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The Dun Horse Explained: Diving into Horse Colors & Markings

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The other day, I found myself staring at my neighbor’s new horse, which he described as a ‘blue dun.’ But to my eyes, the horse looked black. Puzzled, I decided it was time to delve into the world of dun horses to uncover the truth behind their intriguing colors.

Dun horses owe their unique color pattern to a modifier gene that influences both black- and red-base coat colors. This gene gently lightens their overall coat, leaving their primitive markings untouched. The result? Classic dun horses boasting a range of tan hues, accented with darker points and a striking, crisp dorsal stripe.

And the blue dun? As it turns out, these duns exhibit a range of coat colors that can verge on a deep, shadowy black. These horses are often favored for their unique, eye-catching coloring. But let me assure you, there’s a lot more to duns than just an alluring color pattern. Read on, and you’ll discover the fascinating world of dun horses.

dunfoal edited

The Dun Horse: An Overview

Dun Horses have a rich history, dating back thousands of years. Originating in the wild, these horses were prized for their earthy hues, which allowed them to blend seamlessly with their natural surroundings. This camouflage was key to their survival, helping them evade predators.

Over time, these wild horses were domesticated, and their unique coloring and markings have been passed down through generations. In terms of general characteristics, Dun Horses display a variety of hues, from light tan to deep, dark brown.

Their markings are quite distinct, often featuring a dorsal stripe running down their spine, zebra-like stripes on their legs, and dark points on their ears, mane, and tail. These hardy horses are known for their strength, endurance, and adaptability.

Importance and value in equestrian activities

The Dun coloration’s presence in equestrian activities cannot be overstated. Despite being a color and not a breed, Dun Horses can be found across various breeds, enhancing their aesthetics and diversity. You’ll see Dun coloration in breeds suited for many disciplines, from dressage and jumping to endurance riding and beyond.

Some horse enthusiasts have a special fondness for Dun Horses, believing that their hardiness stands out even among other members of the same breed. While it’s important to remember that temperament, health, and physical traits largely depend on a horse’s specific breed and individual genetics, it’s fascinating to consider how the perception of Dun Horses’ hardiness has added to their appeal.

This perception could be rooted in the Dun Horse’s origins in the wild, where their distinctive coloration was crucial for survival. This ancestral resilience seems to have left a lasting impression, leading many to view Dun Horses as symbols of strength and endurance in the equestrian world. Whether this belief is based on fact or folklore, the allure of the Dun Horse remains undiminished.

Picture of the legs of a dun horse with distinct primitive leg markings.
Primitive leg markings on a dun horse.

Decoding Dun Horse Colors

When we talk about the Dun color, we’re referring to a particular set of horse coat colors and markings that are caused by a specific genetic mechanism. The primary characteristic of the Dun color is a lighter body compared to the mane, tail, legs, and primitive markings.

These primitive markings often include a dorsal stripe running along the spine, horizontal striping on the upper legs, and sometimes even a web-like pattern over the shoulders. Dun Horses exhibit a range of hues, from a light sandy color to a deep, earthy brown.

Sometimes, the hue can verge on a deep, shadowy black, often referred to as a ‘blue dun.’ Regardless of the hue, you’ll always notice the contrast between the lighter body color and the darker points and markings.

The Dun color is influenced by a specific gene known as the Dun gene. This gene dilutes the color of the horse’s coat, causing the lighter body color, but it doesn’t affect the color of the primitive markings, which is why they stand out so clearly.

The Dun dilute gene is dominant, meaning that a horse only needs to inherit one copy of it from either parent to display the Dun coloration. It’s this fascinating interplay of genetics that creates the beautiful and distinctive color patterns we see in Dun Horses.

Deciphering the Dominant Dun Gene “D”

At their genetic core, all horses carry either a chestnut or black base coat color. These base colors are determined by the presence or absence of the extension gene “e,” where “EE” signifies black and “ee” represents chestnut.

