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Buckskin Horses: Facts, Colors, Origin, and Characteristics

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My three-year-old granddaughter loves horses, and her favorite is a wild buckskin mustang named “Spirit.” Her interest in “Spirit” led me to research buckskin horses to find out what makes a horse a buckskin.

The most apparent feature of buckskin horses is their coloring. Buckskin horses have a coat color of tan or gold with a black mane, tail, and lower legs. In addition to the coloring, a genuine buckskin is also a hardy horse.

Buckskin isn’t a horse breed but a color pattern. The buckskin coloring is found in almost all breeds; however, these tan-colored horses possess unique qualities that extend beyond their looks.

buckskin horse,
By SkippyTheWonder

Buckskins have existed for a long time.

Buckskin horses have been in around as long as horses have existed. Their origins can be traced to the primitive Sorraia horse breed. Today, most horse breeds have Sorraia influence; thus, you have buckskin coloring in all kinds of horses.

Spanish conquistadors brought with them Sorraia horses to North America in the 1500s to use as pack animals. The Sorraia breed was perfect because of its exceptional endurance and relatively low maintenance.

Horses brought over by the Spanish were released into the wild. The Sorraia blood filtered into the horses of the wild west. The crossing of Sorraia with other wild horses developed into the western buckskins.

These horses have a reputation as being invaluable all-around western workhorses; they displayed high endurance and soundness and were the surest footed horses. Because of these desired qualities, they were often the chosen steed of cowboys.

Picture of a silver buckskin horse with a dapple coat.
Silver buckskin with dapples

Buckskin color is created by a dilution gene.

Their coat colors are the result of a single creme dilution gene acting on a bay horse. Bay horses have a base color of black and an agouti gene which directs the location of black coloring to the points.

Since all buckskins have the genetic markers of a bay, they also have black points. Check this link to read more about bay horse genetics. Dilution genes tone down the base color in a horse.

The creme’s influence on the bay horse lightens the bay coat color to tan or golden in most instances. You can determine if your horse is a buckskin through genetic testing.

The horses vary in color; some may be yellow or dark golden, but the primary buckskin color is tan with black points. Their coat should resemble the color of a deer’s skin, without primitive markings.

The International Buckskin Horse Association lists acceptable colors for the registration of horses. The list can be read here. Standard colors can be seen below:

What is the lightest buckskin color?

Buttermilk is the lightest colored buckskin coat, and just like all buckskin horses, they have dark points. Below is a photo of a buttermilk horse. Some buttermilks are much lighter than the horse in the photograph.

Picture of a dusty buckskin horse,
By Cocopelli – Own work,

Dusty buckskins are light sooty’s

A dusty buckskin is a lighter version of a sooty horse with standard coloring and no definitive dorsal stripe.

Picture of a sooty buckskin horse.
By Satu Pitkänen – Self-photographed,

Sooty buckskins are dark on the top and light underneath.

Sooty Buckskin- The stallion below may look like a dun, but he is a buckskin. He has the dilution gene and bay genes. Sooty horses have a genetic modification resulting in a horse that looks like soot has been dumped over him, i.e., darker on top and lighter underneath. These are the darkest of this color breed.

Picture of a standard buckskin horse,

Standard buckskins are similar in color to a deer.

A standard buckskin can vary in shades, but the horse should have a coat color similar to a deer. The horse below is standard colored and on the lighter side of the spectrum.

buckskin horse,
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Silver buckskins have gray hairs in their coats.

A silver buckskin horse has light gray hairs intermingled in its coat. Some silvers have a considerable amount of grey to the point they will look like a gray horse and have a shiny overcoat. These are the lightest-colored of this color breed.

What is the Difference Between a Dun and Buckskin Horse?

We were recently at an auction and noticed the catalog listed a horse, a dun, but it looked like a buckskin. This made me wonder what makes a dun and a buckskin different.

Buckskins and duns differ genetically. A buckskin horse has a single dilution creme gene that acts on a bay horse. A dun dilution gene works on both black and red-based horses. Plus, all duns have a distinct dorsal stripe, and buckskins don’t.

Buckskins and duns can look very similar. They may have the same coat color, but a dun has a dorsal stripe. The gene present in duns, the dun dilution gene, lightens the shade of the base coat of a horse but leaves the mane, tail, legs, and primitive markings the tone of the base coat color.

