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Dun vs. Buckskin Horses, What’s the Difference? 5 Clues.

Last updated: October 10, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

When my grandson asked me about the differences between duns and buckskin horses, I found myself pausing. Despite many years around these horses, providing a clear distinction between the two coat colors wasn’t as easy as I initially thought. So, I did some research to unravel the differences between dun and buckskin horses.

At its essence, the distinction between dun and buckskin horses lies in their appearance and genetic lineage. Buckskin horses sport a tan body complemented by black points and a dorsal stripe. Duns, on the other hand, showcase a sandy brown hue, highlighted by a pronounced dorsal stripe and unique primitive markings. Unlike buckskins, their manes and tails aren’t always dark.

The subtle yet significant differences between dun and buckskin horses aren’t just about aesthetics. For breeders and enthusiasts alike, understanding these distinctions is crucial. The genetic underpinnings determine not just the coat’s present shade but also the potential colors of future offspring.

picture of a young dun horse,

Background: The Genetics of Horse Colors

Horses, with their diverse range of colors and patterns, have sparked intrigue for centuries. Ever wonder why one horse has a glossy black coat while another sports a rich chestnut hue? It’s all written in their genes. Let’s embark on a journey to understand the basics of equine color genetics.

Base Colors: The Canvas of Equine Beauty

Horses essentially have two primary colors at the genetic level: black (E gene) and red (e gene, often referred to as chestnut or sorrel). These are the fundamental “base” colors determined by the extension gene.

However, when we talk about base colors in a more generalized or visible sense (particularly in the context of coat color dilutions), we often include “bay” because of its widespread recognition and distinction.

A bay horse is genetically a black horse with the presence of the Agouti gene (A), which restricts the black pigment to the points (mane, tail, legs). To put it simply:

  1. Black: E gene without the dominant form of the Agouti gene.
  2. Bay: E gene with the dominant form of the Agouti gene.
  3. Chestnut/Sorrel: e gene.

In the context of discussing dilutions like buckskin and dun, it’s common to refer to bay as a “base” color because the Agouti gene’s effect (resulting in the bay phenotype) interacts with the dilution genes to produce various color outcomes.

The Magic of Dilution: From Base to Brilliance

While our base colors set the foundational palette, nature has a way of adding its own twists. Enter dilution genes. Imagine an artist taking a base paint color and adding white to it, creating various tints. Similarly, dilution genes work on the base colors, producing a spectrum of unique shades.

For our two stars of the day, dun and buckskin:

  • Buckskin: This color arises when the cream dilution gene acts on a bay-based color. The result is a tan or gold body color with a black mane, tail, and often black points (like on the legs).
  • Dun: The dun pattern comes from the dun dilution gene acting on any base coat color. This gene is responsible for the primitive markings on the horse, which include a dorsal stripe running down the spine, possible zebra-like stripes on the legs, and sometimes a transverse stripe over the withers (shoulders).

In essence, the vast world of horse colors, from the simplest shades to the most intricate patterns, is a dance of genetics. Every horse carries a legacy in its coat, a living testament to the interplay of genes passed down through generations.

picture of a buckskin horse,

Understanding Buckskin Horses

When you think of wild stallions galloping freely in classic Western movies, you’re probably picturing a buckskin horse. Defined by its golden-yellow to tan body and dark contrasting points, a buckskin is more than just a horse; it’s a symbol of freedom and the untamed spirit of the West.

Diving Deep: The Genetics Behind the Hue

The distinct coloration of a buckskin horse is all thanks to the interplay of genes. At its core, buckskin results from the presence of a single cream dilution gene acting on a bay horse. Here’s a simplified breakdown:

  • Bay Horse: A bay horse has a base color of black but expresses the agouti gene, which restricts the black color to the points – namely, the mane, tail, and legs.
  • Cream Dilution Gene: When the cream gene comes into play, it dilutes the rich reddish-brown body color of the bay to the signature tan or golden hue of the buckskin. However, it leaves the black points undiluted, resulting in the classic buckskin contrast.

