The Colours & Markings of Horses

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The Colours and Markings of Horses

A guide for trainers, students, owners and enthusiasts.

This page is written from 'the British paradigm', so it will contain some 'local' colour names with which those of you in the USA and elsewhere may not be familiar, and may miss out on a few of your 'local' names. Bear with me (I am a Brit, after all!) I also apologise to the true geneticists among you for some over-simplification here and there, and to everyone for not knowing everything there is to know. There are genetic mutations occurring in most species, most of the time, and not all the mutations affecting coat colour in horses are yet known. When the current ones are known, more will eventually appear (which is why research geneticists in this field will never be out of work....)

Important information for Breeders and Breed Societies: We can no longer afford to be stubborn about what 'colour names' we find 'acceptable'. It's time to accept that far more is now known about colour than has been known before, and to adapt to the new knowledge and reflect it in our registration processes. "Upholding tradition" and "But we've always done it that way" will very shortly no longer be acceptable excuses for getting it wrong. By all means continue to do exactly as you want - but be aware of the possible consequences of doing so!





Click on a link to get to the section you want,
or just 'browse' the whole list.

(and the unidentified 'fading black' and 'mushroom'!)









(To ensure that this page loads quickly, there are ALMOST NO PICTURES. However, you will find thousands of accessible pictures, illustrating any number of colours, by clicking on the various links.)

The following is a fairly comprehensive list of the coat colour variations, and markings, to be found in horses and ponies. It will never be an exhaustive list!

All coat colours may be accompanied by white on the lower legs and face as a general rule, although some Breed Standards prohibit some or all white markings.

Points = mane, tail and lower legs.

There are only two base colours, on which everything else is based. The base colours are black (dominant allele of the Extension gene, E) and red / chestnut (recessive allele of the Extension gene, e); horses can inherit either from either parent, so your horse's base coat colour will be either homozygous black (inherited black from both parents, genetically described as EE), heterozygous black (inherited black from one parent and chestnut from the other, Ee), or homozygous chestnut (inherited chestnut from both parents, ee).

And at this point it gets a little complicated! Horses which appear to have 'red' in their coats can actually not have 'red factor' (e). To be wholly accurate, 'red' is better defined as 'lack of black', which is why a chestnut horse has to have TWO 'lack of black' genes - otherwise he has the ability to produce, and will produce, black or black-based colouring.

A homozygous black (EE) horse which has an agouti gene (A) will give you a bay or brown coat. So can an Ee horse (one carrying the red gene) who also has agouti. The 'absence of agouti' is designated by (a). So a horse can be homozygous for agouti (AA), heterozygous for agouti (Aa), or have no agouti (aa). For the argument for the two active alleles (forms) of the agouti gene, see our page on the evolution of coat colour in horses. Update 2010: yes, there are definitely two forms of agouti - bay and seal! DNA testing now available to differentiate between them.

Black is dominant over chestnut; if a horse inherits black from one parent and chestnut from the other, but does not inherit any 'splitting' or 'pattern dilutant' modifiers (such as agouti or pangare - pronounced 'pan-gar-ray')), he will appear black. Bay colour is caused by the bay agouti gene (also called 'wild pattern' or 'bay factor', (A)) inherited from either parent or both. Seal brown colour is caused by the seal agouti gene inherited from either parent or both. Agouti is a pattern splitter - it simply splits the 'non black' colour into the 'middle' of the horse, leaving the solid black colour 'round the edges', (for want of a better description!), and pangare is (technically) a pattern dilutant - it acts as a dilutant, but only in certain areas. Both these modifiers are very common, as is flaxen (another 'technical' pattern dilutant), which only touches the manes and tails, and only dilutes chestnut, and sooty, which intensifies / adds black to the coat, starting from the spine and working downwards.


( EE or Ee with no agouti)
Black all over, no brown hairs. Friesian horses provide probably the best examples of true blacks. Dales and Fell ponies were 'improved' by the introduction of Friesian bloodlines, and often also show good true blacks.
(EE or Ee, with seal agouti, sooty and maybe pangare )
Mostly black, dull brown hairs around muzzle, eyes, flanks and insides of legs.

Brown, seal; mealy brown
(EE or Ee, with seal agouti ; mealy browns have pangare )

Mostly dull brown with black or dark brown points; no golden hairs in the lower leg.

The mealy brown has classic pangare fading on the muzzle, underbelly, insides of the legs, and the flanks.

Bay-brown and sooty bay
(EE or Ee, with seal agouti + bay agouti, alternatively bay agouti + sooty, either can be with or without pangare )

Bay-brown: As brown, but with reddish hairs around muzzle, eyes, flanks and insides of legs.

Sooty bay: 'conker-coloured' (black nearest the topline and red-bay lower down, including lower face and legs). Most people don't make the distinction between bay-browns and sooty bays; many call all of them bay-brown, or dark bay.

Bay and mealy bay
(EE or Ee, with bay agouti, mealy bays also have pangare)

Rich red-brown body colour with black points. .

The correct colour for the Cleveland Bay is always bay (or variations of bay caused by the sooty gene).

Interestingly, from a genetic point of view, due to the way in which bay colouring is inherited, this would indicate that all Cleveland Bay horses should be homozygous for black (EE) and homozygous for agouti (AA).

The mealy bay has classic pangare fading on the muzzle, underbelly, insides of the legs, and the flanks.

Liver chestnut
(ee, + sooty)
Dark reddish-brown body colour with reddish brown points fading to golden under-colour near the hooves. To distinguish the very dark liver chestnuts from the browns, look closely at the lower legs. The sooty gene which causes the 'livering' of chestnuts 'touches' from the spine downwards, rarely reaching the lower legs, which is why it usually (but not always) leaves a dappling pattern on the lower legs. In any case, the very lower extremities of the true liver chestnut will always show you a few red or golden hairs, sometimes just around the coronet, in the feather descending from the fetlock, or in the hollow of the pastern just above the heels. If your horse has no red / golden hairs on his lower legs, he's likely to be a brown, not a liver chestnut. Black lower legs caused by the black gene are a rich, often bluish, black. Black-ish lower legs caused by the sooty gene are a smutty, smoky or dusky black with 'break-outs' of the underlying chestnut.
Liver chestnut with flaxen mane and tail
(as above, but plus flaxen)
As above but with blonde (gold, flaxen or cream) mane and tail. Don't confuse him with the Chocolate Flax (see later) which is the preferred colour for the Rocky Mountain Horse and Pony. In some cases the only way to be certain is to have him tested to find out whether he's genetically red-flaxen or black-silver.
Chestnut (ee) Red-brown, with reddish-brown mane and tail which may be the same as, lighter than, or darker than the body coat colour. In the Suffolk Punch breed, the colour is always known specifically as 'chesnut' (without the middle T). Chestnut legs either stay red or fade progressively to gold near the hooves. To be chestnut, a horse has to have inherited the red ('lack of black') gene from both parents. A chestnut or chestnut-base horse cannot be descended directly from an EE horse.

