What Is A Bay Horse? Color Genetics, Breeds, and Pictures


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While standing near a yearling, a young man asked if the horse was a bay. “It sure is,” someone behind me answered. But, as I walked away, I wasn’t sure he was correct, so I decided to research bay coat colors to find out.

Bay horses have a reddish-brown coat color and black points (mane, ear tips, tail, and lower legs), and dark skin. The shades of bay horses vary from light brown to dark red. Bay color patterns are prevalent in most horse breeds. All bay horses have a black color base affected by the Agouti gene.

All bay horses have two features: black “points” and dark skin. The underlying genetic makeup of bay horses is relatively simple, but the variations in shades of bay horses are created through complex gene structures.

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What makes a horse a “bay”?

All bay horses don’t look the same, but every bay horse has certain traits unique to bays.

Bay horses have a specific genetic combination.

Many equestrians think of bay as a base color in horses. However, this is debatable because, in some circles only, black and chestnut are considered the only true base colors, and bay is a color derived from the black base.

Bay horses have allele and agouti genes.

However, most genetic researchers consider bay an equine base color. There must be a specific combination of genes that include the E allele and agouti to create bay horses. These genes are dependent on each other to produce a bay horse.

All bay horses have at least one E allele gene.

Horses have three base coat colors, chestnut, bay, and black. These colors are controlled by the E gene and the A gene. Black pigments are expressed genetically by “E.” Bay horses have at least one E allele gene, which can be either E/E or E/e.

In horses, the bay gene is dominant over black, and its expressed by either E/Aa or E/AA. All bay horses have a minimum of one gene that causes the production of black pigments. Another gene that plays a significant role in bay horses is the agouti.

The agouti gene directs black pigments in bay horses.

The agouti directs the distribution of black pigments. Dominant agouti (“A“) results in the black base color “E” restricted to the points of the horse. Points are the horses’ legs, mane, tail, and ear tips.

bay horse,

This genetic combination results in a standard bay colored horse, which is a reddish body with black points. The agouti gene has limited ability, it only directs black pigments, and therefore chestnut horses are immune from its influence.

Black is the most common color of mammals in the wild.

Most mammals in the wild are predominantly black-pigmented. Black is found in the eyes, skin, coat, and extremities of these animals. If there is no gene to regulate black pigment distribution, it will be found throughout the animals’ hair.

To show black throughout a horse’s coat, it needs to have two recessive “a” alleles.

However, most animals have other genes restricting the distribution of black to areas of the coat. When this occurs, black isn’t present in a particular location.

Think of many animals’ lighter color underbellies; that pattern is created by a gene acting on the black gene.

Wild pattern genes create camoflauge coloring.

The wild-pattern restricts black pigment distribution in certain portions of the coat or certain parts of individual hairs. The result is a color combination that’s difficult for predators to see. The pattern is controlled by the agouti (A) gene acting in coordination with C and B.

These concealing pattern genes limit black pigments to primarily the dorsal and peripheral areas. The genetic influence typically results in a gray pattern with black-tipped hair.

Bay horses are influenced by wild pattern genes.

Now we return to the genetics of bay horses. The entirely black variety of the wild genetic pattern disappeared in horses over time. Still, the bay horse color coat retains the wild gene A, although not in its original form, but in an allele less effective in producing the wild pattern.

A recessive mutation of gene B creates a chestnut color that is recessive to bay, and when it’s combined with allele, we obtain brown, liver, and recessive black.

Occasionally a horse has both dominant and recessive black varieties, and a cross between may result in producing a bay foal. This is due to an ED allele which conceals the A pattern.

Regardless of the color tone, all bays retain the same basic genetic patterns

Bay horses are many different colors, shades, and patterns, but they all have a specific genetic combination. If you have a bay horse, its genetic test will most assuredly display one of the following genetic combinations: EEAA, EEAa, EeAA, or EeAa.

