Skip to Content

Sorrel Horses: From the Wild West to the Modern Arena

Last updated: March 10, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Ever since I saw the great quarter horse, Mr. Jesse Perry, race, I knew that sorrel horses were something special. His impressive speed and agility on the racetrack left a lasting impression on me, and I knew I wanted to learn more about this amazing coat color.

Sorrel horses have a distinctive reddish-brown coat color that sets them apart from other horses. While some people may call them chestnut horses, the term “sorrel” is more commonly used in the Western horse world. The color can vary from a light copper shade to a deep, rich mahogany color, and some sorrels may have a flaxen mane and tail.

Throughout history, sorrel horses have played significant roles in various aspects of the equestrian world, from the Wild West to modern-day racing and jumping. In this article, I look forward to sharing with you the fascinating world of sorrel horses and exploring their history, breeds, and genetics.

Sorrel Horses in the Wild West

Sorrel horses were an important part of life in the Wild West. Their hardiness and versatility made them a popular choice for ranchers and settlers, and their distinctive reddish-brown coat color made them easy to spot on the open range.

Sorrel horses are characterized by their red coat color, which can range from a light, reddish-brown to a darker, copper tone. This beautiful color is the result of the red genes that are passed down from the horse’s parents. Sorrel horses are not a separate breed but rather a coat color that can be found in many different horse breeds.

Picture of a sorrel horse at sunset.
Sorrel horse at sunset.

In the Wild West, sorrel horses were used for everything from ranch work to racing. They were especially popular among cowboys and settlers because of their endurance and versatility. Sorrel horses were used for herding cattle, plowing fields, and transporting goods across long distances. They were also a popular choice for racing, and many famous horses from this era were sorrels.

Little Sorrel: The Famous Sorrel Horse of the Civil War

Little Sorrel was a famous sorrel horse that played a significant role in the American Civil War. He became known as the mount of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and was a loyal companion to the General during many battles.

Little Sorrel was originally captured by the Confederates at Harpers Ferry and was intended to be ridden by Mrs. Jackson. However, General Jackson quickly realized the horse’s potential and commandeered him as his own mount. Little Sorrel’s sorrel coat color and darker mane made him a striking figure on the battlefield, and he quickly became a symbol of the Confederacy.

During the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, while riding Little Sorrel, General Jackson was accidentally wounded by his own men and died a few days later. Little Sorrel remained with the Confederate army after the General’s death and became a popular mascot, often seen in parades and at fairs and exhibitions.

After the war, Little Sorrel retired to the Confederate Soldier’s Home in Richmond, Virginia. He lived there until 1886, when he died tragically while being lifted by a hoist, causing him to fall and break his back. Despite his death, Little Sorrel’s legacy lived on. He was stuffed and placed on display at the Veterans Home in Richmond until 1949, when he was finally returned to the Virginia Military Institute.

Today, visitors to the Virginia Military Institute’s Museum can see Little Sorrel and learn about his important role in American history. As one of the most famous sorrel horses in history, Little Sorrel’s story reminds us of the bravery and sacrifice of both horses and humans during the American Civil War.

The Genetics of Sorrel Horses

In recent years, there has been increased interest in horse color genetics, which has led to a better understanding of how different coat colors are inherited and expressed. Researchers have identified several genes that are responsible for producing the different horse colors, including the red horse coloring that gives sorrel horses their distinctive appearance.

The cream dilution gene, which is responsible for producing the flaxen manes and tails seen in some sorrel horses, is also being studied. This gene can affect not only the color of the horse’s hair but also its skin and eyes, and it has been linked to certain health conditions in some breeds.

The sorrel coat color is the result of a recessive e gene, which is responsible for producing red horse coloring. When a horse inherits this gene from both parents, it will always have a sorrel coat color. However, if a horse only inherits one copy of the gene, it may have other chestnut colors or bay or black coloring.

However, not all horses with a sorrel coat color are genetically identical. Some may have a brighter, almost orange hue, while others may have a deeper, more brownish tone. These variations are caused by other genes that affect the production of pigment in the hair.

