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Roan Horse Color: From Red Roan to Bay Roan and Beyond

Last updated: September 7, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

I’ve always admired the beauty of roan horses, especially after observing the varied shades of my neighbor’s herd, which got me wondering: What specific color combinations classify a horse as “roan”?

Roan horses possess a blend of white and colored hairs throughout their coat. Unlike other patterns, the heads and points (tails, manes, ear tips, and lower legs) of roans are predominantly darker, with fewer mixed white hairs. What’s fascinating is that roan coloration is inherited and remains consistent throughout their lives—it doesn’t gradually lighten as they age.

It’s important to note that “roan” isn’t just any mixed-color coat. Several horse coats may resemble the roan pattern but aren’t genuine roans. So, how can you tell the difference? The secrets lie in the subtle details, which we’ll unravel as we delve deeper. Prepare to embark on a journey through the vibrant world of roan horses.

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What is a Roan Horse?

At its core, the term “roan” describes a horse coat pattern where white hairs are evenly mixed with another base color. It’s a captivating blend that gives the horse a somewhat ‘dusted’ appearance. Unlike certain other patterns, this isn’t a seasonal change or a result of aging. A roan is born with this enchanting mix and retains it for life.

The Science Behind the Shade: The Roan Gene

Ever wonder what makes a horse roan? Well, it’s all in their DNA. The roan pattern is a result of a specific gene called the “Roan Gene.” When a horse inherits this gene from one of its parents, it sports the unique roan coat.

However, it’s essential to remember that not every horse with mixed white and colored hair is a roan. It’s this specific gene that determines the true roan identity. Without it, even if a horse looks somewhat ‘roany,’ it’s not a genuine roan.

Roan Coats and Winter’s Touch

Did you know roan horses sport a darker shade during chilly months? Cold temperatures lead to the growth of longer, base-colored hair, masking the shorter white hair beneath. This phenomenon results in a noticeably darker roan during winter, which can sometimes mislead one about its true shade.

The best time to spot a roan’s authentic color? Early summer, post-shedding the winter coat, and pre-prolonged sun exposure.

The Color Palette of Newborn Roans

When blue roans enter the world, they’re often black or a smoky grey. Both red and bay roans flaunt tan legs that eventually darken. While roan foals might appear muted initially, by the time they’re two months old, hints of roaning begin to emerge, especially on their hips and sides.

The Tell-Tale Signs of Injury on a Roan

A distinctive aspect of roans is how injuries alter their coat. Post-injury, the affected region grows back solid, devoid of white hairs. These patches are termed “corn marks” or “corn spots”. However, don’t confuse these with Bend-Or spots seen in some palominos and chestnut horses, which aren’t injury-related.

Dappling the Roan Way

Roans have a special way of displaying dappling. While most horses exhibit darker dapples as a sign of health, roans flip the script with lighter-dappled circles. It’s worth noting that true roans, often referred to as “classic roans,” don’t showcase partial roaning patterns like varnish, rabicano, or sabino. The classic trifecta includes blue roan, red roan, and bay roan.

Picture of two roan horses and a bay horse on a training track.
Two roans and a bay horse

Red Roan: The Fiery Blend

When you first lay eyes on a Red Roan, you’re greeted by a mesmerizing coat that seems as if it’s been kissed by flames. This stunning horse has a coat peppered with white hairs evenly mixed into its chestnut base color. The result? A fiery, reddish coat that appears almost as if it’s shimmering under the sun.

Distinctive Traits of the Red Roan

Beyond their eye-catching coats, Red Roans often have solid-colored heads – a trait that makes them stand out. This means their faces don’t have the white hair mix but instead are a deep chestnut. Their manes and tails can vary but are typically a mixture of white and red hairs.

When it comes to their temperament, while every horse is an individual, many Red Roans are known for their spirited yet even-tempered nature.

Red Roan Genetics: A Blush of Nature

At the heart of the captivating red roan’s coat lies a genetic dance between base color and modifier genes. Red roans possess a base color of chestnut, caused by the “ee” genotype at the Extension locus. This base, when paired with the presence of the Roan gene (Rn), results in the even mingling of white hairs with the chestnut.

The outcome? A beautiful coat that appears as if it’s been delicately dusted with red and white, creating that iconic strawberry or red roan hue. It’s nature’s palette at its finest, blending genes to paint the canvas of the horse’s coat.