Chestnut with flaxen mane and tail, sorrel, chestnut flaxen, flaxen chestnut

(chestnut + flaxen)

As above but with blonde (gold, flaxen or cream) mane and tail. This colouring is the breed standard for the Haflinger horse . Don't confuse the silvered bay with a flaxen chestnut - check out the mane, tail and lower legs for silver hairs, and check whether the tail-head is red or chocolate in colour. If you have silver hairs and a chocolate tail-head, you're more likely to have a silvered bay than a flaxen chestnut.

Mealy Chestnut, "False palomino / wishy-washy chestnut" with or without flaxen / white mane and tail
(chestnut + 1 or 2 pangare, with or without 1 or 2 flaxen)

                Mealy Chestnut

Some chestnuts may appear to be 'wishy washy' and end up being described as 'palomino' where they also have flaxen / white manes and tails. As the vast majority of these owe their faded colouring to the pangare (mealy) gene, the most correct (and genetically informative) name for this colour is "Mealy Chestnut" (or "Light Mealy Chestnut" if very markedly pale).

Breed societies please be aware: you can't 'breed out' mealy chestnuts, no matter how much you exclude them from the breeding stock, unless you also exclude mealy-muzzled-bays and browns! Similarly, you won't breed out the 'white-maned light chestnut' without breeding out the flaxen gene as well.

The 'wishy-washy-chestnut' is most commonly produced by an inheritance (either single or double) of the pangare / mealy gene, acting on a chestnut base coat. If your chestnut is homozygous (i.e. inherited from both parents) for pangare, he / she will have a distinctly faded chestnut coat, to the extent of being quite creamy in the 'mealy areas' (muzzle, flanks, groin, armpit, under-chest and belly). The lower legs will be gold, rather than red. The clue is in the coat patterning, as pangare is a 'pattern dilutant', unlike cream which is a 'flat dilutant'. If your horse is homozygous for both pangare and flaxen, you will have an animal which is visually very similar to a palomino - but does not carry the cream gene at all. A less-common explanation for the apparent 'wishy-washy chestnut' is that he's actually a red dun / chestnut dun - in which case he will show the correct dun dorsal stripe and (if you look hard for them!) some or all of the other dun patterns.

Haflinger horses, which often look 'palomino', are frequently homozygous for pangare, and are all homozygous for flaxen and chestnut. However, there's no cream in the Haflinger gene pool. You can breed 'apparently palomino' Haflingers together to your heart's content and (provided they're pure Haflinger!) you'll never get a blue-eyed cream. The pangare influence in Haflingers can be clearly seen in the picture to the left.

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The key to the roans is that you have a basic underlying coat colour, with white hairs added. In roans owing their colour to the classic roan gene, the head, legs mane and tail remain un-roaned. The dividing line between base coat and roan on the legs is usually clearly defined and comes to a distinct point above the knees and hocks. Horses with 'roan areas' (known as heavy ticking, heavy flecking, or 'roaning'), rather than the classic roan pattern which excludes head, legs and tail, owe their colouring to the rabicano gene (or occasionally the sabino gene). Below are examples of sabino, classic roan and rabicano on a bay basecoat.

Skunk-tailed roans (picture below, right) owe their tail colouration to the rabicano gene; they may of course also have the classic roan gene, but if your roan is skunk-tailed or with small tail-flashes, sprinklings in the mane, and unevenly roaned through the body, it's a rabicano rather than a classic roan.

bay sabino
bay classic roan
skunk-tailed bay rabicano
Bay Sabino
Classic Bay Roan
Bay Rabicano
(skunk-tailed, topline-frosted and mane-frosted,
with ticking throughout the body)

As the roaning genes are distinct from one another, it's perfectly possible for a horse to inherit more than one roaning pattern. The combinations of roaning genes can produce some truly beautiful 'marbled roans' - 'double-roaned' and even 'treble-roaned' coats.

Do be aware that not all roans are the same! For example, a rabicano without the classic roan gene cannot produce classic roan offspring unless the other parent has the classic roan gene. Only extreme white markings, double-cream dilution or the grey gene can hide the classic roan gene, so if a foal is said to be by a 'roan' stallion which is actually a rabicano, not a classic roan, the foal is, itself, classic roan but doesn't have a classic roan dam, the sire is not the one claimed! Look for an alternative sire with the classic roan gene - even if he's now turned grey. (This is one reason why colour identification information in registrations needs to distinguish between the different roans - so that actual parentage can at least be checked on sight rather than having to resort to DNA testing.)

Many people get strawberry and red roans mixed up; but the difference is easy. If the underlying coat colour (check the mane and tail!) is BAY (or bay-brown), you have a "bay roan" or "red roan" (the names are interchangeable). If the underlying colour is CHESTNUT then your roan is "chestnut roan" or "strawberry roan". To avoid confusion, it's much better to define your horse's colour as bay roan or chestnut roan, and drop the use of 'strawberry' and 'red'. (Yes, the strawberries are past their use-by date .....)

Check out the muzzle, inner leg areas and underbelly of a supposedly blue roan horse; if they contain red or brown hairs, then he's technically a dark (or sooty) bay roan, a brown roan, or a black-brown (or sooty brown) roan. This very blue bay roan colouring is caused by an inheritance of EE or Ee plus AA or Aa (creating the bay / brown base coat), maybe plus the sooty gene, and classic roan.

Roans come in a variety of shades from very dark to very pale, depending on the 'richness' of the underlying coat (any dilution factors), and the amount of white hairs added.

You can obviously therefore get "dun-roans", which should be named after their underlying dun colour (e.g. golden dun roan, blue dun roan etc.) Fortunately for classification purposes they're not that common! If you're not sure what to call a roan, call him by the colour of his underlying coat and add the word roan to the end. (e.g. 'sooty brown buckskin roan', etc.) That way you will never make yourself look uninformed .....

Blue roan Black coat with white hairs evenly mixed throughout. A 'true blue' roan should have no red or brown hairs.
Bay roan / brown roan (or red roan) Bay, bay-brown, brown or black-brown coat with white hairs evenly mixed throughout. A very dark bay roan (appearing very much like a blue roan) is caused by having a lot of sooty in the original bay base coat. 'Sooty bay roan' is sometimes used to describe this colour - though most people opt for 'blue roan'.
Chestnut roan (or strawberry roan) Chestnut coat with white hairs evenly mixed throughout.
Yellow roan Palomino, golden dun or buckskin (see later) coat with white hairs evenly mixed throughout.

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THE MIXERS: CREAM, DUN, SILVER, CHAMPAGNE, and the 'newbie' PEARL (and the unidentified 'fading / light black' and 'mushroom')

There are many genetic modifiers which can be applied to a basic whole coat colour, and some of the best known of these are the dilution factors of dun, cream, silver, champagne and pearl.

Each of these can be related to a specific known gene, which (if present) can have been inherited from one parent or both parents. They can appear in combination with each other; a horse could theoretically have, for example, one helping of cream, one of dun, two of silver, one of champagne, two of pearl - or any other possible combination. (Mathematicians will already have worked out by now that that gives you an awful lot of possible genetic dilution variations on any basic non-dilute coat colour, depending which of these dilution factors is present.)