Physical Characteristics: A Closer Look

Buckskin horses are more than just their golden hue. Here are some defining features:

  • Coat: A creamy gold to tan body that can range from light, almost beige, to a richer, deeper gold.
  • Mane & Tail: Dark, often black, offering a striking contrast to the lighter body color.
  • Legs: Typically, the legs are also black or dark-colored, much like the mane and tail.

While some buckskins might have a faint dorsal stripe, this feature is not as pronounced or consistent as in dun horses.

Shades of Buckskin: A Spectrum of Beauty

Just as there’s more than one shade of any color, buckskins too have their variations:

  • Dark Buckskin: As the name suggests, this is a deeper, more saturated shade of gold, almost bordering on brown.
  • Smoky Buckskin: This captivating shade arises when the cream gene acts on a black horse instead of a bay. The result? A charcoal or smoky body with black points.

To truly appreciate the beauty of a buckskin horse is to understand the symphony of genetics and nature at play. With their iconic looks and rich history, buckskins have earned their esteemed place in the tapestry of equine beauty.

Picture of a dun horse with primitive markings.
Dun horse with primitive leg markings.

Understanding Dun Horses

When envisioning the vast, rugged terrains that wild horses once roamed, the dun horse often springs to mind. With its muted coat colors and unique primitive markings, the dun embodies an ancient and primal connection to nature.

A Genetic Marvel: The Dun Dilution Gene

The dun horse’s distinct appearance is a testament to genetics in action. At its essence, the dun color is attributed to the dun dilution gene. This gene affects both primary base colors – black and red – but it does so in a unique manner:

  • While it lightens the body’s overall color, it leaves specific areas, such as the legs, mane, and tail, darker.
  • This results in the signature ‘diluted body with darker points’ look that dun horses are known for.

Spotting the Primitive Markings

The dun horse is more than just its diluted coat. Its true distinction lies in the primitive markings:

  • Dorsal Stripe: Running down the middle of the horse’s back, from mane to tail, this stripe is like the backbone of the dun’s markings.
  • Leg Barring (or “Zebra Stripes”): These are the dark bands or stripes that can be seen, usually on the forelegs. They’re reminiscent of the stripes on a zebra, hence the nickname.
  • Other Markings: Duns can also exhibit other ancient markings like a transverse stripe over the withers, cob webbing on the face, and sometimes even spots or mottling on their body.

The Dun Spectrum: Variations of Beauty

Duns, while sharing a common gene, come in various shades based on the base color they affect:

  • Red Dun: Originating from the red or chestnut base, these duns have a pale reddish or apricot body. Their primitive markings, however, remain a darker red or rust color.
  • Grullo/Grulla: Resulting from the dun gene acting on a black base, these horses flaunt a smoky or slate-gray body. Their primitive markings are black, and they’re often considered one of the most striking dun variations.
  • Classic Dun: Born from the bay base color, classic duns have a tan or gold body with darker points and markings.

The dun horse, with its rich tapestry of colors and markings, stands as a testament to the wonders of genetics and evolution. Their ancient markings evoke images of prehistoric times, making every dun not just a horse but a living piece of history.

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

Dun vs. Buckskin Horses: Five Clues to Differentiate Them

The enchanting world of horse colors is a myriad of subtle shades and intricate patterns. At first glance, dun and buckskin horses can seem eerily similar, but on closer inspection, they reveal distinguishing features. If you’ve ever been stumped trying to identify them, fret not! Here are five clues to help you differentiate between dun and buckskin horses.

1. The Dorsal Stripe’s Tale

One of the most distinguishing features of a dun horse is the dorsal stripe. This dark line runs down the center of the horse’s back, from mane to tail. While some buckskins might exhibit a dorsal stripe, it’s typically fainter. In duns, however, this stripe is not only present but is often crisply defined, standing out against the horse’s coat.

2. Leg Barring: The Zebra’s Gift

Frequently dubbed “zebra stripes,” leg barring is a series of dark bands or rings encircling a dun horse’s legs. This primitive marking is a signature dun feature and is typically absent in buckskin horses. If you spot these stripes, you’re likely looking at a dun.

