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What is a Dapple Gray Horse? Breeds, Facts, and Color

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My six-year-old grandson informed me he wanted a dapple-gray horse because his dad says it’s the prettiest of all the horses. Then he asked me, “what is a dapple-gray horse, is it a breed or a color?”

A dapple-gray horse has a color pattern of dark rings over a gray coat. This color combination is beautiful and exudes good health and vibrance.

Many people choose a dapple-gray horse because of its color. But there is more to a dapple-gray horse than meets the eye.

Use a brightening shampoo to reduce yellowing and keep your dapple-gray horse’s coat looking fresh.

Picture of a gray mare on a walking wheel.
Gray mare.

The Basics of Dapple Gray Horses

The dapple gray horse is a beautiful and unique animal. The most distinguishing feature of this horse is its coat, which is marked with random patches of white hair. These patches can vary in size and shape and may have darker centers.

The coat of a dapple gray horse is truly one-of-a-kind, and no two horses look exactly alike. In addition to its unique coat, the dapple gray horse is also known for being intelligent and versatile. Let’s begin our study of dapple gray horses by first looking at grey horses in general and then at dapples.

Gray Horses.

One of the most distinguishing features of a horse is its coat color. While some horses are born with a gray coat, others develop it as they age. So, what causes a horse to have a gray coat? The answer lies in the same pigment that gives human hair its color.

Just like people, horses have cells in their hair follicles that produce a pigment called melanin. Melanin is responsible for the color of hair, eyes, and skin pigmentation in animals and humans. The more melanin, the darker a horse’s coat will be.

The amount of melanin a horse has depends on a few factors, but primarily genetics. The dominant gray gene (G) creates the gray coat color. Dominant genes override the effect of a variant on the same gene. The impact of a dominant gray gene on other coat color genes will always create a gray coat color.

The gray gene is not a color gene; rather, it dilutes the color of the base coat hairs, affecting all base colors. Foals born with a dominant gray gene can be any color. When horses are born, their hair follicles have a lot of melanin, resulting in dark coat color.

A horse typically displays its first signs of graying around its eyes and muzzle. However, as horses age, the production of melanin slows down, causing the hair to become lighter. In some cases, the hair may eventually turn completely white, making it difficult to distinguish between white and gray horses.

Examining a horse’s skin color is the most straightforward indication that a horse is gray and not white. A white horse typically has pink skin, and a gray horse has black skin.

However, for most horses, the coat will develop a salt-and-pepper look as some dark hairs remain interspersed with lighter ones. Whether a horse is born with a gray coat or develops it later in life, the result is always the same: a beautiful and unique horse.

The gray gene generally doesn’t change horses, skin or eye color but, in some instances, may cause depigmentation of the skin near the eyes, mouth, and anus. Because of depigmentation, gray horses have a high rate of melanomas late in life. More than 70 percent of gray horses over fifteen suffer melanomas, typically around their tails and heads.

An interesting fact discovered in a 2008 Swedish study confirmed that all gray horses have a common ancestor that lived over two thousand years ago.

This revelation confirms that selective breeding practices to obtain an attractive color have been happening for a long time. But it may also be because people believe grey horses symbolize wisdom, patience, and clarity

Picture of a dapple gray horse.
Dapple Gray filly.

Dapples on a horse’s coat

Dapples are often associated with certain horse breeds, such as the creamy palominos or the dappled gray Thoroughbred. But what exactly are dapples, and why do some horses have them?

Dapples are usually round or oval patches of lighter-colored hair within a horse’s coat. They can occur on any color of horse, but they’re most commonly seen on gray horses. One theory is that dapples help horses to camouflage themselves in their natural habitat.

The light-colored patches may help to break up the outline of the horse’s body, making it more difficult for predators to spot. Another theory is that dapples display the health and vitality of the horse. However, the exact reason for dapples remains a bit of a mystery. Whatever the reason, they certainly add to a horse’s beauty and grace.

I’m aware of at least two types of this pattern on horses: true dapples and bloom dapples. True dapples are genetically created dark hair that’s always present; these are the circles found on a gray-dapple horse. Blooms are rings that come and leave a horse’s coat because of their conditioning and diet.

Dappling in gray horses may be caused by the deactivation of the dominant gray gene in specific locations. The deactivation of the gene also creates “flea-bitten” or “speckled grays” as well.