Many of these combinations can be visually similar, and so are often lumped together under a common name. For example, a cream dilution factor of "one" acting on a bay base coat will give you a buckskin, and a dun dilution factor acting on a bay base coat will give you yellow or golden dun. (Buckskin can be additionally modified by the sooty gene, but there is some evidence to suggest that the dun gene suppresses the action of sooty.) They are very similar - the only real visual difference is the presence of primitive markings on the dun. Simple rule: no eel-stripe, no dun. Also, a true golden dun's body coat will have more the colour of set honey or vanilla-cream fudge, and the buckskin's body coat will be more clear gold and like a palomino's coat. In many countries, buckskins are called yellow dun or golden dun, and people are loath to change the name by which they know a colour; there are some people for whom the word "buckskin" is too American! In other countries - particularly America - golden duns are called buckskin duns. It all adds to the confusion. If your 'alleged dun' horse is descended from a non-dun parent and a palomino or cremello parent, he's a buckskin, not a dun. In addition, champagne can act on bay to produce a very similar-looking coat colour (known as amber).

These 'mixers' act in slightly different ways. Some affect the uptake / production of pigment into the shaft of the hair (and tend to affect one pigment either to the exclusion of the other, or more than the other), and others affect the distribution of pigment granules within the hair shaft, and tend to affect both red and black pigment equally. This is why one can't 'see' the silver gene on a chestnut horse , as silver only affects the uptake of black pigment, and one can't 'see' the flaxen gene on a black-based horse, as it only affects the uptake of red pigment. The agouti gene only affects the distribution of black pigment, which is why one cant 'see' it in chestnut horses.

Dun can dilute both red and black coat pigment. The dun gene is a simple dominant - if you've got it, it shows, and it will have shown it at least one parent. The dun gene seems to affect the distribution of pigment granules in the hair, moving pigment away from the 'air-side' of the hair and towards the 'skin-side' of the hair, leaving the part of the hair which is clearly visible with much fewer pigment granules - hence the dilution of visible colour. It is the one responsible for the primitive markings of dorsal stripe, shoulder stripe, and zebra / tiger stripes. "Cobweb" markings can also appear on the forehead. Additional dun markings are face mask, neck and / or shoulder shadowing, 'barbs' from the dorsal stripe, and ear tipping, outlining and barring. Duns also have dun dilution (the same colour as the body coat or a few shades lighter) at the sides of the mane and the frost-cap at the top of the tail. Dun doesn't touch the lower legs, so it's what I call a 'pattern dilutant'. To the best of current knowledge there appears to be no visual difference if a horse has inherited one or two dun dilution genes. If he has inherited the dun gene from both parents, of course, he will pass it on to ALL his descendants. For (probably) the best article on distinguishing between true duns and buckskins (cream dilutes) with counter-shading caused by the sooty gene, see Dun Central Station's excellent article "What's Dun is Dun!"..

Breed Societies, please try to ensure that duns are registered under their right colour! It's unhelpful when researching pedigrees if every type of dun is simply registered as 'dun', as opposed to golden dun, mouse dun, blue dun, (any of which could be 'silvered'), and red dun, etc.! And please don't register buckskins as duns! Pictures of 'true duns' and colours frequently confused with (and mis-registered as) dun can be seen on our 'Dun and Un-Dun' page.

Cream in a single dose dilutes only red hairs. Cream is an 'incomplete dominant' - a double dose will give you more dilution than a single dose, and a single dose is hard to spot on a black coat. The cream gene affects the uptake of pigment into the hair - each hair contains less pigment than the basecoat unmodified by the cream gene. A double dose gives you double dilution, can affect black hairs, too, and reduces the production of skin pigment. But it also interacts with the recessive pearl (both genes affecting the production rather than the distribution of pigment granules) to produce what appears to be a double-cream dilution (cremello / perlino). Cream is a 'flat dilutant' - affects the whole coat pretty evenly - but often gives slight dappling.

Champagne, like dun, dilutes both red and black pigments, but does NOT produce the primitive markings. The champagne gene, like the dun gene, is a simple dominant - if you've got it, it shows, and it will have shown it at least one parent. Like the dun gene, it affects the distribution of pigment granules in the hair, completely (or almost completely) removing pigment granules from the core of the hair shaft into the surrounding cortex. The core is translucent - giving the 'metallic gloss' or 'translucent glow' to the coat, as opposed to the opaque colour of the non-champagne coat. Champagne horses are born with brown hooves, pink skin, and blue eyes which eventually (and gradually) become hazel, amber or occasionally blue-green at adulthood. They tend to be born with relatively dark coats, which fade out later. (A foal born 'chestnutty' with blue eyes, which turns 'goldy' with hazel eyes, is likely to be a gold champagne.) I would classify champagne as a 'flat dilutant'. Do note, some other 'dilutes' can be born with blue eyes which darken within the first week of life, but champagne eyes only darken gradually. Champagne skin shows distinct freckling in the 'soft' areas (muzzle, around eyes, genitalia and dock) and is 'goldenish' under chestnut hair and 'bronze-ish' or 'chocolate-ish' under dark hair.

Silver dilutes only black hairs, and is the gene responsible for the silvering of dark (i.e. including black) manes and tails. (Don't confuse rabicano roaning in the mane, and rabicano 'skunk-tail', for silver gene dilution.) The silver gene is a simple dominant, and affects the uptake of black pigment into the hairs, predominantly in the coarser mane and tail hairs. (Flaxen acts the same way on red / chestnut pigment.) The silver gene originated in the pre-historic Northern British ponies, probably around the close of the last ice age, from where it was taken by the Vikings to Iceland. Current distribution of the gene in the 'older' breeds suggests it originated in Britain rather than Scandinavia, as the silver gene appears in Shetlands but not in the Norwegian Fjord Horse. It is very common in the Icelandic horses. It's likely that there is more than one variant (or allele) of the silver gene. It's important not to lose the silver gene - by accident or on purpose! - from the breeds where it's likely to be a native gene; this would include the Shetlands and Welsh ponies (definitely), and the Highland and New Forest ponies (probably).

Breed Societies, please be careful (where you can) to ensure that chocolate flaxes and chocolate dapples aren't registered as liver chestnuts, silver bays aren't registered as flaxen chestnuts, and silver gold duns aren't registered as palominos. For breeders looking either to include or to exclude specific colour genes, it's helpful to know what has them!

Pearl is a recessive gene which can interact with cream, and is a 'flat dilutant' rather than a 'pattern dilutant'. One dose of pearl won't change the coat colour of black, bay or chestnut horses (unless interacting with cream), but does appear to affect the skin colour, producing pink speckles. The pearl gene affects production / uptake of pigment. Two doses on a chestnut background produce, in adulthood, a uniform apricot / peach / pale golden colour of body hair, mane and tail, with pink / pale skin, and pale eyes (ageing to an amber colour). Double-pearl foals are generally pale cream, the coat gradually turning golden later. Pearl (at present) appears in horses with Spanish ancestry, or those descended from a horse called My Tontime, the grand-dam of Barlink Macho Man. It also seems to occur in some Gypsy horses (probably again due to a Spanish inheritance). It has also been known as 'apricot' or 'Barlink factor'. Pearl + cream on a black basecoat produces 'smoky pearl' horses, and on a bay basecoat produces a colour very similar to perlino.

