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What Is a Sorrel Horse? Color, and With a Flaxen Mane & Tail

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Sometimes people use different term terms to describe their red horses. One person might use sorrel, while another calls theirs a chestnut. Understanding horse terms can be tricky, especially when talking about colors. This made me curious to learn more about what makes a red horse, specifically a sorrel, and how it differs from a chestnut.

A sorrel horse has a copper-red coat, mane, and tail. It is one of the most popular equine colors and is common in many horse breeds. Flaxen is yellow or straw-colored, and sorrel horses with a flaxen mane and tail are typically called chestnut flaxen in the U.S.

In the horse world, there are different terms used to describe red horses, like chestnut and red roan. Yet, sorrel horses have unique features that set them apart from other red horse colors. Keep reading to learn more about what makes sorrel horses unique.

Picture of a sorrel horse with a flaxen mane.

All about sorrel horses.

A sorrel horse is a copper-red horse with a red mane and tail. Genetically, it is a base color coat of solid reddish-brown caused by the recessive”e” gene. Some equestrians use the terms sorrel and chestnut interchangeably, but sorrel is more commonly used in reference to horses used in western events.

The origination of the word sorrel to describe a horse was likely a reference to the red color found in the sorrel herb. Sorrel herbs have bright green leaves with dark copper-red stems and veins.

The word “Sorrel” originated in the 14th century.

Sorrel developed from Old French in the 14th century. It has two meanings: a reddish-brown color (horse?) or a plant with sour juice. Sorrel is frequently used to describe red horses in the western United States. However, the same color is called Chestnut on the east coast and in Europe.

Picture of a sorrel thoroughbred filly.
Thoroughbred yearling

All Sorrels are Chestnuts, but all Chestnuts aren’t Sorrels.

Sorrel is used to describe a horse with a copper-red coat with a matching colored mane and tail. Chestnut horses have a red base coat with a mane and tail of the same or lighter color. Black hair is not present in either sorrel or chestnut horses.

All sorrel horses are chestnuts, but not all chestnuts are sorrels. Chestnut coloring includes a broad spectrum of red-colored horses. Light-colored chestnuts look similar to palomino.

Sorrel is one of the most common horse colors.

The most common horse colors are bay, black, gray, chestnut, and sorrel. The American Quarter Horse Association’s largest color registration is sorrel.

People look at horses differently; some focus on horses’ feet, others on the sway of the back, and still others on the horses’ legs. But one thing is sure everyone notices a horse’s color.

The base colors of horses provide a pallet for various shades, markings, and unique colorings. The combination of colors is too numerous to count.

  • Bay – a bay horse has a reddish-brown coat color with a black mane, tail, ear edges, and lower legs. Bay horses also have dark skin. Bay horse shades vary.
  • Black – Black means black, all black, including a horse’s mane, tail, and skin with dark brown eyes. Any lighter color hair and the horse is considered a bay or dark chestnut. Black is a base color for horses.
  • Gray-gray horses have progressive silvering in their coat. Some are so light they look white and are very commonly referred to as white horses. Most gray horses have black skin and dark eyes.
  • Chestnut – Chestnut is used in describing any red-colored horse. Chestnut color is a base color. (See above for a more in-depth description).
  • Sorrel- Sorrel horses are reddish-copper color chestnut horses. Sorrel horses’ manes and tails are the same color as their coat. The difference between chestnut and sorrel is often based on geographical vernacular and horse use.

A Sorrel Roan horse and a Red Roan are hard to tell apart.

I’ve been around a lot of red-roan horses and have yet to know anyone with a Sorrel roan. I don’t know if they’re rare, or people just call are chestnut roans, red, or strawberry.

But apparently, some people differentiate sorrel roans from red, chestnut, and strawberry roans. Technically, if a chestnut horse is copper-colored as a Sorrel is, and it has evenly dispersed white hair, it is a “Sorrel Roan.”

