Piebald Horse: The Ultimate Guide


A piebald horse is an umbrella term that refers to a horse with a coat of unique color combinations. The word “piebald” is used to describe the markings of a horse rather than its genetic makeup, so to avoid confusion, a piebald horse isn’t a specific breed of horse – it’s an umbrella term. 

As the terms “piebald” and “skewbald” are often used interchangeably, the meaning of both terms has become somewhat lost. It has since become quite difficult to find a sufficient guide on piebald horses and what their coat patterns actually mean.  

Here is the ultimate guide to piebald horses, including breed profiles and fun facts!

How To Define A Piebald Horse 

The best way to describe a piebald horse is that for a horse to be considered piebald, they must have a white coat with black patches. The reason these horses are called piebald was inspired by magpies, a black and white bird, hence“pie”. The “bald” part of the name is meant to indicate a bald background, which is the white coat. 

Interestingly, this name has English origins. They also call white horses with patches in different colors “skewbalds”, but in America they are called “pinto” horses. 

Umbrella Term 

There are a couple of reasons why “piebald” is an umbrella term for lots of horses. It’s partly because each horse’s coat is different to one another (and it would be impossible to come up with an official name for each pattern).

It’s also just to avoid confusion, because the British call horses either piebald or skewbald, sometimes it’s just far easier to call them under one name. 

Piebald Horse Characteristics

So, here’s the basic characteristics of a piebald horse. 

  • The base of the coat is white and it is splattered with large black patches irregularly placed over the whole body 
  • Some piebalds have more white than black patches, or more black than white patches 
  • Some piebalds are mostly white with some colored patches (also known as skewbald or pinto)

The reason for these irregular patches is because of a gene. As a result of this gene, there are several spotting patterns. 

Piebald Horse Spotting Patterns

It’s not easy to categorize each piebald according to their coat pattern due to the irregularity of the gene’s results. Each pattern is unique, but here are the general spotting pattern guidelines for piebalds. 

Tobiano 

The tobiano spotting pattern is the most common amongst piebalds. Tobiano piebalds have a dark colored head with white legs and can come in a variety of color combinations – including black and white, brown and white, roan and white, and more. 

We will talk about the overo spotted pattern in just a second, but it’s important to note that while the tobiano and overo patterns look similar, they are not the same.

The most distinguishing features between the patterns is that the tobiano’s head is a solid dark color while the shoulders and neck are white as well as the legs. 

Tobiano horses will also keep their color from the day they are born until they die, which isn’t common for most patterned horses. In some spotted horses, for example, their markings will fade with age. 

Overo 

The overo pattern is often mistaken for the tobiano pattern, but the best way to remember the difference is that overo piebald horses look like they have been dipped in paint from their legs upwards. Unlike the tobiano pattern, the overo pattern covers their legs so they aren’t white, and their heads aren’t completely dark. 

The overo pattern then gets split into two further categories – sabino and splashed white. 

Sabino patterned horses are predominantly colored all over except for the legs, which are splattered with white flecks. They will also have blazes of white on their chin and lips as well as over the flanks. 

Splashed white horses are basically the neater version of overo horses. They really do look as if they have walked into white paint up to their stomachs, including their tails and faces. 

Tovero 

The tovero pattern is a genetic combination of overo and tobiano, but the pattern itself is rather unique. In most cases, the tovero pattern is mostly white all over the body with a small amount of color, though the color is not specific. Most interestingly, tovero patterned horses exhibit at least one blue eye. 

Pigmented Spots In Piebalds

So, is the location of the pigmented black or colored spots random, or is there a scientific explanation for their placement?  

It all comes down to melanoblasts. Melanoblasts are a precursor cell of melanocytes, which are the cells responsible for forming melanin – otherwise known as dark skin or coat.

The location of these melanoblasts to create pigmentation depends on where the melanoblasts are moved from the neural crest to the bilateral areas in the embryo.

The melanoblasts in the embryo’s skin then group together sporadically, though symmetrical placement of pigment is also recorded – but it’s very rare. 

To put it simply and less scientifically, the pigmented patches are pretty much always irregular, inconsistent, and entirely random. 

Fun Facts About Piebald Horses 

  • Piebald (or “pied) isn’t just an umbrella term for horses – it is also used to refer to other names including cattle, cats, dogs, birds, snakes, aquatic mammals, deer, pigs, and foxes. 
  • The most common breeds of horses with varying piebald patterns are Gypsy horses, Welsh horses, Dartmoor ponies, Marwari horses, Eriskay ponies, Irish Sport horses, and Drum horses. 
  • Another reason why piebald horses are called piebald (or “pied”) is because of the old English meaning of the word “pied”, which referred to contrasting colors on someone’s costume. Court jesters and entertainers would wear brightly colored contrasting colors that were called “pied” costumes, which is why the Pied Piper of Hamelin was given its name. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

What Is The Difference Between A Piebald Horse And A Skewbald Horse?

Technically speaking, according to the English definition, a piebald horse is a white horse that exhibits black patches (or a black horse with white patches), while a skewbald horse is a white horse that exhibits colored patches (or vice versa). The colored patches can be brown, chestnut, roan, and basically any other color that isn’t white or black. 

Nowadays, people will use “piebald” as an umbrella term for any horse with black or colored patches. To make matters even more confusing, there are different names for each pattern group within the piebald umbrella. In America, it’s common for people to use the term “piebald” for both piebald and skewbald horses. 

Why Is A Horse Called Piebald?

The name originates from the classic white and black bird, the magpie, hence the “pie” part of the name. The “bald” part of the name is meant to refer to the blank canvas that is the white base color of the horse without the patches. 

Piebald horses are also nicknamed “pied”, which was a word used to describe contrasting colors in costumes back in medieval English. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the best example of this, as the iconic rat catcher wore distinctive brightly colored contrasting clothes. 

Is Piebald A Mutation?

In horses, piebald is an umbrella term that refers to a genetic mutation that gives the horse breeds their distinctive patterned coats. It’s important to remember that piebald is merely a mutation, and has nothing to do with the physical or mental characteristics of the horse breed. 

How Does Piebald Happen?

The piebald pattern occurs due to a genetic mutation. The pigment cells in a piebald horse are responsible for the black (or colored patches), and their location is determined by the position of melanoblasts, which are the precursor cell of melanocytes, which formulates melanin.

Like with humans, depending on the genetics of the breed or species, some will have more melanin than others. When it comes to horses, some piebald horses will be more black than white or vice versa. 

In the majority of situations, the patterns of a piebald horse are totally random and inconsistent. It’s not easy to determine how a piebald horse will look regardless of breeding and research into the animal’s genetic past. 

Is Piebald The Same As Vitiligo?

If piebald horses have random patches of white against black or colored patches, then it makes sense why people would mistake this coat pattern for vitiligo or albinism.

This happens a lot when people encounter a piebald horse with the tovero coat pattern, as this pattern is characterized by at least one blue eye. However, piebald is not the same or even related to vitiligo or albinism. 

Is A Paint Horse A Piebald?

The American Paint horse is not a piebald for several reasons, the first being a paint horse is a breed, whereas a piebald is an umbrella term for horses with similar patch patterns.

Secondly, a paint horse is a pinto (essentially the same as a skewbald, which is a white horse with colored patches) with either thoroughbred or quarter horse in their bloodlines.

As this further proves that a paint horse is a breed of horse in its own right, then it does not come under the category of being a piebald horse. 

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