The "UFO's" of genes:

'fading black / light black'. I'm including it with the dilutants for two reasons. Firstly, it's my web page, so I can! Secondly (and more logically), it's because I strongly suspect that this, when isolated and identified, will eventually be shown to be a recessive or partially-recessive gene. It seems likely that the actual mechanism behind 'fading black' is to do with the production (synthesis) of eumelanin, and a form of eumelanin is produced which is 'photo-unstable' (i.e. breaks down on exposure to light). It also seems likely that there is a an interaction with at least one other gene, as the fading can be produced with or without patterning. 'Fading black' does appear in families - so it's almost certainly genetically produced, and this means that it will, one day, be properly identified and located. A good place to start looking for this (suggested) gene would be on ECA3 (chromosome 3) as this is where the genetic information for the production of eumelanin is located - in the Extension gene. It's possible that it may simply be another variation of the (dominant) E allele, as has been suggested for 'dominant black' (E+, or ED). If this does turn out to be the case, perhaps 'fading black' could be signified by Ef).

'Mushroom'. This colour has been appearing in Shetland (and possibly Icelandic) ponies, predominantly in those which should be chestnut according to the breeding. Some have been genetically confirmed to be a definite chestnut base coat. The colour can vary from 'pale mushroom' (almost creamy) to 'dark mushroom' (similar to the Chocolate Flax). Coats often start off darkish with each coat change, but fade over time. Under the mane, where light doesn't hit, they tend not to fade. Mushroom ponies appear in lines where the cream gene is absent, and don't throw cream dilutes. Silver gene (which in normal circumstances doesn't show on chestnuts anyway) seems to have been eliminated as a possibility. Could this be a 'fading sooty'? Could it be a so-far-unknown gene acting on sooty?

Whatever eventually turns out to be the case, at present both fading black and mushroom come into the category of the many puzzling, frustrating or irritating factors probably caused by one of the proverbial 'damned-if-I-know' genes .......

(Given a free rein, I would also include pangare and flaxen with the dilutants, as 'pattern dilutants' - i.e. not affecting the entire coat but clearly diluting parts of it in a readily-identifiable pattern.)

Some of the best examples across the range of 'diluteds' come from the Highland ponies, the American Quarter Horses, Norwegian Fjord Horses, and the primitive wild varieties - which, as they evolved naturally, one shouldn't really call 'breeds'.

The table below gives a visual description - not necessarily a genetic explanation - of a number of "names by which colours are known."

Blue dun, grullo / grulla
(black + dun)

Champagne Black / Classic Champagne
(black + champagne)


Smoky Black
(Black + 1 x cream)



Fading Black / Light Black

Smoke-blue coat with black points, primitive markings can be quite marked. Grullo (pronounced 'groo-yo') is the Hispanic term for a male horse of this colour, and grulla ('groo-ya') for a female. Konik Ponies show some excellent blue duns. In the Fjord Horse this colour is known as grey or "grå", as is the mouse dun.

The champagne black is visually similar to the blue dun, but has no primitive markings. He's distinguishable by the metallic sheen sometimes present on his coat, and by his hazel eyes. Champagne blacks (like all champagne horses) are born with blue eyes which darken with age and dark coats which lighten later; they also have freckled skin.

Smoky black: an interesting one! Now you see it, now you don't. Smoky black (in its true form) is homozygous black (inherited black from both parents) plus ONE dose of cream. In some, you see no visible effect. In others, the black is a little smoky. If he fades out to 'brownish', you're likely to have either a heterozygous black inheritance (Ee) or homozygous black + agouti (EEAA or EEAa) combined with the sooty and cream genes. Smoky black horses are often 'dunny-coloured' as foals and therefore sometimes mistakenly registered as 'dark dun'.

Don't confuse either the blue dun, the champagne black, or the smoky black with an iron or steel grey or with a blue roan! His colouring is not caused by the admixture of white hairs, but by the fact that each individual hair is dilute in colour.

Genetically, the 'fading / light black' should appear to be "the black, the whole black and nothing but the black". He's EE or Ee with no agouti or cream. Some of them never appear black, but appear 'brown' throughout (including brown eyes). Some of them grow each new coat in jet-black, but then fade out through 'apparent bay' and 'apparent buckskin' to a light mustardy-tan colour. 'Fading black' sometimes won't touch either the points or the head at all. Sometimes it will.


Chocolate Flax, Chocolate Dapple

(e.g. black-brown + silver)

Chocolate coat with (generally) flaxen, cream, white or silvery mane and tail. The straight Chocolate Flax is even coated, the Chocolate Dapple has distinct dapples (and is sometimes registered as 'dapple chestnut' by mistake). Some Chocolate horses have golden to light-chocolate manes and tails, and many get registered as brown or liver chestnut by mistake.

Brown Buckskin
(brown + cream)

Sooty Buckskin
(bay + cream + sooty, bay-brown + cream + sooty)

Coffee or toffee coloured body, dark points, mane and tail. Sooty countershading dorsal stripe may be present, but no genuine dun-type primitive markings.

Smutty / sooty body coat with golden hairs between the dark hairs, sometimes only showing on the head / muzzle, flanks, armpits and belly. Sooty buckskins (as with all sooties) are sooted from the spine downwards and often show a 'line-backed' sooty countershading stripe; they almost always show some dappling, can show other pseudo-primitive markings (in sooty, not in basecoat colour) which are smudgy-edged and look as though they have been drawn on with a lump of coal. Sooty buckskins can change colour from summer to winter coat, and can get very dark to the point of being mistaken for black-browns with pangare. No genuine dun-type primitive markings.

Champagne Brown / Sable Champagne

(e.g. black+ seal agouti + champagne)

Bronzey gold toned brown body, usually with a metallic sheen, brown legs mane and tail. Eyes are amber and skin shows champagne freckling.
Silver dun / silver grullo, silver blue dun

(Black + dun + cream, black + dun + silver)

He's a variation of the blue dun, and is even-coloured blue-silver or creamy-silver generally with dark points, eel-stripe is quite marked, shoulder and zebra stripes are also often quite clear and distinct. Mane and tail in the silver dun (caused by the cream gene on blue dun) often have silver or white borders, or, in the silver blue dun (caused by the silver gene on blue dun), can be completely silvered-out, as can the lower legs. This is one of the prettiest of the duns, and once seen, the colour is never forgotten. They can appear quite 'metallic' in the right lighting conditions. In the Fjord horse this colour is known as uls dun ("ulsblakk") and is definitely caused by dun + cream.

Note: many people mistakenly call the silvered bay, silvered amber, silvered buckskin, etc. a 'silver dun'. For these colours, see later. In rough terms, a silver dun will have a pretty clear eel-stripe and be blue-silver in body colour, and the 'silvered bay' family will have pale manes and tails and be visually somewhat similar to the palominos and flaxen chestnuts.

Don't confuse the silver dun with a grey. Of course, any horse may have the greying gene - so a foal born silver dun could develop into a grey dun when his adult coat comes through! Sometimes the only way of checking what you've got is by genetic testing.

