A Guide To Horse Coat Colors


Horses are considered to be one of the most beautiful animals in the world, with their flowing mains and majestic features often associating them with connotations of freedom and empowerment.

And although we may recognize that horses can come with a variety of unique and vibrant colors, we never stop to question how this first came to be? Or how these different hues are defined by professional equestrians and horse enthusiasts. 

So if you own a horse and want to know more about the color of their coat, then you’ve come to the right place.

In the following article, we have collected some fascinating information concerning horses and their coat colors, covering everything from their genetics to the different varieties of horses that currently exist on our planet.

So if you want to learn more about your majestic friend, take a look down below and you will find everything you need to know. 

What Are Base Colors? 

Although horses can come in a rainbow of different colors, it may surprise you to learn that every single one of them is derived from the same two colors – red and black.

In fact, the reason why horses are available in so many different hues is because of the mixing of these two colors, as well as the various genetic combinations that have taken place over the centuries. 

To help you understand the influence of base colors, we have outlined some of their key components down below: 

Black

When a horse is born with a black base coat (or skin) they will have numerous black features, such as a black tail, ears, mane and legs. Common coat colors known to have a black base include familiar shades such as black, perlino, buckskin, grullo, blue and bay roan. 

Red

Unlike horses born with a black base coat, horses with a red base will not display any black features, even though certain parts of their bodies will sometimes exhibit dark or blackish hues.

Some coat colors known to have a red base include iconic shades such as chestnut, cremello and pearl. 

White

If you have ever studied art or the light spectrum, then you probably know that white is not actually defined as a color and the same logic can also be applied to the world of horses.

When a horse is born with a white base coat, the hue represents a lack of pigment in the skin, which is able to make the hair white. 

What Effects Do Pigments Have? 

If you were to take a look at the definition of the word pigment, you would learn that it refers to the natural color of the skin or tissue, which is why it can have such a profound effect on the color of a horse’s coat.

This means that if your horse exhibits areas on its body that have no pigment, then any hair growing from that area will be white or pale in hue. 

Horses who display white base coats often need to be protected from the sun, as the UV rays can leave a devastating impact on the horse’s skin, in a similar fashion to how the sun’s radiation can burn or injure humans. 

While on the other hand, horses who are born with a black base coat will have a higher concentration of pigment in their skin.

Although there are some coat colors, such as chestnut and cremello, that have a lower pigment concentration due to the color being diluted by the presence of a lighter gene.

For this reason, it would be the horse’s base coat color that will be used to define the hue of the animal’s coat. 

What Are The Most Common Coat Colors? 

Due to the various combinations of genes and dilutions, horses now come in a variety of different colors and patterns. Although each of these colors will have a base coat of either black, brown, bay or chestnut. 

To help you understand this further, we have outlined these base coats and the different colors they create: 

Black

In the equestrian world, many people will tell you that a true black horse is very rare, in a similar manner to how a true white horse is often considered a commodity among horse enthusiasts.

However, this statement is not entirely true, as black horses are more uncommon than they are rare, with many people mistaking dark brown horses for their black cousins. 

These days, there are only two types of true black horse available – the fading black and the non-fading black (otherwise known as the blue-black).

Although there is no genetic difference between the two horses, the fading black can lose its natural hue when exposed to the sun for long periods of time, which can result in the horse taking on a dark brown color. 

Beyond this, true black horses can be easily distinguished by their black features, with dark brown or bay horses not exhibiting the same characteristics and therefore identifying themselves as not having a black base coat.

When black horses are born, they can either be pure black or dark grey, however, this color will begin to shed as they mature, revealing the black hue underneath. 

Brown

Many people will often refer to brown horses as bays, although they do not share any genetic similarities with bays and do not possess the distinctive black features commonly used to identify the bay species.

The reason for this mistake is that brown horses will often be born with very dark manes and tails, which can be misleading when it comes to identifying the animal’s base coat color. 

Brown horses are often distinguished by their brown or tan coats and will often display the same earthy tones around their eyes, muzzles and flanks. 

Bay

Bay horses may just be one of the most beautiful species on the planet and can be commonly distinguished by their vibrant colors, with their shiny coats often taking on a chocolate or coppery-brown hue.

However, because bays are born with a black base coat, they will also exhibit the distinctive black features we have previously mentioned, such as a black mane, tail and legs. 