Although these combinations are found in all bays, they are not the only combinations that can create a bay horse. For example, a typical red bay horse has a red body color, and retains its primitive A pattern gene as seen in its black mane, tail, and legs; its genotype then may be expressed, ABCee.

The range in color of bay horses runs from dark mahogany to creamy white, as seen in the perlinos. Dark bays/browns can be so dark they are often mistaken as black.

A dark bay may look like a black horse.

To distinguish a dark bay from a black horse, look for brownish-red hairs. These hair are visible under the eyes, around the muzzle, behind the elbow, and in front of its stifle.

A dark bay and liver chestnut look very similar, except that liver chestnuts have a brown mane, tail, and legs, with no black points. A bay horse’s coat is rich and full, and in the sunlight, the colors are vibrant.

You will also notice that some bay horses exhibit dappling, caused by textured, concentric rings within the coat. Dapples are a genetic phenomenon; however, it results from good condition and proper care for some bays.

Some bay horses have two-toned hair shafts.

A bay horse with a two-toned hair shaft clipped tightly may appear several shades lighter, a somewhat dull orange-gold, almost like a dun.

The bay color genetics causes this coloring effect, but don’t let it worry you; the hair will darken to its natural shade when it grows out. In simple terms, the dominant agouti (A) forces the E allele to a horse’s points with a bay body.

There are many variables to the genotype at the agouti locus and E allele that determine a horse’s body color shades. The genetic combinations of the gene (E) and (A) provides the palate to build different shades in bay horses.

Adding different color genes to the gene pool of bay horses produces various shades and patterns. The following colors are shades of bay horses:

There are many shades of bay coat colors.

How many shades of bay horses are there? No one knows for sure, but most of the shades can be attributed to genetic factors, although nutrition and grooming play roles in the health of a horse’s coat. The more common bay colors are listed below:

Many terms can be used to illustrate the shades and qualities of a bay horse coat; some of the variations of shade are related to nutrition and grooming. Still, most are created by inherited factors not yet fully understood.

Standard bay is the most common bay coat color.

The standard bay is the most common bay color, and it is a coat color that is reddish/brown with black points. The classic bay is devoid of any lighter or darker hair.

bay horse,standard bay,

Sandy bay looks like a buckskin.

A sandy bay horse has black points and a light-colored coat. The foal in the above picture is a sandy bay. This color is created by the addition of one cream gene, which results in light coloring.

bay horse, sandy bay,

It’s not uncommon for a sandy bay horse to be confused with a buckskin because of their light, washed-out yellowish coat color.

A bay dun is a bay horse influenced by the dun gene.

bay horse,bay dun,

Dun horses have a dark stripe down the center of their back, tail, and mane, which is darker than its coat, and may also display primitive markings, such as striped legs. This pattern is created by a dun gene and influences different equine colors.

A bay horse influenced by the dun genes is called a bay dun. Bay dun horses with stripes and are also referred to as zebra duns. Their coats range from tan to shades of yellow. The black points are sometimes diluted with other colors.

Like all other dun horses, a bay dun has a dorsal stripe and often striping on the backside of their front legs. Buckskins and bay duns look similar, but bay dun’s coats are not as bright as buckskin horses.

To learn more about dun horses, we have an article that you can read by clicking on this link.

Perlinos are double diluted bay horses.

bay horse,perlinon,
Arsdelicata / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The Perlinos are double diluted creme bay horses. Meaning they have two creme genes (Sandy Bay has one creme gene). The double dilution results in a horses’ coat being a very light creme, almost white.

Perlinos look very similar to albinos; they have pinkish skin and blue eyes with points coloring, similar to a Buckskin except on a Perlino; the points are orangish.

For years perlino coloring was disfavored, so much so that the American Quarter Horse Association didn’t accept perlino registration of perlino foals, even if both parents were registered quarter horses. This practice change in the early 2000s, and now perlino horses can be registered with the AQHA.