Picture of a red roan thoroughbred yearling drinking water from a pond.

Bay Roan: The Earthy Tones

The Bay Roan carries the beauty of earthy hues combined with the whimsy of scattered clouds. This remarkable horse sports a bay base color — a rich shade of reddish-brown or mahogany — intermingled with an abundance of white hairs. The final coat resembles the hues of a late autumn afternoon, where the rich, brown earth meets the silver-toned sky.

The Genetic Masterpiece Behind the Bay Roan Coat

So, how does a Bay Roan get its distinct coloration? It’s a mix of genetics at play. First off, the horse inherits the base bay color, which comes from the “Agouti” gene restricting black pigment to the points (like the mane, tail, and legs).

Then, when combined with the “Roan Gene” we talked about earlier, the horse showcases the even mix of white hairs with its bay color, resulting in the stunning Bay Roan appearance.

Picture of a blue roan horse.

Blue Roan: The Midnight Sky Mingle

Shades of Nightfall and Stars

The beauty of the Blue Roan horse is undeniable, reminding one of a deep starlit night. This majestic horse sports a coat that perfectly marries the deep black base color with an abundance of white hairs, akin to a night sky flecked with stars. It’s no wonder many consider the blue roan as one of the most stunning horse colors.

The Genetic Blueprint of Blue Roan

Diving into its genetic makeup, a classic blue roan boasts a black base color, either E/E or E/e, with no Agouti (a/a), and either R/R or R/r for the roan genes. This genetic combination results in the unique blending of black and white hairs across their body, giving them that distinctive bluish hue. Notably, their head, lower legs, mane, and tail retain their original black color, adding contrast to their appearance.

Distinguishing Traits of the Blue Roan

What sets Blue Roans apart, aside from their stellar appearance, is their predominantly solid-colored head. This is often deep black or charcoal, devoid of the white hair mix seen on the rest of the body.

Their manes and tails frequently echo this, showcasing a blend of white and black hairs. Temperament-wise, while individual personalities vary, many Blue Roans are praised for their gentle yet spirited nature.

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

Dissecting the Differences

Grullo vs. Blue Roan: At a glance, some grullos might resemble a blue roan due to their similar blue hue paired with dark points. However, the key difference lies in the coat composition. A grullo’s coat comprises solid color hairs exuding a blue aura, while the blue roan’s allure comes from a mix of white and black hairs.

Grey vs. Blue Roan: Spotting the difference between a grey and a blue roan can be a challenge, even for seasoned horse lovers. The fundamental difference lies in their aging process and genetic manifestation.

Roan is a unique color pattern mixing white hair with the horse’s base color, typically maintaining the base color on the head and extremities. In contrast, grey horses, regardless of their birth color (be it chestnut, bay, brown, or black), experience a gradual lightening of their base color as they age due to a color modifier.

Upon first glance, the Blue Roan horse strikes observers with its beauty, reminiscent of a starlit night sky. This horse wears a coat that seems to be a canvas of deep black base color sprinkled generously with white hairs. The resultant coat sparkles like the Milky Way – a perfect mix of darkness and light.

Grey Roan: The Mystical Blend

While the term “roan” consistently refers to horses with an even mix of white and colored hairs, Grey Roans offer a unique visual experience. Their base is a mélange of grey shades rather than the stark black, red, or bay typical of other roans.

The outcome? A mesmerizing and mystic blend that makes these horses stand out, reminiscent of ancient legends and fog-covered mornings. Oftentimes they dazzle with dapples.

From Night’s Shadow to Dawn’s Embrace

One of the most enchanting aspects of dapple Grey horses is their transition over time. As foals, they might appear considerably darker, sometimes mirroring the shade of coal or deep slate. But as they mature, this darker base starts to intermingle with white hairs.

By adulthood, the Grey Roan showcases a perfectly blended coat, where the deep shades of its youth have transformed into the mystical grey mix it’s celebrated for.

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

Horse Breeds Commonly Displaying Roan Coloring

Horses come in a plethora of colors and patterns, and the roan pattern is one that’s spread across various breeds, adding beauty and distinction. Here’s a deeper dive into some of the horse breeds that frequently display this unique coloration:

Quarter Horses: The American favorite.

Arguably one of the most popular horse breeds in the United States, the American Quarter Horse is known for its versatility, athleticism, and varied coat colors. Among these, the roan pattern, particularly blue roan, stands out for its striking appearance. Roan Quarter Horses are often sought after for their beauty, making them a favorite among breeders and horse enthusiasts.