These days, the body of a bay horse can encompass a variety of different browns, although there are three shades commonly associated with the species: 

  • Dark Bay: Commonly referred to as black bay, these horses are known to have very dark brown coats, as well as the distinctive black base features. 
  • Mahogany Bay: These horses can be identified by their dark reddish-brown coats, which are often punctuated by their black mane and tails. 
  • Blood Bay: Otherwise known as a red bay, these horses are born with a unique coppery-chestnut coat, even though they still display the traditional black base features. 

Chestnut

Unlike the other horses have previously discussed, chestnut horses are born with a red base coat, which greatly influences their overall appearance and hue.

For this reason, chestnut horses are often distinguished by their reddish-brown color and do not display the distinctive black features of a black base species. Instead, chestnut horses will possess manes and tails that match the same hue as their body and can be found in a variety of different reds and browns. 

In a similar fashion to bay horses, chestnut horses encompass a range of different hues, although there are three shades commonly associated with the species: 

  • Liver Chestnut: Despite the somewhat gruesome name, these horses can be identified by their dark red coats, which is commonly referred to as a brown chestnut hue. 
  • Flaxen Chestnut: Unlike other chestnut horses, flaxen chestnuts are born with manes and tails that are lighter than their bodies, which will often take on a more traditional chestnut hue. Many people often mistake this species for the palomino, although both horses are very different in color and genetics. 
  • Sorrel: Sorrel is widely considered to be the most common shade of chestnut in the world, with sorrel horses often being distinguished by their familiar reddish-tan color, which has been likened to that of a freshly made penny. 

Fun Fact

In Britain, there is a breed of horse called the Suffolk Punch, which is known for its great size and distinctive chestnut color. However, in the horse registry, the color of the Suffolk Punch is spelt differently, with the first ‘t’ being dropped to create the word ‘chesnut’. 

What Are Gray Patterns? 

In the equestrian world, gray horses will always be born with a black base coat, regardless of what color they were when they were born. Because of this, these horses are primarily classified as gray instead of white, as they will eventually become grey as they mature. 

Interestingly, most horses are not born pure gray and instead exhibit the graying gene, which will begin to turn them gray as they grow and develop. This will commonly result in the horse either displaying a solid gray coat or a combination of different shades. 

As a modifier, the graying gene is considered to be extremely dominant and will eventually cover the entirety of the horse’s original coat.

For this reason, many breeding registries will not acknowledge horses with this gene, especially if they hold colors and patterns in high regard.

However, if you want to produce a gray horse, one or both parents will have to have the gene, although there is only a 50% chance that it will be passed on. 

To give you an idea of the different gray patterns available, we have compiled a list of the most common shades down below: 

What Are Dilution Genes? 

A dilution gene is usually produced when one of the basic colors we have previously mentioned gets mixed with a lighter gene, which results in a whole spectrum of new colors that will commonly be paler versions of their original base coat. 

To help you understand this further, we have outlined the various dilution genes and their characteristics in the section below: 

Buckskin

As you can see from the distinctive black features and light coat, buckskin horses are born from a combination of a bay horse and a single copy (or dose) of the cream gene.

This results in a horse that displays the same features and colors as a bay horse, however, the coat will eventually begin to fade creating a more distinctive yellow-gold hue. 

Champagne

Champagne is widely considered to be one of the rarest coat colors in the world, as it is commonly created by the presence of the champagne gene – a dilution gene that displays similar properties to that of the cream gene.

Horses who are born with the champagne gene will commonly exhibit a set of distinctive features, such as hazel colored eyes and mottled skin that can be either pink or blue during birth. 

The various shades created by the champagne gene rely heavily on the horse’s base coat color, as well as the number of doses it contains:

  • Classic Champagne: The classic champagne coat is commonly created when a black horse is born with the champagne gene. However, unlike other champagne hues, the final color is not determined by the number of doses. 
  • Gold Champagne: This coat color is created when a chestnut horse has inherited two doses of the champagne gene from both its mother and father, resulting in a radiant golden hue. 
  • Amber Champagne: These horses are known for their deep amber color and are born from the combination of a bay horse and the champagne gene. The intensity of the amber hue often varies depending on the number of doses the horse has received. 
  • Sable Champagne: Sables are commonly produced when a dark or seal brown horse has been born with a single copy of the champagne gene. These horses are commonly distinguished by their mocha coats. 

Cremello

Cremello horses are often the result of when a chestnut or sorrel horse is born with two copies of the cream gene, which it will commonly inherit from both its parents.

Distinguished by their pale and creamy coats, Cremellos are commonly mistaken for white horses, even though white horses carry the white gene and are genetically different. 