Understanding the genetics behind the sorrel coat color is important for breeders who want to produce horses with specific coat colors or traits. It also adds to the appreciation and admiration for the unique and beautiful coat color of the sorrel horse.

Breeding for a sorrel foal

To breed for a sorrel foal, you need to start with two horses that either have sorrel coloring or carry the gene for sorrel. Sorrel is a red-based color, so both parents must have at least one copy of the “red” gene.

However, it’s important to note that sorrel is a recessive color, which means that it can be easily hidden by other coat colors. This makes it important to have a good understanding of color genetics and the modifiers that can affect the final coat color of the foal.

For example, if a horse has the agouti gene, its red coat can become a bay color instead of sorrel. Similarly, the dilute gene can cause the red coat to become a palomino or buckskin color. By understanding these genetic factors, you can make informed decisions when breeding horses to increase the likelihood of producing a sorrel foal.

The inheritance of coat color in horses is a complex process involving multiple genes, and it is not always possible to predict the color of the offspring with certainty. However, if the mare and stallion carry the “red” gene, there is a higher chance of producing a sorrel foal.

It is important to note that breeding for color alone is not recommended, as it should not be the only factor considered when selecting a breeding pair. The health, temperament, and conformation of the horses being bred must also be taken into account.

Picture of a cowboy riding a sorrel quarter horse.
Cowboy riding a sorrel quarter horse.

Common Sorrel horse breeds

Sorrel is a coat color found in various horse breeds, each with unique characteristics and differences. Understanding these differences is important for horse enthusiasts who are interested in owning or breeding sorrel horses.

Common breeds of sorrel horses include the American Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, Arabian, and many others. The American Quarter Horse is one of the most popular breeds with sorrel coat color. This breed is known for its speed, agility, and versatility and is often used in western riding disciplines such as reining and cutting.

Famous Sorrel Quarter horses

Many famous Sorrel Quarter Horses have made a name for themselves in the equestrian world. There’s Dash for Cash, Mr. Jesse Perry, Doc Bar, and Old Sorrel. These athletic horses succeeded in various things like racing, cutting, and reining.

Dash for Cash

Dash for Cash was a legendary racehorse and one of the most famous Sorrel Quarter Horses in history. He was one of the top money earners of all time, with career earnings of over $500,000.

After retiring from racing, Dash for Cash went on to have a highly successful career as a breeding stallion. He sired over 1,150 foals, many of which went on to have successful careers in the racing and performance worlds.

Dash for Cash’s bloodlines can be found in many modern Quarter Horses, and his legacy as a champion racehorse and successful sire continues to be celebrated by horse enthusiasts around the world.

Mr. Jesse Perry

Mr. Jesse Perry was a legendary Sorrel Quarter Horse who made a significant impact on the Quarter Horse industry. He was a highly successful breeding stallion and one of the most sought-after horses of his time.

One of Mr. Jesse Perry’s most notable accomplishments was being named AQHA Racing Champion 2-Year-Old and Champion Two-Year-Old Colt in 1994. This recognition was a huge honor and a testament to Mr. Jesse Perry’s impressive talent and athleticism. His speed, agility, and intelligence made him a formidable competitor on the racetrack and a favorite among fans.

In addition to his success on the track, Mr. Jesse Perry was also a highly successful breeding stallion. He was one of only three stallions in AQHA history to sire earners of more than $60 million. This is a remarkable achievement and a testament to Mr. Jesse Perry’s impressive bloodlines and impact on the Quarter Horse industry.

Today, Mr. Jesse Perry’s legacy continues to inspire and excite horse enthusiasts around the world. His bloodlines can still be found in many modern Sorrel Quarter Horses, and his impressive accomplishments continue to be celebrated by those who love and admire the breed.

Doc Bar

Doc Bar was a legendary Sorrel Quarter Horse and one of the most influential horses in the breed’s history. He was known for his impressive performance record and remarkable breeding abilities, which helped him become one of the most sought-after horses of his time.