3. A Study in Hue

While both duns and buckskins can have golden or tan coats, there’s a subtle difference in their hues. Duns often have a more muted, dusty appearance to their coats. Think of the color of sand on a cloudy day. Buckskins, on the other hand, tend to have a richer, more vibrant golden or tan shade reminiscent of sunlight on wheat fields.

The YouTube video below provides a great example of the differences between duns and buckskins.

4. Mane and Tail Mysteries

Buckskins boast a darker mane and tail, contrasting sharply with their lighter body. This distinction is consistent and striking. Duns, however, are a bit more unpredictable. Their mane and tail can either be darker like the buckskin or blend seamlessly with their body color, presenting a more uniform appearance.

5. The Ancient Markings of Duns

Dun horses often come adorned with a suite of primitive markings that speak of their ancient lineage. These can include:

  • Cobwebbing: Faint, spiderweb-like markings on the forehead.
  • Ear Tips: Darker colorations on the tips of their ears.
  • Shoulder Stripes: Dark, shadowy stripes on the horse’s shoulders.

Such markings are rare to nonexistent in buckskins, further differentiating the two.

Spotting the differences between duns and buckskins is like unraveling a genetic puzzle. With these clues in hand, you’ll not only appreciate the nuances of each horse’s coat but also marvel at the intricate dance of genetics that creates such captivating creatures.

picture of a foal and its mother, both look like duns

Importance of Correctly Identifying Horse Colors

For those outside equestrian circles, the exact shade or pattern of a horse might seem a mere aesthetic detail. However, for breeders, horse enthusiasts, and professionals within the equine industry, correctly identifying horse colors holds profound significance.

1. Breeding: Crafting the Next Generation

  • Predictable Outcomes: For breeders, knowing the exact color and genetic makeup of a horse can help predict the possible coat colors of its offspring. This is especially valuable when aiming to produce horses of a particular color or pattern.
  • Avoiding Unwanted Combinations: Certain color genes can lead to health issues when combined. For instance, breeding two horses with the homozygous cream dilution gene can result in foals with Cremello or Perlino coats, which may come with vision and skin sensitivities.

2. Registration & Breed Standards: A Stamp of Authenticity

  • Accuracy in Documentation: Many horse breed registries have strict standards for color classifications. Misidentifying a horse’s color can lead to incorrect documentation, which might invalidate the horse’s registration or pedigree certification.
  • Preserving Breed Integrity: Many horse breeds have specific color standards or recognized colors. Correctly identifying these ensures that the breed maintains its unique characteristics and heritage.

3. Lineage & Genetics: Unraveling the Equine Tapestry

  • Historical Significance: The color of a horse can often give clues to its lineage. Historically, certain tribes or regions favored particular horse colors for various reasons, from warfare to ceremonial purposes. By understanding a horse’s color, one might glean insights into its ancestral roots.
  • Health and Traits: Some color genes are linked with specific health conditions. For example, the white Overo pattern in Paint horses is sometimes associated with the lethal white syndrome in foals. Understanding color genetics can help breeders make informed decisions to ensure the health of future generations.

In the grand tapestry of equine beauty and genetics, colors and patterns aren’t mere visuals. They’re gateways to understanding the past, present, and potential future of these magnificent creatures. As with many things in life, the devil is in the details; in the equine world, those details can make all the difference.

What is a Dunskin Horse?

A dunskin horse has both the dun gene and the buckskin gene. Basically, it’s a buckskin with an added dun modifier. This combination creates a stunning coat color on a bay horse and allows for gray color to appear.

Dunskins typically are a little lighter and have more frosting in their mane and tail than a standard dun horse.

What is a Dunalino?

A dunalino is a palomino with a dun gene. A standard palomino is created by a dilution gene acting on a chestnut base color. To make a dunalino, a dun dilution allele is added to the mix.

And since dun genes are dominant, their traits show over the palomino coat. These gorgeous horses display a golden palomino color with a distinct brown dorsal stripe and stripes on their lower legs.

Other Related Horse Colors and Markings

The vibrant spectrum of horse colors and markings extends far beyond the dun and buckskin shades. Many of these are a result of various dilution genes and unique genetic combinations. Let’s take a brief trot through some other captivating colors and patterns that enrich the equine palette.

