There are many different solid coat colors for horses. Each color can have different shades that are lighter or darker. Most horses have two distinct colors. Their summer color and their winter color. Also, some horses are born one color but change colors and change to another color the older they get.
DNA testing is the only 100% way to know what color your horse is. DNA testing is done by pulling mane or tail hairs out by the root and sending those hairs to a laboratory that does DNA testing.
The following are some of the testing centers in the United States.
All horses start out as Red Based or Black Based or Bay. A red based horse is a chestnut or sorrel. In most genetics testing Red based is the lower case "e." A sorrel or chestnut would be classified as "ee." A black based horse will be "EE" or "Ee." An "EE" black horse is a true black horse that will only produce black based foals. An "Ee" black based horse has a 50% chance to produce black foals and a 50% chance to generate red based foals.
Bay Horses have black manes and tails, black lower legs, and black points on the tips of the ears. The Agouti gene is considered dominant. A black based horse only needs one copy of the Agouti gene to appear to be the color bay. The Agouti Gene does not have any effect on a red based horse. If a red based horse has the Agouti Gene the only way to know would be a DNA test. The Bay color is expressed when the Agouti gene is present. The Agouti Gene is on a DNA report as "aa" no Agouti found, AA as two copies of Agouti is found, or Aa for one copy of Agouti is found. A way to remember what the Agouti gene does is "it pulls all the black to the tips of the horse."
Every other color is a combination of these primary colors and a color modifying the gene.
Chestnut (ee): A red horse without any black. Mane and tail are usually the same shade or lighter than the body coat. The following names are also used to describe the chestnut color. A Chestnut horse can carry the Agouti Gene but it will not be seen on the horse as the Agouti Gene only effects a horse that has Black pigments.
- Liver Chestnut: A very dark almost brownish red.
- Light Chestnut: A light tan coat with a pale mane and tail.
- Sorrel: The color of a new penny. Sorrel is the most common shade of chestnut.
Black (EE or Ee): There are two types of black, the fading black and the non-fading black. The fading black horses will turn a brownish or reddish color when exposed to lots of sunlight. Non-fading black does not fade in the sunshine and is more of a blue-black color. At this time there is not a way to determine the difference between the two with DNA testing.
Most black foals are born a mousy grey color. As they grow and their foal coat sheds the darker black color will show up. There are some foals that are born jet black.
Bay (EE or Ee) and (AA or Aa): The body color of a Bay horse ranges from a light reddish-brown to a very dark brown or almost black. Bay horses are bay due to the Agouti Gene with the black base coat of a horse. The Agouti Gene pulls the black to the "Points" of the horse. (ears, legs, mane, and tail) The beautiful bay horse is one of the most common coat colors in horses. The DNA results will look like the following for a bay horse. (EE or Ee) and (AA or Aa). The following terms can also be heard when talking about bay horses.
- Black Bay: A very dark horse that can be almost black. Sometimes you can only tell these horses are bay and not black when the black fades in the sunlight. You can also see chestnut hairs around the muzzle or eyes.
- Blood Bay: a bright red color.
Now you may be asking, "What about the REST of the colors?". Well, the rest of the colors are different color modifiers that when applied to the base color of the horse will change the color to something else.
Add the Cream Gene to the base colors
The creme gene is a gene that can be tested for by a DNA test. Palominos, Smokey Black, and Buckskin horses are created from one copy of the cream gene. Cremello, Smokey Cream, and Perlino are produced from two copies of the cream gene.
Palomino (ee) and (n CR): The Palomino is a red based horse with one copy of the cream gene. The creme gene dilutes or fades the red base coat of the Chestnut horse to a light golden yellow. Palomino's range in the shade from extremely light to an almost cremello to a deep chocolate color. Palomino horses always have a flaxen or a white mane or tail.
Smokey Black (EE or Ee) and (n CR): A Smokey Black horse is a black based horse with one copy of the cream gene. Smokey Black horses appear to be either a black with a mildly bleached-out coat or a dull dark bay.
Buckskin (EE or Ee) and (AA or Aa) and (n CR): The buckskin is a bay horse with one copy of the cream gene. The creme gene dilutes or fades the red base coat of the bay horse to a lighter yellow or cream color. The Agouti gene keeps the black points on the mane, tail, lower legs, and ears.