Smoky cream (sooty cream, silver cream, dusky cream, etc. )
(black + 2 cream)

Smoky pearl
(black + cream + pearl)


Even pale silvery coloured all over. Blue or 'aqua' eyes. Interesting 'shading' effects can be noticed on a long smoky cream coat when the fur is disturbed, or in movement. Some black + 2x cream horses turn out bronzey rather than silvery - it's likely that these are heterozygous black rather than homozygous, but this isn't definite.

Bronzey coloured, amber eyes, darker points. Very pretty!

Grey dun

(e.g. base colour + grey + dun)

Mixed grey-and-white or creamy-grey coat, usually with darker points, primitive marks are obvious when young but often fade out with age, mane and tail frequently have silver or white borders. Frequently some degree of dappling.

Grey duns are sometimes very visually similar to silver duns (and of course a grey dun may well be a silver dun with the addition of the greying gene). Grey duns, as with all greys, get lighter with age. Silver duns don't.

Mouse dun / Chocolate dun

(black-brown + dun, brown + dun)

Mouse-brown or chocolate-brown coloured coat with dark points, eel-stripe can be quite marked. Where the "mouse" is produced from an underlying bay-brown coat + dun the coat colour is a little redder.

Don't confuse him with a brown buckskin, smoky black or sooty buckskin - look for the primitive markings. Test for the cream gene if you're unsure.

Yellow or golden dun
(bay + dun),

(bay + cream)

(bay + champagne)

Fudge, caramel or set-honey coloured coat (not too 'gold'!) with dark points, frequently shows the primitive markings, and should always show an eel-stripe. (No eel-stripe, no dun.) Golden dun is known as 'brown dun' or "brunblakk" in the Fjord horse.

Creamy-gold or clear gold coat with dark points. Buckskin has no dun gene and therefore no correct, distinct, dun eel stripe.

Golden coat, sometimes with a metallic sheen, and dark points. Amber horses are produced by the action of the champagne gene, and so are born with blue eyes which darken as they age, and dark coats which lighten later. Eyes often remain lighter in colour than a dun or buckskin's eyes, giving a clue to the genetic inheritance. The skin under the red areas of an amber horse's coat will show a golden tinge.

Cream dun, Dunskin
(bay + dun + cream)

Honey dun / mushroom dun
(brown + dun + cream)

Paler version of golden dun; creamy coat, darker points, mane and tail may have cream, silver or white borders.

A shade partway between cream dun and mouse dun; muted mushroom body colour, mane and tail may have cream, silver or white borders. (Not to be confused with Shetland / Icelandic 'mushroom' colour.)

Chestnut dun,
Red dun

(chestnut + dun)

Slightly muted chestnut with darker, richer chestnut primitive marks of eel stripe, shoulder stripe, etc. An unusual colour, not as commonly seen as you would expect. Known as "rødblakk" in the Fjord horse.
Mushroom (in Shetlands / Icelandics)

(often chestnut base coat, modifier unknown)

The colour can vary from 'pale mushroom' (almost creamy) to 'dark mushroom' (similar to the Chocolate Flax). Coats often start off darkish with each coat change, but fade over time. Under the mane, where light doesn't hit, they tend not to fade. In the past, many mushroom ponies will have been registered as dun (because they can appear 'dunny-coloured'), or as 'fawn' , 'dark cream', 'mink', 'chocolate', etc.

(bay + 2 cream, or bay + pearl + cream)

Pale creamy coat with smoky or chocolatey mane, tail and sometimes legs; blue or 'aqua' eyes. A very pretty colour; many people are put off by the pale eyes.
Silvered Bay,
Silvered Amber,
Silvered Buckskin,
Silvered Golden Dun,
Silvered Dunskin etc.

(bay + silver,
bay + silver + champagne / cream / dun)

All of these colours are based on an original bay coat, straight or diluted, with the black 'silvered out.'

Don't confuse the paler colours with a palomino, and don't call them 'silver duns' by mistake! If you look closely (hint: check out his lower legs, mane and tail) you'll see that there are black hairs present which have been faded by the silver gene. A true palomino should have no silver hairs on his lower legs as he's based on a chestnut, not bay, coat, and the sooty gene acting on a palomino basecoat will leave gold hairs around the coronet, not silver ones.

Silvered bays can also be confused with flaxen chestnuts - again, check out the lower legs and the tail head. If the legs are golden, he's likely to be a flaxen chestnut, if they're silver, he's likely to be a silvered bay. If the tail-head is chocolate, black or silver, he's likely to be a silvered bay, if it's clearly red he's likely to be a flaxen chestnut.

Silver Dapple

(black + silver)

This is the result of the silver gene acting on a true black (not black-brown) coat. As the name suggests, the dapples (frequently present at birth, unlike the dappled greys whose dapples appear later) are very distinct. True silver dapple (as opposed to chocolate dapple) comes in a number of variations but should never appear chocolatey or pinkish. The fact that there are so many variations of "silver acting on black" is an indicator that the silver gene has more than one active allele.

In Icelandic horses, all the silver-gene variations are designated by the term 'silver dapple', no matter what visual appearance they have - so, for example, you could have a 'blue dun silver dapple' Icelandic horse, whereas the rest of us would be likely to call it a 'silver blue dun'.

(chestnut + cream)


(chestnut + dun + cream)

Golden body with blonde or white mane and tail (black skin). Also known as Isabella or Ysabell in certain areas.The gold of the body coat may be anything from deep red-gold to very pale cream. To be correct for show purposes, it should be no more than "three shades lighter or darker than a newly-minted gold coin." 'Sooty palominos' are 'incorrect for show purposes'. There's nothing wrong with them, it's just that the 'Palomino people' don't like the sooty gene! (Note: if you breed sooty palominos together you can get some nice liver chestnuts.)

The dunalino is very similar to the palomino, but shows a more dilute colour in the main body areas, with richer colour on the legs; dorsal stripe is noticeable, often extending along the centre of the mane and tail. Other dun patterns are there, but hard to spot! In Fjord horses this colour is known as 'yellow dun' or "gulblakk".

(chestnut + 2x pearl)

Champagne chestnut / gold champagne
(chestnut + champagne)

Uniform peach / apricot / pale gold coat, pale eyes, pale skin. If combined with flaxen, this could also produce 'false palominos' due to the extra lightening of the mane and tail caused by the flaxen gene.

The champagne chestnuts can be visually very similar to the palominos. If you have a chestnut modified by both champagne and flaxen genes, your eyes are unlikely to tell you what he really is. The best clues are: what colour eyes he was born with and what colour his skin is. Champagne horses are born with blue eyes, which darken over time, and generally never end up as dark as a true palomino's eyes, so if your 'supposed' palomino has hazel eyes, he may well be a champagne chestnut with flaxen gene. Champagne skin is usually 'freckled' around the eyes, muzzle, dock, udder and genitalia, and has a golden tinge to it .

Cremello / blue-eyed cream
(chestnut + 2 cream, or chestnut + cream + pearl)
Pale cream all over with blue eyes and pale skin. Underlying white markings (blaze, etc.) can be seen due to the difference in pigmentation of the skin - contrary to popular belief, cremellos don't have 'unpigmented' skin, there is just less pigment, and it's orangey rather than dark. They don't sunburn any more than any other colour, they don't have 'weak eyes', and there is no reason for their white hooves to be any more fragile than any other white hoof!