Perlino

In a similar fashion to cremello, the perlino coat color is created by the presence of two doses of the cream gene, although this time the base coat belongs to that of a bay horse. Through this combination, the horse will usually take on a light tan hue, which can be mistaken for orange in certain lights.

These horses also come with some unique characteristics, such as blue eyes and dark features, although they can also be born with a reddish tail and mane. 

Smokey Cream

In terms of appearance, the smokey cream is almost identical to both the cremello and perlino, even though all three are genetically different. Although all three coat colors are created by the presence of two cream genes, the smokey cream is born from the combination of the gene and a true black horse. 

Dun

When it comes to unique dilution genes, the dun gene will often rank at the top of the list. Unlike other dilution genes, the dun gene has the uncanny ability to affect not only the color of the horse’s coat but also its characteristic markings.

Sometimes referred to as primitive markings, the gene can produce a dorsal stripe that follows the space between the top of the horse’s head and its tail, as well as develop zebra stripes on its lower legs. 

Horses with either a red or black base coat can be affected by the dun gene, however, the various shades will vary depending on the base color: 

  • Classic Dun: Known in the equestrian world as a bay dun or zebra dun, these horses are born with bright gold coats, which are punctuated by a series of black markings. As you can probably guess from the name, this coat color is born from the combination of a bay horse who has inherited the titular gene. 
  • Blue Dun: Otherwise known as grullo, this coat color is created when a black horse is born with the modifying dun gene. Because of this, the gene will cause the black coat to take on a more distinctive silvery tone, with the mousey hue allowing the horse’s primitive markings to be clearly seen. 
  • Red Dun: Known for its distinctive and vibrant hue, red dun is produced when a chestnut or sorrel horse inherits the dun gene from its parents, resulting in a coat color that is lightened to either a pale yellow or orange tan. Like with blue dun, this color also visibly displays the primitive markings. 
  • Yellow Dun: Sometimes known as a buckskin dun, this coat color commonly occurs when any base horse carries both the dun and cream genes. Through this unique combination, the horse will take on a light yellow hue and can be easily identified by its primitive markings and distinctive black features. 

Mushroom 

The mushroom gene is unique among dilution modifiers as it commonly affects only red-based horses, with the final result being a lightened coat that will take on a more distinctive pale tan hue. To date, there has been no recorded case of this particular gene becoming present in a black-based horse. 

Pearl 

The pearl dilution gene is commonly referred to as a ‘barlink factor’ and has the ability to lighten the horse’s coat to a dusky orange hue. Beyond this, the pearl gene also comes with a set of unique characteristics, such as blue eyes and other defining features.

If a horse inherits both the cream gene and the pearl gene, then the color of its coat will become even lighter, which often results in people mistaking it for a cremello or perlino. 

Palomino 

The next gene takes its name from the golden palomino grape, which is apt when you consider the type of color it creates. Produced when a chestnut or sorrel horse has inherited the palomino gene, these horses are said to be either three shades lighter or three shades darker than the color of a freshly minted gold coin.

Although the coat of this horse can be as light as a cremello, they have also been known to sport shades ranging from chocolate to tan.

Silver Dapple 

Although the silver dapple gene can be inherited by any horse, it will only affect those born with a black base coat. Distinguished by their deep chocolate hue, these horses can also be identified by their manes and tails, which will remain white regardless of their original base color.

In terms of appearance, silver dapples bear a strong resemblance to black forests, even though both horses are genetically different. 

Smokey Black 

This distinctive coat color is created when the cream gene is inherited by any horse born with a black base coat. Because horses with this gene will commonly take on a washed-out appearance, many people mistake them for faded blacks, although they are both two very different horses. 

Pangare

The pangare gene can be inherited by most horses and results in the production of lighter hairs across the entirety of the horse’s body. Because of this, the pale hairs have the side effect of lightening the horse’s base coat and can be seen around the muzzle, belly and flanks. 

Sooty 

As a modifier, the sooty gene can be inherited by horses of any base coat and has the opposite effect to that of the pangare. Instead of creating pale hairs, the sooty gene will result in the production of dark hairs across the horse’s body, although the mane and tail will be left untouched. 

Brindle 

Unlike other dilution genes we have previously mentioned, the brindle gene is more common in other animals than horses and can be inherited by any base coat. As a gene, the bridle is distinguished by the tiger stripes it produces across the animal’s body, which can range from light to dark tones. 

What Are White Coats? 

White coats are usually produced when there is a lack of pigment in the skin, which commonly results in white hairs appearing through the horse’s original coat color. However, sometimes these pale hairs can appear on their own through the presence of a dominant gene. 