Doc Bar’s legacy as a sire is nothing short of remarkable. He sired numerous National Cutting Horse Association Futurity winners, world champions, and top-10 horses. His progeny included Doc O’Lena, Dry Doc, Fizzabar, and Doc’s Kitty, to name a few. He was also the grandsire of Smart Little Lena, Tenino San, Docs Sangria, and Don N Willy, who all went on to become legendary horses in their own right.

Doc Bar’s breeding success is a testament to his impressive bloodlines and his ability to pass on his talent and athleticism to his offspring. His impact on the Quarter Horse industry is immeasurable, and his legacy continues to be celebrated by those who love and admire the breed.

Old Sorrel

Old Sorrel was a legendary Sorrel Quarter Horse who was known for his impressive bloodlines and remarkable performance record. He was born in 1915 on the famous King Ranch in Texas and quickly became a favorite among horse enthusiasts.

Old Sorrel was a highly successful breeding stallion. His bloodlines can be traced back to some of the most famous horses in the Quarter Horse industry. He sired numerous successful offspring who went on to become top competitors in the show ring and on the racetrack.

Old Sorrel’s legacy is closely tied to the King Ranch, where he spent most of his life. The King Ranch is one of the most famous ranches in Texas and has been a fixture in the Quarter Horse industry for decades.

These famous Sorrel Quarter Horses serve as a testament to the breed’s enduring popularity and appeal. Their impressive speed, athleticism, and distinctive sorrel coat color have made them a favorite among horse enthusiasts for generations.

Picture of a chestnut Thoroughbred, which is the same color as a sorrel horses.
Chestnut Thoroughbred.

Sorrel and Chestnut: The Beautiful Reddish-Brown Colors of Thoroughbreds

Even though Thoroughbreds can have a reddish-brown coat color, people don’t usually call it “sorrel.” Instead, they use the term “chestnut.” While chestnut Thoroughbreds are not as common as bay Thoroughbreds, they are still common.

Thoroughbreds with a chestnut coat color can range in shade from a light reddish-brown to a darker mahogany color. They often have a shiny, sleek coat that accentuates their muscular build and athleticism.

While chestnut Thoroughbreds may be less common than other colors, they are still a cherished part of the breed’s history and tradition. Many famous Thoroughbreds throughout history, such as Secretariat and Man o’ War, had chestnut coats.

Arabian Chestnut Horses: The Beautiful Sorrels of the Desert

Arabian horses can be a reddish-brown color, but people usually call it “chestnut” instead of “sorrel.” Lots of Arabian horses have this color, which can be light or dark. Chestnut Arabians have shiny coats and look graceful and athletic.

They might also have white markings on their faces or legs that make them look even more special. Chestnut Arabians are really popular and used for things like riding long distances, racing, and showing off. One of the most famous Arabian horses, Padron, was a chestnut color.

Picture of a sorrel horse.
Sorrel horse


Is sorrel a common coat color in horses?

Yes, sorrel is a fairly common coat color in horses, particularly in certain breeds like Quarter Horses and Arabians.

What causes a horse to have a sorrel coat?

Horses with the genotype “ee” will produce a red-based coat color, which is commonly referred to as sorrel in many breeds. So, a horse with two copies of the “e” allele (ee) will have a sorrel coat color.

What is a sorrel horse?

A sorrel horse is a horse with a reddish-brown coat color. It is also known as a chestnut horse in some breeds.


Whether you are a seasoned horse breeder or a casual rider, there is no denying the beauty and appeal of sorrel horses. With their rich history and unique coloring, they are sure to continue captivating the hearts of horse lovers for many years to come.

Today, sorrel horses are still popular in many equestrian disciplines, including western riding, barrel racing, and trail riding. They are prized for their versatility, athleticism, and stunning appearance. Many horse enthusiasts consider the sorrel coat color to be one of the most beautiful and unique colors among horses, and some even specialize in breeding sorrel horses.