NOTE: this is NOT an albino - don't make the mistake! For albino, see below under "the oddity".

Probably the best selection of colour illustrations of the results of these mixer genes is to be found via Equine Color's website.

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Greys fade with age!

The grey gene is dominant - which means that if a horse is grey he must have had at least one grey parent. Breed societies note: if a grey animal is registered from non-grey parents, then the parentage is almost certainly not as given! You have more chance of winning the lottery than of having the correct parentage registered. Breeders note: If you seem to be producing greys from non-grey parents, check that any grey gelding your mares have access to isn't a rig (cryptorchid). The only other possible explanation is that a non-grey parent is actually a chimera (fusion of two zygotes in the womb), and has two completely different sets of DNA. This is a very unusual situation, and much less likely than the grey rig explanation.

The genetic code for greying can appear alongside the genetic code for various different coat colours. The greying gene hasn't started to take effect at birth, so a horse is never (or virtually never) born grey - his foal coat could be one of a variety of colours. The grey starts to show as soon as his first baby coat begins to change. A horse can be iron grey at the age of 2, dappled at the age of 7, and white grey by the time he is 10.

A grey may actually have been born piebald or skewbald - in which case, even though he looks like a grey now, technically he's still a skewbald. "Any other colour" and white includes "grey and white". Even "white-grey and white!" The only way you'll know is by checking the colour of his skin - when you bath him is a good time to check. His underlying black and pink patched skin will show through his wet coat and give the game away.

Iron or steel grey Mixture of grey and white hairs, overall effect dark grey. Mane and tail may be any shade of grey from near-white to near-black. (Skin is black.)
Dappled grey Mixture of grey and white hairs with clearly defined dapples. Mane and tail may be any shade of grey from near-white to near-black. (Skin is black.) Andalusian horses provide some striking examples of classic dappled grey.
White grey Mixture of silver and white hairs, or all white hairs. (Skin is black.) Lipizzaner horses are probably the most famous of the 'white greys', though bay also occurs occasionally. Traditionally, there is one bay horse in each display.
Rose grey Grey with slight sprinkling of remaining chestnut or bay hairs giving pinkish effect. Arab horses provide some of the best examples of rose grey.

Fleabitten grey

"Bloody shoulder"

Grey with small flecks of brown or black. Camargue horses are often fleabitten grey.

The marking which appears on some greys (with a chestnut or bay base coat) known as "bloody shoulder" is an unusual form of fleabitten grey, where the "fleabites" are heavily concentrated in one area - usually the shoulder, though these marks can appear elsewhere in the coat. It is most common in Arabs and horses with Arabian ancestry.

Blagdon grey, White Blagdon, Sabino White Technically, and genetically, Blagdon Grey is not a grey at all. He's white (and was born that way) with a few speckly or blotchy patches of colour, or collections of spots, frequently on the legs and/or head and ears. Skin is predominantly pink but may be freckled. Manes and tails may be interestingly striped! The colour is named after the gypsy stronghold area of Blagdon, in Somerset, England, and the best examples of this colour (and also "Blagdon", see below) are found in the gypsy cobs. "White Blagdon" is caused almost certainly by a homozygous inheritance of the Sabino 1 gene (a local pattern genetic code), and is thus also called Sabino White. It has nothing to do with the greying gene.

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Also known as paints, pintos, overos, tobianos, coloureds, Blagdons, piebalds and skewbalds .

The very best of the broken-coat patterns are almost always to be found in the gypsy vanner horses, as they have been selectively bred for "lots of different pretty patterns" for very many generations of men (and even more generations of horses), with pattern taking priority over breed purity. This has resulted in horses carrying, and exhibiting, any or all of the local pattern genetic codes, with some truly spectacular combined modifiers results not generally found in any of the pure breeds. The coloured horses owe their colouring to the genes tobiano, overo / frame, and sabino, with or without other modifiers thrown in.


Piebald "Broken" coat (i.e. patches) of black and white. Black patches have black skin, white patches have pink skin.
Skewbald "Broken" coat (i.e. patches) of any other colour and white. Coloured patches have black skin, white patches have pink skin.

To be more specific you can describe him as (for example) "Red roan and white", "lemon and white" (palomino and white), "chestnut and white", "bay-brown and white", "dappled grey and white" etc.

Blagdon Any 'base colour' or roan based on any base colour, with multiple spots and splashes of white, and / or roan, and / or base colour (red on the 'red Blagdons' and black on the 'blue Blagdons'.) The white is often quite extensive around the belly and upper legs, and almost always accompanied by white on the face, often including the chin. One or both eyes may well be blue. Odd white spots may appear within 'whole colour' on the knees. The most spectacularly marked of the Blagdons are probably due to a combination of a number of different 'white marking' genetic codes, and possibly, in some cases, the inclusion of the (appaloosa) leopard complex gene. The Blagdons, as the Blagdon greys, show typical Sabino gene (a local pattern genetic code) patterns. To see the typical Sabino pattern unmodified by other patterns, look at a Clydesdale horse.
Other Mixed Patterns

These occur where white and / or roan markings are caused by a combination of genes, and sorting out which factors are responsible is not always easy! In the USA and some other countries the combination of the Leopard gene (Appaloosa) and tobiano, overo or splash white factor patterns is called 'pintaloosa'. One of the most attractive 'mixed pattern' horses I have ever known was a gypsy vanner by the name of "Blue." Although he was a blue Blagdon, I will include his details here to give some indication of what mixed patterns can produce.

He was a 'gypsy vanner' horse, standing around 145 - 155 cm.  He was a strong, cobby build and was reputed to have some Shire in his background, although his ancestry was obviously very mixed.  He had a full, heavy mane and tail, and heavy feathering on the lower legs. His body colour including head and ears was primarily blue roan. He had a broad white blaze - extending just beyond the edges of his nasal bones.

Both his eyes were blue. The lower extremities of all four legs were white, with some ermine marks in the white.  Where an ermine mark was placed on the coronary bands, his hooves were striped. Immediately above the white lower legs, the colouring turned very dark (almost black) before becoming blue roan.  The borderline here was clearly marked and distinct.

The forelegs showed the distinctive triangular points on the black that I associate with classic roan pattern. By the top of the legs (a few inches short of the elbows and stifles) distinct white speckles began to appear in the roan.  The speckles merged into blotches as one proceeded upwards, and the majority of his belly area was white.  This gradually turned back into blue roan, via the 'splotches and speckles', on his ribs.  (The lower quarters and shoulders remained roan.)

Within the roan on his shoulders and neck were a few distinct white areas, surrounded by roan.  One was a particularly striking 'zigzag' lightning-flash mark, running down his left shoulder.  There was  a white patch with speckly edges - shaped a bit like a piece of jigsaw puzzle - on the offside of his neck, running into the offside of his mane.  There were also a few elongated black splashes in his predominantly roan areas.

On the top of his quarters the roan faded out into an appaloosa-type blanket, complete with elongated black and blue roan spots and splashes.

The overall effect was one of 'marbling'. He had NO RED HAIRS anywhere at all.  His mane and tail were predominantly black, but with a few white sections. (Particularly at the sides of the tail.)