Picture of horses
Grandkids on sorrel horses

Sorrel horses have manes and tails the same color as their coat.

Some dark chestnuts look black. Sorrel horses are limited to copper-red coloring. Besides the range of color tones, chestnut horses can have different colored manes and tails.

Chestnut horses may have a mane, tail, and legs a lighter or darker color than the horses’ coat color. Although some chestnuts have dark manes and tails, they are never black.

Chestnuts’ do not have “black points” like a bay. Black points are a genetic trait that results in a black mane, tail, and lower legs. Bay horses always have black points.

A blood bay is easily confused with a chestnut with dark points. However, chestnut points are dark but not black. If the points are truly black, the horse is a blood bay. Sorrel horses have the same colored mane and tails.

What is a Flaxen Chestnut?

Most people I know would refer to the horse in the video as a flaxen chestnut; however, some call them Sorrels with a flaxen mane and tail. Both are acceptable.

Outside of the United States, some countries refer to a chestnut horse with a light mane and tail as a sorrel horse with flaxen. In the United States, a sorrel has the same colored mane and tail as its coat color.

The term flaxen is used to describe a pale yellowish-gray resembling the color of straw. Multiple genes cause the flaxen-colored mane and tail in Chestnut.

Flaxen genes are inherited by offspring. Some horses that don’t exhibit much flaxen can still produce foals with intense flaxen coloring. Flaxen doesn’t affect bay horses, only chestnuts’.

There are mimics of flaxen. Dilution genes in palomino horses can create the appearance of flaxen. A cream dilution gene in a palomino can result in a golden-coated horse with a white or cream-colored mane and tail.

The greatest racehorse of all time is Sorrel.

Secretariat was a Sorrel Thoroughbred racehorse. He broke most major horse racing records and is still regarded by many as the greatest racehorse of all time.

Secretariat is referred to as a chestnut; however, the Jockey Club doesn’t accept Sorrel registration; they regard every red horse as a chestnut.

Picture of a statute of Secretariat.

We know all chestnuts are sorrels, so this description doesn’t rule out his true color, Sorrel. If you examine photos of Secretariat, you’ll notice he is a shiny copper-colored horse with a mane and tail the same color. This is the classic description of a Sorrel horse.

Dash for Cash was a Sorrel Quarter Horse

Dash for Cash is one of the greatest running Quarter Horses of all time. He was the World Racing Quater Horse Champion in 1976 and 1977, but his most prominent achievement was as a stud.

He sired many of Quarter Horse racing’s best racehorses. He was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1997.

Sorrel color is found in most horse breeds.

Most major horse breeds in the United States include sorrel coat colors. Sorrel is prevalent in Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses, Tennesse Walking Horses, and Belgians, to only name a few.

Sorrel is the most common color of horses registered in the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). The AQHA is the largest breed registry in the world, with over three million active horses registered.

This versatile breed is used in various equine events, from showjumping and dressage to barrel racing.

Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association accept three standards of red horses for registration. The red coat colors they allow for registration are sorrel, chestnut, and chestnut-sorrel.

Some breed associations register sorrels as chestnuts.

Sorrel is also prevalent in Thoroughbred racehorses; however, the Jockey Club includes sorrel color under the umbrella of chestnut, but not as a separate color.

The Jockey Club is not the only association that registers sorrel horses as chestnuts; Saddlebred, Morgan, Arabian, Appaloosa, and Standardbred associations likewise do not distinguish between the colors and use chestnut to describe any red horse.

What is a chestnut horse?

Chestnut is a base coat color in horses. There are five basic colors of horses, black, chestnut, bay, white, and brown. However, horses only have two true base coat colors, chestnut, and black. All horses genetically have a base color of either black or chestnut.

Chestnut is represented genetically by an absence of the extension gene (“e”). Black is represented by the presence of the extension gene (“E”). Bay is considered a sub-base that expresses black points on a horse. All other horse colors are created from these two base coats, along with the bay modifier.

