Just What Color Is This Horse?
For those that are new to the world of horses, you may be surprised to know that horses don't just come in the standard colors or black, brown and white that most people have come to associate with the equine species. There are so many subtle variations in coat colors that it really can be quite confusing, especially if you stray off into the color breeds and the multi-colored horses.
In order to help clear up a bit of the mystery the following guideline should be enough to get you started. Remember, however, that there are different terms used in different countries and within different breeds, so you really do have to do a bit more research before you can be really up to speed. It is also important to note that all horse colors are derived from two different pigment colors, black and red and how different genes within the DNA of the horse either wash out these colors or cause intensities and variations.
Chestnut Or Sorrel
Four Base Colors
Chestnut – also known as sorrel in some areas, is the most common coat color. In reality chestnut can range from a coppery brown through to a reddish color or even an orangy reddish color. Sorrel or chestnut horses often have manes and tails that are slightly lighter or slightly darker than the body color, but they are not ever black. Chestnut horses may have white on the legs and feet as well as the face, but not elsewhere on the body.
Black – this is a no brainer, or so one might mistakenly think. A black horse is all black on the body as well as through the mane and tail, but may have white markings on the face and feet. Black does not have red or browns, either in the coat or mane, to be considered a true black. The problem with true black colorations is the pigment does fade when exposed to the sun, so they may start out true black but fade to even a dun or darker brownish coloration over the summer. The best time to check for a true black is in the spring when the new coat comes in.
Bay – this is different from the chestnut in that the tone of the body tends to be more reddish that coppery, but can really be either. Bays always have black legs below the knees and also black manes and tails. Bays may have with around the hooves and on the face, but they must have the black below the knees that the black manes and tails. A very dark, deep rust to almost maroon color is often known as a blood bay, and is a very striking and rich looking color in some breeds.
Brown – as if this wasn't complicated enough, there is actually a color and specific genetic combination that makes a true brown or seal brown. In some areas this coloration is known as black and tan since the horse is dark black through the body with definite browns on the flanks, belly, around the muzzle. The overall appearance is sometimes that of a black when looked on directly and a brownish to tan sheen which seen from an angle. The mane and tail is the same general mix of black and brown colorations as the body.
Brown Horses and a Bay
Mimi and Miss Lucy - Chestnut on the left and Bay on the right
And Now For The Variations On Solid Colors
Now, with these basic four red and black color combinations come all other solid colors and even some of the patterns. This article is only going to be talking about the solids, the mixed colors will come later!
To make the other colors, genetic combinations known as dilutions wash out either the red or black pigments to a greater or lesser extent. The following colors are all dilutions:
Cream– not a true white but rather a dilution of the base colors. If two cream genes are inherited, one from the dam and one from the sire, the foal will be cremello or perlino coloration. This is not a true white and may be golden or light beige to cream color when they are foals, gradually fading to white as they age. They have blue eyes and pink skin around the eyes and the muzzle. This color type with amber or golden eyes is referred to as a champagne color. Typically the champagne coloration results in a freckled or spotted skin, although this may be hard to tell if it is not on the muzzle or around the eyes.
Buckskin – one dilution gene creates both the Buckskin and the Palomino color variations. Buckskins have a light tan to goldish red colored body with black manes and tails. White may or may not be present on the hooves and face, but not elsewhere on the body.
Palomino – one dilution gene on a red base coat color creates the golden color of the palomino. The mane and tail are silver to flaxen in color, not dark like that of a buckskin. White again may be present on the legs and face.
Dun – similar to the buckskin but with a dark stripe down the back as well as high dark coloration on the legs. Duns may appear to have a red or gold sheen to the hair. Grulla is classified under the dun color, which results in a mousy-gray color and the black stripe down the back. Some grulla horses will have black bars on their legs, but this is not always present in visible colorations. This is a common coloration in the more primitive horse breeds and may be one of the most common original horse colorations.
Dapple – the dapple coloration is a dilution gene that works only on parts of the coat, resulting in the lighter, irregular to very regular pattern through the coat. Dapple is classed as a silver dilution gene and causes the mane and tail to be a lighter color, often flaxen or almost silver in coloration.
There are several other color combinations that can occur, but this should give you the basics to get started. When in doubt, ask someone that has "horse smarts" how to describe the solid color of your horse, or even take a picture and ask an expert online.