The best guess I can make is that this was a combination of:

  • frame gene (indicated by blue eyes, white marks surrounded by colour, etc.)
  • sabino gene (indicated by speckles / blotches, white belly etc.)
  • leopard complex (appaloosa, indicated by the spotted pale blanket and possibly the dark spots and striped hooves)
  • possibly tobiano gene (which could be indicated by the ermine marks in the white on the lower legs)
  • classic roan (indicated by the distinctive points to his dark legs before roaning comes in)
  • and Rabicano gene (indicated by the roaning to the head and ears, which doesn't occur with classic roan, and the white 'frosting' at the sides of the tail)

... all acting on a black base coat.



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Genuine appaloosas frequently have sparse manes and tails, and also often have striped hooves. The skin is distinctively mottled in appearance. They come in a very wide variety of assorted patterns, often with more than one pattern expressed. There is also frequently white showing around the eyes. The appaloosa / leopard patterns can appear on any colour base coat.

Other spotteds (such as the British Spotted and the Knabstrup tend to have ordinary manes and tails and are less likely to show white around the eyes. For the majority of purposes the spotteds and appaloosas can be grouped into five basic types. The spotteds owe their patterns to the leopard complex gene; it's known as leopard 'complex' as it clearly has a number of active alleles, as there are so many quite distinct variations of the patterns.

Leopard Spot or Spotted Over-all, Few-Spot Leopard Pale with clear spots of darker colour. The few-spot leopard has (as the name implies) very few dark spots. (The few-spot leopard pattern may well be homozygous).
Blanket Spot
Any basic coat colour with pale "blanket", usually over the quarters and sometimes extending over the back; on very rare occasions the "blanket" may be over the neck and/or shoulders. The edges of the blanket can be clear, freckled, or roaned. In some blanket appaloosas the roaning pattern forms stripes over the ribcage. The blanket is itself spotted with darker colour in Blanket Spot.
Snowflake Spot Darker coat with white spots.
Frost & Snowcap The coat is roaned along the topline, either fairly lightly (as in frost) or heavily, forming an unspotted heavy white blanket (as in snowcap). A heavily snowcapped horse can have the white covering most of the body, with only a few remaining dark areas near the elbows and stifles. (Snowcap is also thought to be a possibly homozygous expression of leopard complex.)
Varnish Roan Appaloosa varnish roan is a progressive colour (unrelated to the greying gene). Varnish horses start their life coloured, and the varnish roan gradually progresses, leaving darker colour on the prominent bony areas (face, shoulders, hips etc.). The varnish roan has a curiously mottled and marbled appearance unlike other roan patterns.
Pintaloosa The pintaloosa is probably the best-known of the mixed patterns, and has been given its own name. It's simply a combination of one of the leopard-complex genes (appaloosa patterns) with one of the other broken-coat genes (overo / frame or tobiano), producing a piebald / skewbald with appaloosa markings as well.

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A very rough beginner's guide to identifying broken coat and admixed white factors is as follows:

Tobiano: the horse has white markings which look rather as though white colour has been spilled onto them from the top (avoiding the head), frequently added to the legs (from the bottom upwards) and the general effect is of 'coloured patches surrounded by white'. The most minimal expression of tobiano can simply be the existence of white 'socks'. Coloured spots within white leg markings (ermine marks) can be an indication of tobiano .

Frame: the horse has white markings which don't cross the centre line at the spine, give the impression of 'white patches surrounded by colour', and tend to look more as though white was poured onto his face and splashed onto his body from the sides. Blue eyes can be an indication of frame factor. Frame on its own won't affect the lower legs.

A word of warning when breeding coloureds: if a horse inherits frame factor from both parents, he will be born pure white and with an incompletely formed colon. (This is known as 'overo lethal white syndrome', or OLWS for short.) This is obviously a non-viable animal - it will die shortly after birth. If you're breeding coloureds, get the prospective parents genetically tested for frame factor.

Sabino: looks as though he has had his white poured / splattered onto him from underneath, with the borderline between white and colour being indistinct and speckly. White head markings (often with freckled edges) common in sabino, frequently affecting the lips and chin. Sometimes sabino can cause roaning, though one can usually distinguish it from rabicano roaning by looking at the other white markings. Sabino markings can be very minimal, with just the odd white spot, and a speckly edge to a facial marking. There is more than one allele of sabino.

Rabicano: looks as though white has been unevenly mixed into his coat, often but not always just in small areas. Rabicano 'tail flashes' (white at the sides of the root of the tail) or 'skunk-tail' (extensive white to both sides of the tail) can be very attractive - and often the only sign that the rabicano gene is present.

Splash white: looks as though he has been dipped into white paint, including his face, but with clearly defined edges between the white and the colour. Splash white often causes blue eyes. Splash white facial markings tend to get wider as they near the muzzle.

Leopard: (appaloosa) includes mottled skin, spots, and frequently a white 'blanket' which may or may not include spots. There are many alleles of leopard.

Classic roan: white mixed in on the body but not the head legs, mane and tail.


Albino A true albino animal (NOT to be confused with the cremello or blue-eyed cream) is actually "missing out" on one of the factors in his DNA blueprint to produce his real colour. In simple terms, it's a bit like having the perfect recipe for Black Forest Gateau, but not being able to get the ingredients for it! As a result, he has no pigment anywhere at all, which results in a clear pink skin, pink or red eyes, and pure white hair all over. It's quite common in pet mice and pet rabbits but (to the best of my knowledge) does not appear in horses and ponies, though it has been suggested that true albinism has occurred in the American Miniature Horse.



Star Any clear white marking on the forehead.
Stripe Narrow white stripe, NOT extending to the edges of the nasal bone.
Blaze Broad white stripe extending to or just beyond the edges of the nasal bone.
White face / bald face Broad white marking "spilling" down one or both sides of the face, well beyond the edges of the nasal bone. Often accompanied by one or two blue eyes (wall eyes). Wall eyes often indicate the presence of frame or splash white. A white face combined with long white leg markings ('stockings' rather than 'socks') can be an indication of splash white.
Snip Any white mark between the nostrils. Technically, if the mark clearly extends well above the nostrils and is large, it should be referred to as a 'half-stripe', 'half-blaze', etc.
White muzzle (Sometimes called "milk-bucket muzzle" for obvious reasons!) The whole muzzle area, including chin, is white.
White lips Upper and/or lower lip is white.
Chin spot Any white mark on the chin. Can indicate the presence of Sabino.
Joined marks e.g. "star conjoined stripe conjoined snip", indicates a white marking starting with a "star", joined to a "stripe", joined to a "snip".

This should only be used when the parts are quite distinct - e.g. the white area narrows sharply from the star to the stripe, and there is distinct narrowing (often just a thin trail of white hairs) between the stripe and the snip.

Non-white marking

'Mealy muzzle' (pangare)

The hair around the muzzle (and sometimes around the eyes) is significantly paler than the rest of the head. This is due to the pangare gene also known as the mealy factor . Usually accompanied by 'mealied' coat under the belly and on the soft skin of the inner legs and flanks.

This is characteristic of Exmoor ponies.