Picture of a chestnut horse.

Chestnut horses have a wide spectrum of shades.

The following are standard chestnut colors:

  • Liver chestnut: Liver chestnut horses are very dark-reddish brown. These are the darkest chestnuts. Some liver chestnut horses are so dark they are thought to be black.
  • Flaxen chestnut: Light-colored manes and tails on a red or dark chestnut horse are called flaxen. Sometimes the coat color is very light, and the mane and tail are almost white. In these instances, the horse can be mistaken for a palomino.

A Red Roan is a Chestnut horse with white hair.

Roan refers to a horse’s color pattern. Roan horses’ coats are intermingled with white hair, and the horses’ mane, tail, and points are commonly solid colored.

A real roan horse presents its coloration while still a foal and doesn’t lighten with age. Roans can be seen in most horse breeds. Roan patterns can make a horse look pink or blue. Here are some of the common roans:

  • Blue roan: A blue roan is a black-based horse with white intermingled with black coat color. The combination makes the horse have a blue sheen.
  • Red roan: A red roan is a chestnut with white intermingled with a red coat color. A strawberry roan is the same as a red roan. Some people differentiate Sorrel roans from red roans; however, they are genetically the same.
  • Bay roan: Bay roan is another term for a red roan with bay points. Bay roan is the formal term used by some registries.

Some Roans are so white they are mistaken for Gray horses.

Roans with a lot of white are sometimes mistaken for gray. However, roans will not lighten over time, and a gray horse will. Another difference is that a gray foal can be born any color; a roan is born a roan.

Blue roans and blue duns are sometimes confused. But if you look closely at their coats, you can tell the difference. A blue dun does not have intermingled white hairs.

The low pigment in each hair causes a horse to look blue, and all the hairs are the same color. Blue roans have different colored hairs throughout their coat. Also, duns have dark primitive markings, including a stripe down their back.

Roans are common in European draft breeds and North American breeds such as the American Quarter Horse, Paint Horse, and Tennessee Walking Horse.

Interesting facts about roans:

  • The hairs on any spot of a roan that has been scraped, cut, or branded grow back with no white hairs.
  • Dapples on a roan are light and appear in a slightly different color. Light-colored dappling is called reverse dappling.

Below is a YouTube video of a sorrel quarterhorse barrel racing.

Sorrel Horse Color Significance and Meaning

Sorrel horses, with their vibrant, reddish-brown coats, exude warmth and energy in the equine world. The sorrel color is the result of a specific genetic trait characterized by a bright, coppery red hue with a mane and tail that can range from the same shade to a lighter or darker tone.

The significance and meaning of sorrel horses can be found in various cultures and historical contexts. Sorrel horses have long been admired for their spirited nature, enthusiasm, and zest for life, often associated with courage, passion, and a sense of adventure. In this context, sorrel horses symbolize a willingness to embrace new experiences and pursue personal growth.

Across different cultures and traditions, sorrel horses are celebrated for their warm, fiery hues and their lively personalities. They represent determination, vitality, and the drive to overcome obstacles. Their striking appearance in various equine disciplines serves as a testament to the qualities they embody, while their presence in art, literature, and folklore highlights their enduring appeal.

The sorrel horse color holds unique significance and meaning, representing courage, enthusiasm, and a strong connection to life’s passions. Their bright coloration and spirited nature continue to inspire horse enthusiasts worldwide, celebrating the diverse beauty and unbreakable bond between humans and these remarkable animals.

What breed of horse is a sorrel?

Sorrel isn’t a breed but rather a color. Many breeds have horses with sorrel color. Sorrel horses have copper-colored coats with manes and tails of the same shade.

What is the difference between a red horse and a sorrel horse?

Red horses come in many shades. Some can be almost black, like a deep cherry red; these are referred to as chestnut horses. A sorrel horse is a particular type of red, similar in color to a penny.

Picture of a chestnut racehorse