Bay roans are bay horses with a dominant roan gene.

A roan horse has a mixture of colored and white hairs in its coat with mostly solid points. Bay roans are bay horses with at least one dominant roan gene; before 2003, they registered as red roans.

bay horse,bay roan,

To learn more about roan coat colors, read our article here.

Blood bays are rare.

bay horse, blood bay,
photo by Jeff Kubina

Although many mistakenly think a standard bay is a blood bay, a real blood bay horse is not common. An actual blood bay has a dark blood-red shade similar to a mahogany chestnut, but there are differences.

Blood bay horses have dark red coats with black points. Their coats run very dark and look like a shade of purple. It’s not a standard bay horse color.

Amber champagne bay horses have amber eyes.

bay horse,amber bay,
Cook D, Brooks S, Bellone R, Bailey E.

Amber champagne bay horses have hazel eyes, gold coats, and chocolate points. Champagne genes dilute the entire coat of a bay horse from brown and red pigments to gold.

Silver bays points are silver instead of black like all other bay horses.

A silver bay horse has one dominant silver gene. The gene only affects the black hair in a bay horse. The hairs on the points turn silver, and any short hairs in the coat will be diluted to brown/gray colors. The result is a horse with a chocolate coat and light-colored tail and mane.

Bay pintos have white spotting patterns.

Bay pintos have a gene that causes a white spotting pattern across the horse’s body. The design doesn’t distinguish the horse as a bay or not a bay horse.

The amount of white in the coat can create a dramatic effect on the horse or very minimal. In the United States, we commonly refer to pintos as paints. However, to register a foal as a paint, the offsprings’ parents must be registered thoroughbreds, paints, or quarterhorses.

Pintos do not have that requirement, so all paints are pintos, but not all pintos are paints.

Bay leopards have striped hooves.

Bay leopards have a specific gene; the Lp cause leopard patterns in a horse. This gene can create a dramatic look on a horse or be barely noticeable. The Appaloosa breed has this genetic material. The gene will also create stripes in the horse’s hooves. In some cases, it will cause a roan effect.

Mahogany bays can be so dark they are mistaken for a black horse.

This horse has a dark deep red and brown coat with black points. The mahogany bay can easily be mistaken for a black horse.

The black on a wild bays legs stops short of the horse’s knees.

A wild bay looks much like a standard bay. They have a reddish tinted coat with black points. What makes a wild bay different from the standard bay is the black on a wild bay’s legs does not reach the horse’s knees.

A buckskin horse has one dililution gene.

bay horse,buckskin,

A buckskin horse has a bay base diluted by one copy of the dilution allele. They can range in coat color from cream to yellowish with a black mane, tail, and lower legs.

Many great racehorses were bay.

There have been many famous bay horses. The following is a list of some:

  • Seabiscuit: Light bay. He was a champion in the late 1930s. He beat triple crown winner War Admiral in a match race and was voted Horse of the Year for 1938.
  • Northern Dancer: Standard bay. Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but is mostly remembered as the most successful sire in the 20th century.
  • Cigar: Dark bay: Cigar was the worlds leading money earner. He was voted was also elected Horse of the Year.
  • Big Brown: Standard bay: Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2008. He was voted three-year-old champion colt in 2008. His lone loss was in the 2008 Belmont Stakes.

Bay color coat patterns are common in many horse breeds.

Bay horses are quite common and are found in most horse and pony breeds. Here are some of the more popular breeds with bay horses.

Bay is a common color in the Clydesdale horse breed.

The Clydesdale is a draft breed most famous for pulling the Budweiser wagons during parades. Bay is one of the most common colors of the Clydesdale horse breed and black, brown, and chestnut.

In addition to the standard bay coat color, they also have distinctive feathering on their lower legs and white hair throughout. The ideal Clydesdale color pattern includes four white lower legs and a well-defined blaze.

Many of the best Thoroughbred racehorses have been bay.