Belgian Draft Horses: Strength in color.

Known for their immense strength and gentle nature, the Belgian Draft Horse often carries the roan gene. This powerful breed, with its muscular build, looks even more magnificent when adorned in a roan coat. The contrast of the white mingled hairs against their solid coat adds a layer of beauty to an already impressive horse.

Andalusian: The Spanish beauty.

Originating from the Iberian Peninsula, the Andalusian horse is renowned for its grace, agility, and spirit. Roan is not the most common color for Andalusians, but when it does appear, it offers a unique blend of the breed’s inherent elegance and the roan pattern’s rustic charm.

Tennessee Walking Horse: Graceful strides in roan.

Known for their smooth gait and friendly disposition, the Tennessee Walking Horse is another breed where the roan pattern can be spotted. While they’re often celebrated for their unique walking gait, a roan Tennessee Walker adds a visual splendor, making them a treat to both ride and watch.

Other breeds are known for roan varieties.

While the above breeds are some of the most recognized carriers of the roan gene, many others can exhibit this pattern. Breeds like the Clydesdale, Shire, and even the American Bashkir Curly have been known to produce roan offspring. The roan pattern’s widespread occurrence showcases its age-old appeal and the genetic diversity within the equine world.

Picture of a horse with a dapple coat.

Care and Maintenance of Roan Horses

Roan horses, with their mesmerizing coat patterns, require certain care practices to ensure their colors remain vibrant and their health remains optimal. Here’s a rundown:

Tips for Maintaining Their Vibrant Color:

  1. Sun Protection: Just like other horses, prolonged sun exposure can bleach a roan’s coat, making it appear faded. Consider using a UV-protective fly sheet during the sunny months or allowing them to graze during early mornings or late afternoons.
  2. Regular Grooming: Frequent brushing helps remove dirt, dust, and sweat that can dull their coat. A good grooming routine enhances blood circulation, bringing out the natural oils and sheen in their coat.
  3. Dietary Supplements: Omega fatty acids can enhance a horse’s coat sheen. Consult your vet about adding flaxseed or fish oil supplements to your roan’s diet.
  4. Bath Time: Use a color-enhancing or whitening shampoo specifically designed for horses to enhance the vibrancy of their coat. However, avoid over-bathing as it can strip the coat of its natural oils.

Health Issues or Concerns Related to Their Coat and Skin:

  1. Corn Marks or Corn Spots: As previously mentioned, when a roan horse suffers a skin injury, the hair regrows as solid-colored, creating “corn spots.” While these are not health issues in themselves, they can serve as markers for previous injuries.
  2. Skin Sensitivities: Roan horses, especially those with large white patches, can be prone to sunburn. Apply equine-friendly sunblock to areas with less pigmentation, like the nose or other exposed skin.
  3. Fungal and Bacterial Infections: Due to their mixed hair coat, roans might be susceptible to certain fungal or bacterial infections, especially in humid conditions. Regularly inspect your horse’s skin for any signs of infections like rain rot, and address them promptly.
  4. Pigment Loss: Rarely, some roans may suffer from conditions causing pigment loss, leading to patches of unpigmented or lightly pigmented skin. While not harmful, it’s advisable to monitor these areas for sensitivity or susceptibility to sunburn.

Remember, while roan horses have their unique set of requirements due to their vibrant coats, the basics of equine care—like providing a balanced diet, regular vet check-ups, and a clean living environment—always apply. Their captivating colors are a bonus to the joy of horse ownership, and with proper care, they can shine in all their natural beauty.

Below is a helpful YouTube video about roan horses.


The equine palette is vast and diverse, with the roan spectrum being one of its most captivating arrays. From the fiery allure of the red roan, the deep resonance of the blue roan, to the earthy charm of the bay roan and the mysticism of the grey roan – each shade tells a unique story. These horses, with their intermingled white and colored hairs, offer a visual testament to nature’s artistry.

But beyond their beauty, each roan horse carries a legacy in its genes, a tale of ancestry and evolution, of breeds that have journeyed continents and have been part of human history for centuries.

If the world of roan horses has intrigued you, remember that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The equine world is brimming with colors, patterns, and histories waiting to be discovered. Dive deeper, keep exploring, and let these magnificent creatures continue to inspire wonder and admiration.


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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Miles Henry