Various modification genes act on these two base colors to produce the vast spectrum of horse coat colors we see, including the myriad shades of Dun Horses. The Dun gene, symbolized as “D,” uniquely dilutes both red and black base coats.

This dilution effect manifests in an array of colors, from apricot and golden to dark gray, olive, and other subtle variations. Being a dominant gene, Dun always manifests if present, and every Dun Horse must have at least one Dun parent.

Genetic tests can confirm whether your foal carries the Dun gene. Laboratories like U.C. Davis provide such services. The Dun gene is widespread across various horse breeds, although it’s more prevalent in heavy pony types such as the Fjord Horse, Icelandic Horse, Highland Pony, and Shetland Pony.

However, Dun coloring is less common in Thoroughbreds and breeds with substantial Arabian influence. Likewise, Dun Horses are seldom seen among heavy draft breeds, making each Dun Horse within these breeds unique.

picture of a red dun horse,

A red dun horse has a chestnut base color.

Red Dun. In the photo is a dark red dun; however, red duns can be as light as the color of a peach. All duns have a dark dorsal stripe and commonly have leg bars and cob webbing. Red duns are created by the dun dilution gene working on the chestnut base coat.

Red duns are easy to misidentify because the contrast between the markings and the coat is not as apparent as in other colors. A red dun with a flaxen main and tail is called a claybank dun.

picture of a blue dun horse,
By Kumana @ Wild Equines – originally posted to Flickr as Blue Dun Silver Dapple,

Grulla duns have a black base color.

There’s a wide variety of names used to describe a grulla dun; people refer to them as blue duns, black duns, grey duns, and mouse duns. But, regardless of what they’re called, these horses have the dun gene “D,” diluting the “EE” black base coat.

The dilution creates a diluted coat that is smoky blue and ranges from light silver or light mouse grey to a deep dark grey that looks almost black. The horses’ mane, tail, points, and primitive markings remain the base color of black.

Dun horses don’t turn gray.

Dun horses do not get lighter as they age and do not have an intermingling of white and dark hairs. Dun is a term used to describe a particular genetic makeup of a horse. Some dun horses will display gray coloring, such as a blue dun, but it is a dun horse, not a gray.

For a horse to be characterized as “gray,” the horse must have a single dominant allele gene. A gray foal can be born of any color, and as it matures, white hairs begin to replace birth-colored hairs. As the horse continues to age, the number of white hair increases to exhibit classic gray features.

Often gray foals are challenging to distinguish from a roan or dun because some foals exhibit features of either duns or roans before they mature. Duns don’t change color.

picture of a bay dun horses,
By Wj32-Own work,

Understanding Dun Horse Markings

Dun Horses are notable not only for their distinctive coat colors but also for their unique markings. These often include a dark stripe running down the spine, referred to as a dorsal stripe, and darker points on the ears, mane, and tail.

You may also spot horizontal or zebra-like stripes on the upper legs and, in some cases, a faint web-like or shadow pattern over the shoulders. These markings aren’t just aesthetically pleasing; they hold significant meaning.

They are known as “primitive markings” because they hark back to the earliest ancestors of modern horses. The presence of these markings indicates the action of the Dun gene, helping to differentiate true Dun Horses from others with similar coat colors.

The correlation between these markings and genetics is straightforward. The Dun gene, which is responsible for the horse’s lighter body color, doesn’t dilute the color of these primitive markings. This results in stark contrast between the horse’s overall body color and its markings.

Primitive markings

The “primitive markings” are a defining trait of Dun Horses. They encompass the dorsal stripe, horizontal zebra-like striping on the upper legs, and occasionally a stripe across the withers. A classic Dun Horse, with its yellow or tan coat, dark points, and primitive markings, is a sight to behold.

One unvarying feature among Dun Horses is the dorsal stripe, which stretches from the poll to the tail’s dock. This characteristic has earned them the term “line-backed dun.” Although the intensity and depth of their color and markings may vary, their crisp dorsal stripe and typically dark-tipped ears remain consistent.

