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What Are Roan Horses? the Color They’re Born and Other Facts

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My neighbor loves roan horses, and I have to admit they have a good-looking colored coat. But his horses are different colors, so this made me wonder what color combinations make a horse a roan? And what are the classic roan horse colors?

Roan horses have a pattern of white and colored hairs evenly mixed in their coat. Their heads and points (tails, manes, ear tips, and lower legs) typically have some white hair, but it’s not evenly mixed and is darker than its coat. Roan is inherited and doesn’t progressively lighten with age.

Roan is a specific color coat scheme. There are horse coats that look similar but aren’t true roans. There’re ways you can tell a classic roan from a horse that only looks like a roan.

Picture of a blue roan horse.

What is a roan horse?

Standard classic roan colors are blue, red, bay roan. A true roan horse can be any base-coat color with intermixed colored and white hairs; the effect is that of the coat’s silver appearance.

However, their heads and points remain solid-colored, and they typically display an inverted V shape just above the knees. Some people use the word roan to describe any horse with a mixture of white and colored hairs in animals.

The genetics of a classic roan horse.

But a “true” or “classic” roan has a specific genetic makeup that creates its unique pattern. Classic Roan is inherited as a single dominant gene symbolized by the Rnallele.

The requirement of this gene means for a horse to be a true roan; one of its parents must have been roan.  The coat of a true roan typically lightens and darkens with the seasons, but their coats don’t lighten with age like grey horses.

Roan horses darken in the winter

In cold temperatures, roans darken as their hair becomes longer, rougher, and thicker. When this occurs the longer thicker hair are the horse’s base color and it cloaks its white hair which remains short.

The result is a darker roan coat pattern displaying more of its color and less white. The opposite occurs in warm weather months when more of the short hairs are exposed because the thicker and longer hair of the winter coat sheds, creating a much whiter appearance of the horse.

How much the cold affects the color of an individual horse varies, but roans typically darken significantly in winter, making it hard to identify their true color accurately.

I found that the roan horse’s real color is the most easily identifiable in the early summer months after shedding its winter coat but before it’s been extensively exposed to sunlight.

What color are roan horses born?

Blue roans are typically black or a dark smoky grey when they’re born. Both red roans and bay roans are born bay with tan legs that turn black. Roan foals typically have a dull coat and may take a year or more to shed out to become their adult color.

However you should see their roan coloring much sooner. Foals usually show roaning on their hips and sides when they reach two months old.

There is a lot of useful information available about the genes behind roan coat colors in horses. Here is one such article: Close association between sequence polymorphism in the KIT gene and the roan coat color in horses

Injuries cause permanent changes to a roan’s coat.

A unique feature of a roan occurs when they damage their skin, the hair in the harmed area regrows solid-colored without any white. The term used to describe this area is called “corn marks” or “corn spots.”

Some palominos and chestnut horses have similar looking spots on their coat called Bend-Or spots. The spots are typically dark red to black in color and appear randomly, and aren’t related to roans or a skin injury.

Dapples on a roan are unique.

Another uniques feature of a roan is the way their coats dapple. Dappling is common in most horses and is considered a sign of good health. In a non-roan horse, dappling is rings of hair in a horse’s coat that are slightly darker than the surrounding areas.

In a roan, the opposite happens, the dappling rings are lighter circles of hair. Classic roans don’t include partial pattern roaning, such as varnish, rabicano, or sabino.

The classic colors are blue roan, red roan, and bay roan. FYI: The terms “classic roan” and “true roan” are used interchangeably.

Picture of a battle-scarred blue roan mustang horse.
A battle-scarred blue roan mustang stallion

Blue roans have a black color base

Blue roan is one of the most beautiful colors. A classic blue roan has a black base color (E/E or E/e) with no Agouti (a/a) and is carrying roan (R/R or R/r) genes.

In a classic roan, the black and white hairs are evenly interspersed across their entire body, creating a bluish hue. However, their head, lower legs, mane, and tail remain black. 

Blue roans lighten in the summer and darken in the winter and are often mistaken for a grey or grullo horse. I wrote an extensive article dedicated to blue roan horses. You can check it out here: What is a Blue Roan Horse? Breeds, Names, Colors, & Pictures

What’s the difference between a grullo and a blue roan?

Some grullo’s have a coat that looks very similar to a roan, it has a blue hue with dark points. But a grullo’s coat is made up of solid color hairs that appear blue, where a blue roan is created through a mixture of white and black hairs.

I also wrote an in-depth article that includes a lot of useful and interesting information about grulla horses: What Is a Grulla Colored Quarter Horse? 5 Quick Facts

What’s the difference between a grey and a blue roan?

My friend has a horse he claims is a roan, but looks like a gray horse to me. I know some can be very similar in appearance but, how can he be sure it’s a roan?

Roan is a color pattern of intermingled white hair with the horse’s base color, typically their head and extremities retain the base color. A gray horse progressively lightens its base color as it ages.

A roan foal is born a roan, but a grey foal may be born chestnut, bay, brown or black and turn grey. Grey is not genetically a color but rather a color modifier that causes a gradual loss of pigmentation in color.

The hair color begins to lighten soon after birth and continues as the horse ages, and some horse will turn almost white. Both roan and grey genes are dominant; in other words, it takes a roan to make a roan and a grey to create a grey.

Picture of a red roan horse in a pasture,
By Betty Wills

Red roan horses have a chestnut color base

A red roan is a horse with a base equine color of chestnut that is affected by the roan gene. (chestnut is also referred to as sorrel) This gene creates an even mixture of white hair intermingled with red hair over the horse body. These horses are also called “strawberry roans.”

Red roans are sometimes called bay roans, which is an incorrect term, a bay roan will have black points instead of red points.

Picture of a bay roan with black points.
By Vassil

Bay roans have black points

A bay roan is a true roan horse created by the bay color scheme influenced by a roan gene. The particular shade varies depending on the base shade of bay, but just like all true roans, the mane, tail, and lower legs remain the color of the base, and the body is evenly interspersed with white hair.

Bay horses have a black color coat base, but based upon their genetic influences, the color shades can vary greatly. Bays often have a reddish sheen, and when affected by the roan gene, the horse looks similar to a red roan.

However, a bay roan will have black points, whereas a red roan will have dark red points. In some registries, bay roans and red roans were included in the same listings.


How many types of roan horses are there?

The three most common roan colors are bay, red and blue. Roans can come in any base color but those with light-colored coats are challenging to distinguish because the white hairs don’t stand out.

How do you tell if your horse is a roan?

Roan horses have coats that feature white hairs intermixed with the horse’s base color. At the same time, some parts remain solid-colored such as their heads, lower legs, or mane. Roans usually start with these patterns, but it might be hard to identify until the foal’s hair sheds off, revealing its true identity.

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