The American Jockey Club, the official breed registry for Thoroughbreds in the United States, has strict color guidelines for horse registration.

They accept black, white, chestnut, gray/roan, bay (brown), and palomino with or without white markings. Color is so critical to the Jockey club that they often require genetic testing for foals before registering.

Bay is a standard Quarter horse coat color.

The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) governs the registration of quarter horses. They accept 17 colors: chestnut, sorrel, black, brown, gray, bay, palomino, buckskin, cremello, perlino, white, dun, red dun, grullo, red roan, bay roan, and blue roan.

The origin of the American Quarter horse breed traces to colonial racing in the Carolinas and Virginia. These horses raced short distances, often through the main thoroughfares of small villages.

Eventually, they became famous for their quarter-mile speed, and the moniker of quarterhorse stuck. The modern American Quarterhorse is a versatile breed that competes in many equine activities. They have a good temperament, are durable, fast, and smart.

The most common coat color of the Ardennes horse breed is bay.

Ardennes horse registry in England is open to all colors for registration, except piebald and stallion are forbidden to have white markings on their heads.

Bay is the most common color of the breed. Other popular colors of the Ardennes breed are roan, chestnut, and palomino. Black Ardennes are very rare. The Ardennes breed is one of the oldest horse breeds in Europe and was used by both Ceasar and Napoleon in battles.

Registered Arabians can be bay if they don’t have a dilution gene.

Purebred Arabian’s can be bay so long as they don’t have a dilution, such as buckskin or perlino. The colors accepted for registration by the Arabian Horse Association is bay, gray, chestnut, black, and roan.

Arabians are an ancient horse breed that originated in the desert areas of the Arabian peninsula. They are best known for their elegant looks and endurance.

An Arabian horse has a compact and slim body with a long neck and powerful hindquarters. And all Arabian horses have black skin to protect them against the sun.

Andalusian horses are typically either bay or gray.

Through the ages, there have been Andalusians in all basic horse color patterns, including spotted. However, most modern Andalusian are either bay or gray.

The International Andalusian & Lusitano Horse Association, which is the Andalusians’ official breed registry, accepts registration of horses with bay, gray, chestnut, black, dun, palomino, buckskin, pearlino, and cremello colors.

Tennessee Walking Horses are commonly bay.

Tennessee Walking Horses come in a variety of colors, but bay is one of the most common colors of the breed. Other colors include black, chestnut, palomino, buckskin roan, and spotted patterns. You can also find Tennessee Walking Horses in Pinto patterns of overo, sabino, and tobiano.

Many Morgan horses are bay.

Morgan horses are accepted for registration in various colors but are most frequently bay, black, brown, chestnut, gray, palomino, creme, dun, and buckskin. Although some Morgans are gray, roan, and silver dapple, they are not common.

The Morgan horse breed originated in the United States, and every Morgan horse can trace its heritage to one stallion. This stallion is Justin Morgan, born in 1789 and was originally called “Figure.”

He was purchased by a teacher named Justin Morgan, and the horse eventually became known as the Morgan horses. Because of his durability and athletic ability, he developed into a much sought after stud.

Figure’s bloodlines included Arabian, Thoroughbred, and Dutch horses. He was known to sire horses with superior conformation and temperaments.

One of the most common colors of Belgian horses is bay.

Belgian horses are various colors, but the most common colors are roan, black, bay, and chestnut. However, it’s not unusual to see a sorrel or dun-colored Belgian horse.

Belgian draft horses are enormous. They have held the world record in the categories of the largest, tallest, and strongest horse in the world. They are the most compact yet most robust of all draft horse breeds.

Closing Note

When I go to the track with one particular friend, he only bets on bay horses. He believes they are genetically superior horses. Is he right? I doubt it. But from our personal experience, we have had more success betting on bay horses than any other color.

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Miles Henry

I love animals! Especially horses, I've been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn't make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines. Miles Henry

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