Confused about horse colors? The puzzle over what to call one shade and what not to call another has been around as long as the modern horse. And although the debate over certain colors will likely continue to rage, the information we've gathered will help you identify some sixty common--and not-so-common--hues in horsedom. We've also simplified basic geneticspeak to give you an idea of what pairings can produce these colors-and provided resources that'll help you dig deeper into the world of color breeding.
Just to get things started... did you know that gray isn't considered a color, but rather a pattern of white hairs? Read on!
The ABCs of Color
Actually, the above subhead should read "The A's & B's of Color." We've distilled the standard color classifications into two categories for ease of visual identification: horses with black points (mane, tail, ear rims and lower legs--such as you see on a bay); and those with non-black points (think chestnut).
Simply put, black and red are the two basic equine color pigments. Your horse's ability to reproduce these pigments is an inherited trait, with red being recessive (see "Glossary," below) to black.
Each pigment can be modified by other genes, such as the dilution genes, to provide the rainbow of colors that modern horses wear. (In fact, you'll see that dilution can be powerful enough to water down the black on a genetically black-point horse, shifting him into the non-black-point category.)
In keeping with this duality theme (and excluding white-pattern coats), you need only the fingers of two hands (plus two fingers) to count the equine world's primary colors:
Black-point colors are bay, black, brown, grulla, buckskin and zebra dun.
Non-black-point colors are champagne, chestnut/sorrel, cremello, red dun, palomino and silver dapple.
As with the human hair labels of blond, brunette and redhead, variations within these primary categories would take many more than twelve fingers to count. Toss in the white-pattern colors of gray, paint/pinto, roan and Appaloosa, and identification can render you colorblind!
To help you decipher the myriad of equine coat colors, we've grouped them based on the visual presence or absence of black points, then added a section for white-pattern colors. We've also given you a broad example of sire and dam color, in the form of a "sample genetic recipe," that could produce such offspring. While breeding those-colored parents won't necessarily guarantee you'll get your chosen color, they'll help you to hedge your bets. (For more information on color genetics, see "Genetics 101," below.)
All of the following colors can be narrowed down visually by their black manes, tails, legs and ear rims. (Tip: To avoid confusion, focus on leg color--manes and tails can fade in the sun.)
Bay: Body color ranges from reddish-brown to washed-out yellow, with or without a mix of darker or lighter hairs; dark eyes.
Sample genetic recipe: Bay X any color.
Sample variations on color:
- Blood bay: a rare dark, blood-red shade (almost purple).
- Cherry bay: medium shade of the very reddish of bays.
- Golden bay: a rare lighter, golden tone, rather than the typical bay.
- Mahogany bay: a bay so dark as to be nearly black.
- Sandy or light bay: a light, washed-out, yellowish shade of red.
- Sooty bay: dark shade of bay produced by the sooty effect (see "Glossary" below).
- Standard bay: reddish-brown medium shade without a mix of darker or lighter hairs.
Black: Has solid black body, legs, mane and tail; dark eyes. Note: Some black horses' coats may fade in the sun; those that don't are referred to as "jet" or "raven" black.
Sample genetic recipe: Black X any color; bay X any color (needs a bay parent carrying a recessive black gene).
Brown: Body is brown or black with lighter shades around the muzzle, eyebrows, quarters, flank and girth. These lighter areas are often called "mealy" (see "Glossary"). Dark eyes. Note: Brown is not considered a separate color in some registries, but rather a shade of bay.
Sample genetic recipe: Bay X any color; brown X any color; black X any color.
Sample variations on color:
. Seal brown: a black horse whose hair has a mealy look.
Buckskin: This dilute (see "Glossary") version of bay can range from cream to a yellowish or orange shade; dark eyes. Although buckskins are often confused with duns, today "buckskin" is a term generally reserved for tan or yellowish-colored horses that have black points but lack a dun's hallmark primitive markings (see "Glossary"). The term "zebra dun" is generally used to describe buckskin-colored horses with primitive markings.