Arsdelicata [CC BY-SA 3.0 ] Dorsal stripe

Primitive markings are a dorsal stripe and can include striping across the shoulders or striping on the back of the horse’s front legs. Duns can have a base of either black or red (chestnut).

A chestnut-based dun may be light tan in color, similar to the color of buckskin; however, it will have a dorsal stripe. A buckskin can have dark coloring across its back that may look like dun markings.

For example, Sooty buckskins look an awful lot like a dun. But, if you notice primitive striping in addition to the dark line on the back, then the horse is assuredly a dun.

To learn more about the differences between duns and buckskin, you may find this article helpful: Dun vs. Buckskin Horses, What’s the Difference? 5 Clues.

Buckskins can’t have blue eyes.

If a horse with a single dilution gene mates with a horse having a single dilution gene, it can produce a blue-eyed foal. This foal is double diluted and not a buckskin. To find out if the foal is a Palomino click this link.

For example, breeding a palomino and buckskin has a chance of producing a double diluted foal with blue eyes. The double dilution will also result in a light coat color on the foal. Most buckskins have amber-colored eyes.

Are buckskin horses a breed?

Buckskin horses are not a breed, but they do have common characteristics. Buckskins display soundness, endurance, and sure-footedness. These characteristics may not be shown by members of the kind that are of a different color. Buckskins were the desired horse of the western cowboy.

Buckskin Horses aren’t rare.

Buckskin horses are not rare; as stated above, buckskin is a color pattern found in most breeds. Particular buckskin color patterns are less common than other buckskin color patterns. The standard color buckskin, displaying tan with standard black points, is the most common buckskin color.

Buckskin’s in Hollywood

What kinda horse is Spirit?

Spirit is a buckskin Kiger mustang colt. He is the star of the animated movie “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the television series “Spirit, Riding Free.” We had a little controversy in our household when the question surrounding if Spirit is a buckskin or dun.

But we noticed that Spirit doesn’t have a dorsal stripe. A horse without a dorsal strip can’t be a dun, so Spirit is a buckskin. Kiger mustangs are a breed of wild horses located in southern Oregon.

What kind of horse did marshall Matt Dillon Ride?

Gunsmoke fans may be interested in learning that Marshall Matt Dillon rode a big buckskin quarter horse in the show. Before the popular buckskin, Spirit, there were a few other notable buckskins in Hollywood.

Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke rode several horses in the twenty-two years the show was on the air. But his favored horse was a buckskin named “Buck,” he was a quarter horse and also used in the television show Bonanza.

What kind of horse did Ben Cartwright ride?

Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) rode a buckskin horse named “Buck” for Bonanza’s fourteen seasons. And Buck wasn’t the only horse ridden by Ben on the show; occasionally, he rode a buckskin named “Dunny.”

But “Buck” was Lorne Greene’s favorite mount, and he grew so attached to the animal that he purchased Buck from the studio and donated him to a therapeutic riding center.

Other Hollywood buckskins.

Kevin Costner rode a buckskin named Cisco in the movie Dances with Wolves. In the movie The Man From Snowy River, there is a famous scene of Jim Craig riding his buckskin horse Denny down a steep slope.

In the early days of television, Roy Rogers and his renowned palomino was the rave. But not to be outdone, Roy’s better half in the show Dale Evan rode a sturdy buckskin quarterhorse.

Buckskin Associations

The American Buckskin Registry Association was established in 1965. Their mission is to collect, record, and preserve the pedigree of buckskin, dun, red dun, and grulla horses, miniature horses, ponies, and mules. The registry is open to all breeds. Horses, not buckskin but are the offspring of buckskin, are also eligible to enroll.

The International Buckskin Horse Association (IBHA) was established in 1971. Its mission is to promote activities of buckskin, dun, red dun, and grulla horses. The registry is the largest for these horses in the world. Their site provides links to local charter groups as well as provides information about coloring requirements for eligibility.

Both organizations host events for eligible horses. Check their websites to gather more information especially if you own a horse suitable for registration. Registering a horse increases its value and also provides a community of like horse owners.

If you are interested in reading about the origins of horses, you may enjoy this post about “wild horses.”

The YouTube video below includes buckskin horses of various colors and shades.

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