.
Horse breeds with Gray coat colors
Most horse breeds display gray coat colors, including Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and American Quarter horses. However, some breeds are predominantly gray, such as the Andalusian, Lipizzan, and Camargue horse.
12. Black coat color
Origin of Black
The original meaning of the Old English blac meant colorless and was used to refer to people without color, like an albino, used similarly to blanc. It wasn’t until the 1500s that black meant dark or the color of night.
Description of Black horses
Black is a hair coat color without any other colors except for black. Black is considered a unique equine color, and most horses thought of as being “black” actually have dark brown or bay coats underneath.
Black horse genetics
A black horse has must have one copy of the dominant “E” allele and two copies of the recessive “a” allele. It has no other dominant genes nor dilution or modifying genes.
The dominant “E” instigates the production of black pigment, and the recessive “a” controls the color distribution; an even distribution of black pigmentation is a true black horse.
Black horse breeds
Black horses are rare; however, in some breeds, the animals are almost exclusively black, for example, Friesian and Mugese. It’s also not unusual for Fell ponies, Andalusians, or Dales ponies, to be black.
The genetics behind horse coat colors are an important topic for any horse owner to know. Understanding the heritability of color can benefit your breeding decisions.
With this guide in hand and some basic understanding of the science behind it all, we hope you feel more comfortable with your decision-making process when it comes to horses!
If you’re looking specifically into the best coat colors or want to learn about rare equine colors, check out my helpful article on the topic here: Horse Colors: The Best and Rarest.