The dappling of gray is not seen in all horses and is a stage in the graying process. The amount and pattern of the dappling change as the horse grows older. But unlike bloom dappling, the dapple pattern is not affected by health or diet.

Picture of a dapple gray girl horse

Stages of graying in horses

Aging a gray horse by its coat color is not a good idea. We can make some generalities, but many horses don’t follow the patterns. Horses are individuals, and most don’t gray at the same pace.

But we can cover some general stages you can expect if you decide to buy a gray horse or foal.

Foals and weanlings

A foal is a horse that hasn’t turned one year old; once a colt weans, it’s called a weanling. Foals are not born gray; they can be bay, black, chestnut, or just about any color.

Foals possessing the gray gene typically begin to display signs of gray relatively soon after birth, but almost all have apparent signs by the time they wean. The first signs of gray hair typically are seen around foals’ eyes and mouths.

Yearlings

All horses in North America have the same official birthday, Jan 1. A yearling horse has passed its first birthday but has not reached its second. A yearling is similar at this age to an adolescent child.

Before most gray yearlings reach two, they have a dark steel gray coat of hair and begin to display dapples.

picture of an older gray horse,
Flea bitten old gray mare.

Two Year old to six years old

From two to four years old, the dapples are most prominent. After four, the dark hairs lighten and fade until they are no longer visible. Most six-year-old dapple-gray horses look white with no dapples. But this is a general rule; there are dapple-gray horses that never fade.

For many gray horses, fading to white is the end of their color schemes, but for others, they continue to transition. Some gray horses gain blotches of black in their coat which could occur years after a horse fades.

Once the black returns, the number of speckles increases as the horse ages. Horses with this coat pattern are called flea-bitten grays or speckled grays. Most flea-bitten gray horses are beyond ten years old, but speckling can occur in different stages, just like dappling.

Picture of a horse with a dapple coat.

Horse Breeds that have grays

Gray-colored horses are prevalent across many horse breeds. It’s believed that one in 10 horses carries the graying gene. However, some strains produce even higher percentages of gray horses.

Breeds with the majority of gray-colored coats

Lipizzaners horses.

Lipizzaner horses are the famous dancing horses of Vienna. Like all other grays, their foals are dark and progressively lighten. By six years old, many look because of the extensive color dilution of their hair. The breed originated in Slovenia.

Lipizzaners were not always gray; initially, the horses were bay, black, chestnut, dun, and just about any other equine color. The movement to the majority of gray horses traces to the royal Haspurg family’s preferences for light-colored horses.

Through selective color breeding, which began over 200 years ago, gray coat colors became the majority of Lipizzan horses.

Andalusian horse

Andalusian horses originated in the Iberian Peninsula and are typically gray but can also have a bay coat. Just like Lipizzaners, Andalusians of the past could be almost any color, including spotted patterns.

Today approximately 80 percent of Andalusians are gray, 15 percent bay, and the remaining 5 percent black, dun, palomino, or chestnut.

Percheron horses

Percheron horses originated in France and typically have gray or black coats. In addition to gray and black, Percherons can also be roan, bay, or chestnut in color.

However, to register a Percheron in France or Great Britain, the horse must be either gray or black, no other colors are accepted.

Picture of a dapple gray racehorse
Dapple gray horse in the race track paddock

Horse breeds with gray coats colors

The vast majority of breeds produce horses with gray coats. They’re common among Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses, and Arabians. Most of these breeds can trace their heritage to Arabian stock.

Below is a YouTube video showing how clean to a gray horse.

FAQs

How do you get a dapple gray horse?

The only way to produce a gray horse is to have at least one parent that is gray. The genetics of horse coat color is quite complex, and the color of a horse can be affected by a number of different genes.

What is a flea-bitten grey horse?

A horse with flea-bitten grey coloring usually has a mostly grey coat, with small brown or black specks throughout. The flea-bitten grey coat is often said to resemble the appearance of a horse covered with fleas.

Do Dapples mean a healthy horse?

Yes, in most horses, dapples indicate a healthy horse. These types of dapples are called “bloom dapples.” However, if your horse is a “true dapple,” is has dapples all the time regardless of it health.

Picture of a dapple gray horse

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