Cremello (ee) and (CR CR): A cremello is a red based horse with two cream genes. These horses are either a pale cream, light tan or white looking horse. They usually have blue eyes.
Smokey Cream (EE or Ee) and (CR CR): Virtually indistinguishable from a cremello or perlino without DNA testing, a horse with a black base coat and two copies of the cream gene.
Perlino (EE or Ee) and (AA or Aa) and (CR CR): A bay based horse with two creme genes. The mane, tail, and points are not black, but they are darker than the body and look like a rusty color. The eyes are generally blue.
Or add the Pearl Gene to the base colors
The Pearl gene is a rare color trait that lightens red coats to a uniform apricot-like color, often also resulting in horses with blue eyes. When combined with cream dilution, may produce horses that appear to be cremello or perlino. Even though Pearl and Perlino sound similar, they are two different color genes.
The Pearl dilution is a recessive gene, and therefore will only affect the coat of the carrying horse if:
- If the horse has two copies of the Pearl Gene the coat, along with the mane and tail, will be lightened. The horse will have bright eye colors due to the pigment changes caused by the Pearl Gene.
- If the horse also has the Cream Gene with the Pearl Gene will look similar to Cremellos.
The Pearl gene will be printed as (Prl/Prl) for a horse with two copies of the Pearl Gene. If only one copy is available, it will be (n/Prl).
Now let's add the Champagne Gene
The Champagne gene is also different from the Cream Gene and the Pearl Gene. Typical characteristics of a Champagne horse include pinkish freckled or mottled skin, a shiny coat that is often slightly darker in the winter, and hazel eye color. Champagne horses are typically born with a blue eye color that evolves to hazel or amber color and pink skin that becomes darker and more freckled over time, especially around the eyes and muzzle. Champagne horses are often confused with palomino, cremello, dun, or buckskins. A horse can carry more than one dilution gene which can further affect coat color.
Unlike the cream gene, there are no visual differences between a horse with one copy or two copies of Champagne.
Gold champagne (ee) and (n/Ch): Red based horses will be diluted to a gold color. The horses also have a flaxen mane and tail, and many are thought to be Palominos.
Classic champagne (AA or Ae) and (n/Ch): Black based horse coats are diluted to the classic champagne color. The horses look to be a pale black color.
Amber champagne (EE or Ee) and (AA or Aa) and (n/Ch): Bay horses carrying the champagne gene are designated as amber. Unlike coat dilutions that only work upon black pigment, the champagne will dilute the whole coat of the bay horse. Amber champagnes are sometimes referred to as amber buckskins.
Let's Talk about Dun
The Dun Gene affects both red and black base horses. The gene is associated with "primitive marking" and can alter the appearance of all black, bay, or red based horses to some degree by lightening the base body coat.
The Dun Gene is most recognized by the dark stripe down the middle of the horse's back. (The Dun Stripe) Other markings include a darker mane and tail, and head and legs. The classic dun is a grey/gold or tan in color.
The Dun dilution gene is characterized by markings which are darker than the body color. These markings include:
- The Dorsal stripe can be seen almost universally on all duns. Dorsal striping does not guarantee the horse carries the dun gene.
- Horizontal striping on the back of forelegs, is typical on most duns, though at times they can be somewhat faint.
- Shoulder blade striping, the least commonly-seen of the primitive markings.
Red Dun (ee) and (D/D) or (D/d): Red dun is a red based coat with Dun markings. The coat is usually a pale yellow or tan with primitive red markings.
Grulla, Grulla, or Blue Dun (AA or Aa) and (D/D) or (D/d): A black based horse with the dun gene. The horse's coat is a solid gray or silver and can almost be a brownish gray. There will be black or dark gray primitive markings along with a black dun strip across the back of the horse.
Bay Dun (EE or Ee) and (AA or Aa) and (D/D) or (D/d): A bay dun is used to distinguish the horse from Red Duns or grulla colored horses.
Brindle: One of the rarest colors in the horse world. This distinct color pattern is with zebra-like stripes of more than one color. The base color covers the entire body of the horse. This base coat color can be any color. On top of the base color is either lighter or darker colored hair that gives the appearance of stripes. The stripes can be found along the neck, the back, the hindquarters, and upper legs. The horse's head is usually solid in coloring.
In many articles, the brindle-colored horses have been linked to chimerism and it is one horse with two sets of DNA. In these cases, the two different colors are from two coat patterns in one horse.
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