However, identifying a Dun Horse isn’t always straightforward. Other color modifications, such as countershading or sooting, can mimic Dun coloring, leading to potential confusion. It’s this intricate interplay of colors and markings that adds a layer of complexity and intrigue to the fascinating Dun Horse.

The most common dun color pattern looks very similar to buckskin.

The most common colored dun horse is the classic dun, which looks similar to a buckskin horse. However, duns have characteristics that make them unique. To learn more about the differences between duns and buckskin horses, you should read this article: Dun vs. Buckskin Horses, What’s the Difference? 5 Clues.

Differentiating dun factors from non-dun factors in foals is especially tricky. Frequently foals are born with primitive markings that disappear after their foal coat sheds. In gray foals, the presence of primitive markings is frequent. The foal markings often lead owners to misidentify a gray foal as a dun.

Countershading is often mistaken for Dun traits.

Countershading is a color pattern describing an animal’s back that is dark while its underside is light. This type of shading blends animals in with their surroundings and looks similar to dun markings.

Countershading can be distinguished from dun because the dark areas are not typically as clean and crisp and often fades during the summer months.

picture of from the rear of a dun horse displaying its dorsal stripe and dark tail.,
By Arsdelicata,

Some dun horses have unique markings.

Some dun horses have unique markings that set them apart from other horse colors. The most identifiable and striking feature of a dun horse is the horizontal stripe, or “dorsal stripe,” running along the horse’s back.

This stripe is darker than the horse’s base color and may extend all the way down to the horse’s tail. Other common dun markings include leg bars (dark vertical stripes on the horse’s legs) and face masks (darker hair around the horse’s eyes and muzzle).

While these markings are not always present, they can help to create a uniquely striking appearance. Dun horses are also known for their Intelligence, making them popular among riders.

Picture of the dorsal stripe on a dun quarter horse filly.

Dorsal Stripe

A dorsal stripe is a clean, crisp mark that runs through a horse’s mane to the dock of its tail. It is permanent and is the color of the horse’s base coat color. A dorsal stripe on a bay horse, however, can be either black or reddish.

Leg markings 

Most duns have horizontal striping on the back of their forelegs; however, the markings are often faint. These markings are sometimes called zebra bars and most commonly appear above the knees and hocks.

picture of the leg stripes on a dun horse,

Face mask

Dun horses typically have a dark area around the front of the face and their forehead. Cobwebbing, or spiderwebbing, is subtle stripes on the forehead.

Shoulder stripe

The shoulder stripe runs crosswise from the center of the back down either side of the withers, it is perpendicular to the dorsal line. Think of the shoulder stripe commonly seen in donkeys.

picture of the shoulder stripe on a donkey.

Dun Frosting 

The hairs on either side of the mane and both sides of the dock of the tail may be significantly light-colored, creating a semblance of frosting. On some horses, frosting is very pronounced, but it can also be subtle.

Ear Tips 

Dark marks are the same color as the dorsal stripe on the back of the horse’s ears. The marks may involve only the rim, the rear of the ear tip, or a distinct strip below the tip.

picture of the head of a dun horse that shows frosting,,

Decoding Dun Horses: Intriguing Facts

The striking colors and markings of Dun Horses effortlessly grab attention, but their true intrigue lies in the facts that extend far beyond their visual appeal.

Dun Horses are hardy.

While their temperament and abilities largely depend on their specific breed, many Dun Horses are known for their hardiness and resilience, traits which some horse enthusiasts attribute to their wild ancestry.

Dun horses have unique patterns.

One unique feature that sets Dun Horses apart is their distinctive primitive markings. These markings, including the dorsal stripe and zebra-like leg striping, can occasionally resemble a web-like pattern on their shoulders, adding an extra element of intrigue to their appearance.

Dun horses are depicted in cave paintings.

Their presence in the history books is equally fascinating. Dun Horses have been depicted in ancient cave paintings, indicating their existence since prehistoric times. Moreover, the Przewalski horse, the last remaining wild horse breed, exhibits Dun characteristics, further highlighting the Dun color’s historical and evolutionary significance.

