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

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One man calls his red horse a sorrel, and another owner calls his a chestnut. Horse jargon is confusing, especially when it comes to colors. This confusion led me to find out what specifically makes a red horse a sorrel.

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

People in the horse industry use various terms to describe red horses, such as chestnut and red roan. However, a sorrel horse has characteristics that distinguish it from these other red equine colors.

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.

Picture of a sorrel, yearling at auction.
Sorrel Yearling

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, on the east coast and in Europe, the same color is called Chestnut.

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

Sorrel is used to describe a horse with a copper-red coat with 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 a 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 the sway of the back, and still others 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.

sorrel horse,
Granddaughter’s sorrel
  • Bay – a bay horse, has a reddish-brown coat color with 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 a reddish-copper color chestnut horse. Sorrel horses’ mane and tails are the same color as their coat. The difference in chestnut and sorrel is often based on geographical vernacular and use of the horse.

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 roans, chestnut roans, 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.”

A picture of a rider on a sorrel horse,

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 a different colored mane and tail.

Chestnut horses may have a mane, tail, and legs a lighter or darker color than the horses’ coat color. Although the mane and tail are dark in some chestnuts, 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 tail.

Sorrel horses with light manes and tails are flaxen chestnuts.

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 their coat color.

sorrel, sorrel horse,

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 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 have 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 accepts three standards of red horses for registration. The red coat colors they allow for registration are sorrel, chestnut, and chestnut-sorrel.

Some breed association 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 sorrels 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, there are only two true base coat colors in horses, 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. From these two base coats, along with the bay modifier, all other horse colors are created.

To learn more about bay horses, read our article /what-is-a-bay-horse/.

Picture of my grandsons' sorrel horse.

Chestnut horses have a wide spectrum of shades.

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 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, 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 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 a Gray horse.

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 its 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.