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Are Chestnut and Sorrel Horses the Same Color? What’s different?

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Horse colors can be confusing. I know horse enthusiasts that describe all red horses as sorrel-colored and others that believe any red horse is considered chestnut. Are they both right? Are chestnut and sorrel horses the same color?

Sorrel is a different color than chestnut. It’s a specific hue of chestnut, a light red, and looks orange or bright copper. Chestnut is a deep red base color, and sorrel is a modification of chestnut. It’s easiest to remember that all sorrels are chestnuts, but all chestnuts aren’t sorrel.

If you haven’t been around horses long, it’s not difficult to confuse the terms used to describe horses’ coat colors, especially shades of red. But when you finish this article, you will be an equine expert on sorrel and chestnut-colored horses.

Picture of a sorrel filly.
Thoroughbred yearling

What distinguishes sorrels from chestnut horses?

Sorrel horses are a specific shade under the umbrella of chestnut color classifications. Sorrel horses are chestnuts that are a lighter red. Their coat is copper-red colored, and their manes and tails are typically the same color as their coat or slightly lighter.

Some early studies indicated a genetic difference between sorrels and chestnuts; however, these studies were debunked by modern science and a greater understanding of genetics.

It’s widely accepted that sorrels and chestnuts are genetically the same color. However, the terms describe different shades of red.

The American Quarter Horse Association welcomes horses for registration as sorrel if their coat has the appearance of red or copper color. And register a chestnut quarter horse, its coat has a brown tint, with the most extreme a dark brown “liver” color.

Chestnut and sorrel are two of the most popular colors of registered quarter horses. Other breeds besides quarter horses recognize sorrels, but outside of the U.S., they are typically considered chestnut.

For example, the Suffolk Punch and the Haflinger recognize only chestnut animals. It’s common in other countries to use the term chestnut when describing a sorrel horse.

Famous sorrel horses

Dash for Cash is the most famous sorrel quarter horse. He ran in 25 races, winning 21, and earned over 500,000 dollars. But his racing career is only a part of the story.

After his running career ended, he was turned out to stud and sired some of the greatest runners and broodmares of all time. He sired 145 stakes winners and earners of nearly $40,000,000

Dollor is the sorrel that John Wayne rode in True Grit, playing the character Rooster Cogburn. I’ve watched the movie with the kids so many times I can remember Dollor speeding toward trouble with Rooster on his back while he was holding guns in both hands and the reins in his teeth.

John Wayne adored the horse and called him by name in The Shootist.

“Sport” was the sorrel horse Adam rode in the great western television show Bonanza. Adam rode the sorrel gelding for six seasons. But Sport wasn’t Adam’s first choice; he tried two other horses before deciding on Sport.

From the photos I’ve seen of Secretariat, I think he was a sorrel. He sure looked like a sorrel during his racing career, but in some of the photos of him later in life, he had the deep red look of a chestnut.

But if Secretariat were a sorrel, it wouldn’t matter to the Jockey Club because they don’t recognize the color, and he would be registered as a chestnut.

Picture of horses

What is a chestnut horse?

Chestnut horses come in all sorts of different shades, from light honey to red, so dark it’s almost black. One thing these equines have in common is their lack of black hair- a coat pattern created by genes that suppress black pigments.

However, chestnut horses’ skin is typically black, but some chestnut foals are born with light skin that darkens. Chestnut horses are true-breeding, so if you breed two chestnut horses, they will always produce a chestnut foal. If the colt is any color other than chestnut, then one of the parents wasn’t a chestnut.

However, both parents don’t have to be chestnuts to produce a chestnut foal. A bay horse has a chestnut base influenced by genes that allow localized black-rich or red-rich pigmentation regions.

The chestnut coat color has an extensive range of shades, some as light as a palomino to so dark they appear black. Their points (manes, tails, ears, and lower legs) may be darker or lighter than their bodies.

Chestnut horses are genetically identified as Genotypes E e E e A A A ‐ or E e E e A a A a. In other words, EeEe results in chestnut horses regardless of the other influencing genes.

Picture of a chestnut quarter horse recently purchased for the kids.

Basic chestnut colors

Besides sorrel and chestnut, there are other terms used to describe chestnut-colored horses. The following are horse coat colors that are genetic chestnuts:

  • Liver chestnut  Liver chestnuts are the darkest chestnuts. They are dark red to almost black.
  • Flaxen chestnut is used to describe a chestnut horse with manes and tails that are straw-colored or lighter than the body color.
Picture of a sorrel horse with a flaxen mane.

There are many shades of chestnut.

The following are chestnut-based coat colors that are genetically modified to create a distinct genetic identity.

  • Palominos are created by a single copy of a dominant cream gene on a chestnut base. They are golden without any red tone in their coat, and their eyes are typically amber.
  • Carmello’s are created by two cream genes influencing a chestnut base. Their coats are cream-colored, and they have pink skin and blue eyes.
  • A dun gene influencing a chestnut base coat creates red duns. They typically have a tannish body with a primitive red marking.
  • Gold champagnes are created by a champagne gene affecting a chestnut base coat. They have amber or green eyes and light skin that is freckled. Their coat is similar in color to a palomino.
  • Red roans are horses with a chestnut base coat influenced by the classic roan gene.
Picture of a chestnut horse.

The evolution of horse colors

The first horses had coats yellowish to light brown with dark mane, tails, and limbs with dun characteristic marks. This color pattern provided camouflage against predators.

As the horse evolved, appaloosa and black coats developed in primitive herds. Thus began the changes in the appearance of different color characteristics created by climate change and geological events.

Once horses were domesticated and selectively bred, an explosion of new equine colors arrived. During the copper age, chestnut and black horses became common, then the Bronze Age came and ushered in the spectrum of colors found in modern horses.

The advancement of scientific tools and an understanding of genetics have identified two pigments and the influence of several genes that produce all the variations of colors in the horse’s coat.

The color pigments are black and red, and they produce three base colors bay, black, and chestnut. The influence of genes, such as dilutions genes, determines the shades and patterns built off these primary colors.

Below is a YouTube video of a sorrel horse in action.