To help you understand this further, we have outlined the various white coats and their characteristics in the section below: 

Spotted

These days, there are six different spotted coats that can all be caused by a modifier called the leopard gene. Although the gene is primarily known for the various patterns it creates, it can also produce other distinctive features, such as white sclera and mottled skin around the horse’s eyes, genitals and hooves. 

However, there is no guarantee that all horses with this gene will display spotted coats, even though the other characteristics will still be present: 

  • Leopard: Otherwise known as full leopard, this pattern takes the form of a white coat, which will then be punctuated with black and brown spots across the entirety of the horse’s body. 
  • Near Leopard: Unlike the previous pattern, this coat will result in the horse having a darker head and legs than the rest of its body, which will eventually fade to reveal the leopard pattern beneath. 
  • Few Spot Leopard: Horses with this coat will have white bodies, which will then be patterned with splashes of color around their neck and flanks. 
  • Blanket: These days, there is a range of different blanket patterns. However, most horses will exhibit dark coats with a patch of white over their rumps. 
  • Spotted: This is when the horse’s white patch or ‘blanket’ is covered in a series of spots the same color as the horse’s coat. 
  • Frosted: Otherwise known as frosted hip, this coat is unique among blanket patterns as the horse in question will not have a white patch. Instead, the horse will exhibit small white spots across its head and rump. 
  • White: In a similar fashion to the spotted blanket, this pattern can cover most of the horse’s body and will display very few spots if any at all.
  • Snowflake: Many people consider the snowflake pattern to be the ying to the leopard pattern’s yang, even though both are very different in appearance. Like the full leopard, this pattern exhibits itself in a block coat covered in spots, although in this case the black and white are inverted. The spots are also much smaller and have a more distinctive snowflake appearance. 
  • Marble: Horses who bear this pattern are often mistaken for roans, with the light hairs creating ‘vanish marks’ that resemble spots. 

Pinto 

The pinto pattern can appear on any base coat and comes with the side effect of creating large white patches across the horse’s body:

  • Tobiano: Otherwise known as toby, this pattern is caused by the tobiano gene and will commonly produce large white sections across the horse’s base color. In these cases, both flanks will usually show base with white patches, while the mane and tail can be both colors.
  • Overo: Similar to Tobiano, the overo gene creates white patches on the horse’s base coat, although they will often be relegated to the horse’s legs and head, with the modifier also being defined by the addition of blue eyes. 
  • Tovero: This pattern is essentially a mixture of both the tobiano and overo genes and will commonly come with the feature of blue eyes. 
  • Sabino: This term is used to describe horses who have inherited the sabino gene and horses who display the same patterns the gene produces. Horses with this gene will usually display white patches on their belly and hocks. 
  • Piebald: Commonly used by Travelling communities in the UK, this title is used to describe any horse with black and white patches.
  • Skewbald: This pattern encompasses any horse that has patches of any color except black, with skewbalds also being considered a popular ‘gypsy horse’. 

Roan 

Although the word ‘roan’ can refer to any horse who has inherited the roan gene, it is also a general term used to describe horses who have a mixture of both white and colored hairs across the entirety of their bodies: 

  • Red Roan: Otherwise known as strawberry roan, this coat color is created when a chestnut horse begins to sprout white hairs. However, the horse’s mane and tail will remain the same color as its base coat.
  • Blue Roan: Blue roans look very similar to blue duns, even though roans will often have darker heads and will not grow lighter with age. Beyond this, duns also grow lighter hairs instead of white, distinguishing them from the roan clan. 
  • Bay Roan: Bay roans are commonly created when a bay horse begins to sprout white hairs, even though its mane and tail will remain black. 
  • Rabicano: Referred to as white ticking, this pattern isn’t considered a true roan color due to its light hue and is commonly the result of the rabicano gene instead of white hairs. 

True White

In the equestrian world, pure white horses are considered to be the rarest breed still in existence, with their small population being attributed to the limited number of ways they can be produced: 

  • Dominant White: Otherwise known as white spotting, this term refers to a group of genes that can be used to create a true white horse. 
  • Sabino: If a horse is born with two doses of the sabino 1 gene, then there is a 95% chance that they will be born pure white. 
  • Lethal White Syndrome: Unlike the other methods we have mentioned, this practice is not a gene but instead a genetic disease, which can be used to produce white foals while also sacrificing the development of their colon. Foals who are born with this disease will usually die within three days, although many breeders will have them euthanized to stop the pain. 

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