Cremellos and Perilinos

There are several different cream alleles; some can be mixed in with dun and/or buckskin. Some of the most beautiful horses are called cremellos, with two cream dilutions in their genetic code.

Both perlino and cremello horses are a result of the double dose of the cream dilution gene acting on different base colors:

  • Perlino: When two cream genes act on a bay base color, you get a perlino. Their coat is often a pale, creamy color, but they possess a slightly darker mane and tail, often manifesting in shades of reddish or caramel.
  • Cremello: A double dose of the cream gene on a chestnut base color gives us the cremello. They present a uniformly pale cream or almost white coat with pale blue eyes.
picture of a perlino horse,

Having multiple dilution genes can lighten the coat to nearly white. In a horse with a black coat, they are called smoky creams. Buckskins and bays have dark skin and darker eyes. Perlinos have light eyes, either blue or glass.

For a long time, breeders and others in the equine world shunned this type of horse. The American Quarter Horse Association did not accept either cremellos or perlinos until 2003. Other registries also denied registration to them. Many breeds can develop this genetic code, but it takes a lot of time to make them acceptable.

Healthwise, there don’t seem to be any problems with this genetic type. One would think that sunburn would be a problem, given their pink skin and light eyes, but some owners of these stunning horses say that they are like other horses, if they sunburn at all.

The pink is actually a pigment, not a lack thereof. However, other owners mention on horse forums that their horses’ faces get sunburned. Therefore, it is recommended that a vet-approved sunscreen be applied to the face to help avoid that issue.

The horses also seem to attract more biting insects than darker-skinned horses. One horse owner stated that the horse took out a hundred feet of fencing, trying to get away from them. For that reason, a fly sheet and good fly control are strongly recommended.

This is probably a good idea for all equines, especially where they are the most prevalent. A fly mask is a good idea as well, not just because of the flies. The lighter-colored eyes seem to be more sensitive to sunlight, and the mask is sort of like equine sunglasses.

You may be wondering whether or not these horses are albinos. They aren’t; if they were, they would be subject to sunburn and skin cancer at a higher rate. However, there are no known living albino horses. It is theorized that they aren’t viable and are miscarried. These horses are perfectly normal; they just have an unusual coat color and skin pigmentation.

One question that gets asked a lot is whether or not double cream dilutes are white. No, they aren’t. If you stand them next to a true white horse, you will see that it is a little off, like the color of cream. There is one other thing about these light-colored horses. They need to be groomed well and bathed frequently. Dirt shows up on them really fast.

With light skin and coat, even a little dirt or mud is visible. Particular care should be taken of the feet, as some horse owners report that they tend to bruise more easily.

Picture of a horse with a dapple coat.

Silver Dapple

The silver dapple gene is a dilution that primarily affects the black pigment in a horse’s coat.

  • Appearance: It transforms the black body color into a chocolate or dark brown shade while turning the mane and tail into a flaxen or silver hue. The result is a stunning contrast between the body and the mane/tail.
  • Note: It’s essential to differentiate between the silver dapple and the classic “black and white” appearance of some horses, which might be due to pinto or paint genetics rather than the silver dapple dilution.


The intricate dance of genes, responsible for the array of horse colors and patterns, tells stories of lineage, breeding potential, and the rich history of equine species. As we’ve seen, even colors as seemingly similar as dun and buckskin have distinct differences that are rooted deep within their genetic makeup.

Differentiating between dun and buckskin isn’t just a matter of semantics or aesthetics—it’s a testament to the wonders of genetics and the diversity of the equine world. By understanding these differences, breeders can make informed decisions, enthusiasts can deepen their appreciation, and the curious can delve further into the mysteries of equine lineage.

As you close this chapter on duns and buckskins, remember that it’s just one page in the vast and colorful book of horse genetics. The world of horse colors is vast, varied, and waiting to be explored.

Whether you’re an equestrian expert or a budding horse enthusiast, there’s always more to learn, more patterns to recognize, and more beauty to behold. So, saddle up and continue your journey into the fascinating spectrum of horse colors—it promises to be a ride full of discoveries!

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