Bay Dun is the most common color of duns.

A bay dun is the most common dun coloring. It is considered the classic dun and sometimes referred to as a yellow dun. The coat color ranges from creamy yellow, similar to palomino, to deep reddish gold. It is often confused with a buckskin.

Picture of a horse with a dapple coat.

A buckskin with a dorsal stripe is a dun.

Buckskin horses and bay duns are challenging to distinguish. They both have similar coat colors and dark points derived from a bay base. Duns get their characteristics from a dun dilution gene, while Buckskins’ characteristics are from a cream dilution gene.

Describing the differences in genes doesn’t help when looking at the horses; however, genetically, they can be tested to ensure their offspring’s coloring.

The visual test to determine if you have a buckskin or a dun is to check for a clear and distinct dorsal stripe present in all dun horses. If no distinct dorsal line, then the horse is a buckskin.

The YouTube video below starts a bit strange but provides some very helpful information.

The Dun Horse in Equestrian Culture

The Dun Horse also carries a wealth of symbolism and cultural significance. For many, the Dun Horse’s unique color and markings represent natural beauty and a connection to the past. They remind us of the horse’s role in human history, from labor and warfare to companionship and sport. In some cultures, the Dun coloration is associated with traits like endurance and resilience, reflecting the hardiness of these horses.

In the realm of art and literature, the Dun Horse has been a source of inspiration for many. Their striking appearance has led to their depiction in various forms of artistic expression, from ancient cave paintings to modern photography and paintings.

In literature, Dun Horses often feature as noble steeds, their unique colors, and markings adding an element of intrigue and beauty to narratives. Whether as symbols of endurance, subjects of art, or companions in sport, Dun Horses continue to captivate and inspire in equestrian culture.

Dun Horse Color Significance and Meaning

In various cultures and traditions, dun horses have been admired for their grounding energy and earthy hues. They symbolize stability, reliability, and a deep-rooted connection to the Earth. Their primitive markings serve as a reminder of the long-standing bond between humans and horses, while their rare presence in certain breeds only adds to their mystique and fascination.

The dun horse color holds unique significance and meaning, representing resilience, adaptability, and a strong connection to nature. Their striking appearance and primitive markings continue to captivate horse enthusiasts worldwide, celebrating the rich history and enduring bond between humans and these magnificent animals.


Dun Horse, with their distinctive coloration and unique markings, is a captivating presence in the equestrian world. Its historical significance, genetic attributes, and cultural importance make it more than just a horse with an unusual coat. From ancient cave paintings to modern equestrian sports, Dun Horses have left their indelible mark on human history and culture.

Moreover, the Dun Horse’s versatility and hardiness make it a favorite among horse enthusiasts, proving that it’s not just their beauty that sets them apart. The Dun gene’s dominance ensures the continuation of this coloration, adding to the rich diversity of horse colors and markings.

Whether you’re a seasoned equestrian, a budding geneticist, or someone who simply appreciates natural beauty, the Dun Horse offers a fascinating subject. Its intriguing blend of history, genetics, and aesthetics serves as a reminder of the enduring bond between humans and horses, a relationship that continues to evolve and inspire.

So, next time you see a Dun Horse, take a moment to appreciate not just its striking appearance but also the rich tapestry of history and genetics it embodies. After all, every Dun Horse is a living testament to the beauty and diversity of the equine world.


Is Spirit a dun or buckskin?

Spirit is a dun but also qualifies as a dunskin or buckskin dun. Buckskins with a dorsal stripe are duns, but some people call them buckskin duns or “dunskins.” Spirit is a popular name for dun horses.

Are claybank duns rare?

Yes, Claybank duns are rare. A claybank dun is a red dun with a flaxen mane and tail. The most common dun is a bay dun. The claybank horse has amber eyes and hooves that are lightly pigmented.

Are grulla duns rare?

Within the grulla duns, the dark blue dun is considered rare. But I don’t know how rare they can be since I know of a couple of dark blue duns living near me. These dun horses are so dark they look black.