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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 is a type of horse with a coat that features gray hairs mixed with darker hairs. This coat pattern results from a genetic mutation that causes the production of light and dark hairs. Dapple gray horses can belong to any breed, although some breeds are more commonly dapple gray than others.

If you’re considering adding a dapple gray horse to your stable or want to learn more about these striking animals, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll explore the breeds of dapple gray horses, their unique physical characteristics and coloring, and some interesting facts about these unique animals.


The Genetics of Dapple Gray Coloration in Horses

The genetics of dapple gray coloration in horses is a complex and fascinating topic. The dapple gray coat color is determined by various genetic factors, which are influenced by a horse’s parents and their ancestry.

In general, dapple gray coloration is caused by the interaction of multiple genes, including those that control the distribution and production of pigment in the coat. Specifically, the dapple gray coloration is caused by the presence of the “gray” gene, which affects how pigment is produced in the hair shaft.

The gray gene causes the coat color to lighten gradually over time, resulting in the distinctive dappled effect. It’s important to note that the genetics of dapple gray coloration can be quite complex, and not all horses with a gray coat will necessarily have the same type or intensity of apples.

Picture of a dark dapple gray horse.
My three-year-old dapple gray horse.

Some horses may have only a few dapples, while others may have a more pronounced dappled pattern. Additionally, the presence of other genetic factors can affect the overall appearance of the coat, such as the horse’s diet, environment, and grooming regimen.

The genetics of dapple gray coloration in horses is a fascinating and complex topic that involves multiple genes and factors. The unique beauty and variability of the dapple gray coat make it a desirable and sought-after feature among horse enthusiasts worldwide.

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. Sometimes, the hair may eventually turn completely white, making distinguishing between white and gray horses difficult.

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, the coat will develop a salt-and-pepper look for most horses, 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 skin depigmentation 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.

Description of Dapple Gray Horses

Dapple gray horses have a distinctive coat color that is a combination of gray and white, with dappled patches that can vary in size and intensity. The dapples typically appear as lighter areas surrounded by darker borders, creating a striking contrast on the horse’s coat.

The dappled effect is caused by how light is reflected off the hairs in the horse’s coat. The lighter areas of the dapples are where the hairs are more white or gray, while the darker areas are where the hairs are more pigmented.

Over time, the dapples may become more pronounced or may fade, depending on different factors such as age, diet, and grooming. It’s important to note that not all dapple gray horses will have the same pattern or intensity of apples.

Some horses may have only a few dapples, while others may have a more pronounced or evenly distributed dappled pattern. Overall, the distinctive coloration and dapples of dapple gray horses are a significant factor in their unique and striking appearance.

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 horse color, 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 know 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 unaffected by health or diet.

Picture of a dapple gray girl horse
Older dapple gray 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.


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.

The Lipizzaner breed of horses was not always associated with the distinctive gray coloration for which they are now famous. Originally, Lipizzaners came in various equine colors, such as bay, black, chestnut, and dun.

However, the breed’s association with gray horses can be traced back to the royal Habsburg family, who preferred lighter-colored horses. Over time, the Habsburgs’ preference for gray horses led to most Lipizzaners being bred with this unique coloration, and it has become one of the breed’s defining features.

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 to clean a gray horse.


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,” it has dapples all the time, regardless of its health.

Picture of a dapple gray horse
Dapple Gray Thoroughbred

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