When the mealy muzzle is accompanied by a 'toad eye', a generous mane and tail and very well-sprung ribs, there is a very strong possibility that Exmoor blood can be found within 3 or 4 generations of your horse's pedigree.

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"Socks & Stockings!" Leg markings, although colloquially known as "socks", "stockings" "white legs" etc., should really be described by their extent.

For example: "white heels", "white fetlocks", "white to pastern", "white to mid cannon", "white to knee", "white to hock", "white to mid-forearm", "white to elbow", "white to mid-gaskin", "white to stifle" etc.

Ermine marks Dark spots within white leg markings, usually around the coronary band / coronet (area immediately above the hoof). Can be indicative of tobiano.

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These can vary from very noticeable marks to single white hairs, and include:

White flash / white splash Large white marking, as if of white paint spilled down the coat, surrounded by colour. Technically this would constitute a "broken coat" (piebald, skewbald, overo, etc.) This is one of the more minimal frame patterns, and not to be confused with splash white patterns, which look more as though your horse jumped in a vat of white paint.
White spot / Birdcatcher spot Clearly defined white spot, not sufficient spots to be classified as a "snowflake spotted". They don't necessarily appear in exactly the same position each year, and sometimes horses born without them develop them later.
Flecking or Ticking White speckles - small collections of white hairs in the coat with otherwise solid coat colour around them. (Rabicano or Sabino pattern, depending on associated white markings elsewhere.)
White hairs Sparsely scattered white hairs in an area. (Rabicano pattern.)
Ben d'Or Spots Dark spots, often quite large, in an otherwise self-coloured coat. This is possibly caused by an unusual variation of the sooty gene .
Lacing Pale patterns, reminiscent of the markings on a giraffe, or the patterns of a tortoise's shell, on the body coat. These usually appear on the topline first, and are frequently symmetrical either side of the spine. This is a very unusual marking, but does seem to be inherited.
Brindling Vertical striped or 'tortoiseshell cat' patterning in the coat, very rare. It's now been conclusively proven by extensive DNA testing that some brindle-marked animals are actually chimeras (where the zygotes of two non-identical twins fused in the womb to produce one animal from whom two entirely different sets of DNA can be recovered, depending on the body tissue taken for the test). In non-chimeraic animals it's probably a variation of sooty gene, though the existence of a specific brindle gene (acting on sooty) has been suggested - and may well be right. It's one to watch!
ACQUIRED MARKINGS These include white-hair scarring from saddle, rug, bridle or harness rubs or pressure points; freeze-brands and other brands; lip or ear tattoos, and scars.

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These include:
Hair whorls Areas where the direction of hair growth is a spiral pattern; the position and direction should be clearly described & illustrated.

Prophet's thumb marks Depressions in the tissue, position should be clearly described & illustrated.
Feather-marks Extended non-circular hair whorls - position and direction should be clearly described & illustrated.

All comprehensive horse descriptions for official purposes should include age or date of birth, gender, full accurate written description, and outline and head diagrams, showing the position and shape of all markings and scars and the position and direction of all hair whorls.

If no hair whorls are present (this is a very rare occurrence - almost unheard-of) this should be clearly indicated. Photographs are a bonus for insurance & theft recovery purposes.

DNA profile, blood type and pedigree information can be included where known and appropriate.

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The "Programming" for Coat Colours

What colour are your genes?

What's a 'gene' anyway?

Let's start with DNA (this is short for 'deoxyribonucleic acid'). Virtually all DNA is contained in long 'strings' known as chromosomes . It's a bit like a very complex bar code. DNA has a 'double helix' shape.

The best way to get you to imagine this is by imagining a zip-fastener, each half of which is patterned like a bar code. Imagine holding one end of your zip in one hand, the other end in the other hand, and giving it a few twists. Get the idea? Each half has a specific match to the other half.

DNA replicates (reproduces) itself by 'unzipping', and collecting 'loose bits' on both halves until there are two new double-helices.

The 'bar-codes' on each chromosome contain all sorts of information. Chromosomes come in pairs, so each 'segment' on one chromosome will have an 'other half' on the other chromosome in the pair. (The exception being those that appear on the X chromosome which don't have a corresponding partner on the shorter Y chromosome - like 'red / ginger' in cats. These are known as sex-linked genes.)

A gene for any particular characteristic (such as coat colour) can have many variations. Each variation is called an 'allele'.

The two halves of a pair can be the same or different alleles of the gene.

In living things (animals and plants) with two parents, half of each chromosome pair is inherited from one parent, and half from the other. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, and horses have 32 pairs. That amounts to an awful lot of possible combinations of barcode!

In the replication and reproduction (cell division) processes, bits of chromosome can be 'torn off' and 'swapped around' (a process known as 'cross-over').

Without all these mechanisms for change, there would be no possibility of evolution - either natural or from selective breeding.

All coat colours and markings, in all their infinite variety, are based on a very few variables. A variable would be something like "pigment", "density of pigment", or "local pattern". In horses there are around 17 currently known variables. There are only three possible 'genetic colours' a horse can be: homozygous black (inherited 'black' from both parents), heterozygous black (inherited 'black' from one parent and 'chestnut' from the other), or homozygous chestnut (inherited 'chestnut' from both parents.)

The formula for working out the number of theoretically possible coat colour and pattern variations is relatively simple. It's 3 (the base coat colours) to the power of 17 (the variations). That's 129,140,163 theoretical possibilities. Minimum! Of course, if there's more than one active allele of a colour gene, you then have to multiply the figure you've got so far by the number of active alleles ........ If you personally want to think up 129 million names for coat colours and patterns, go right ahead! It'll keep you out of trouble for a good long while! The rest of us will manage with the ones we've got, I suspect.....

Pigments: there are only TWO pigments:

  • Black (eumelanin: the pigment which at 100% density produces hair colour of black), and
  • Red (pheomelanin: the pigment which at 100% density produces a deep, vibrant chestnutty red)

Each of the two pigments can be anything from 0% density to 100% density, so it is possible to have, for example, a coat colour made up of a mixture of hairs, each of which could be "black <= 100%" or "red <=100%". The action of some dilution genes affects the pigment density in separate parts of each hair - so pigment granules are leached out of one part of the hair shaft and clumped together in another part.

The cream, dun, silver, champagne and pearl factors affect the variable of density.

Local pattern covers the third set of variables.

Local pattern is, in itself, comprised of a number of other variables. These include whether or not the animal has any broken coat factors, and, if so, which ones; also whether the animal has pattern-dilution such as pangare (mealy) or flaxen.

The 'local patterns' for whether mane and tail are the same as, lighter than, or darker than the body coat colour are clearly genetically defined.

The dun gene clearly affects the inheritance of the primitive patterns.

The precise formulae for other local patterns (such as where a grey has his dapples, where an appaloosa has his spots, lacing, brindling, where a Ben d'Or Spotted has his spots, why Birdcatcher spots don't necessarily appear in the same place on each coat change, etc.), isn't yet known. Some schools of thought say that it is all inherited in precise detail, other schools of thought suggest that some local patterns can be influenced by the uterine environment, by levels of circulation in the developing embryo, and by external environment. It certainly appears to be true that some genes interact in specific ways with environment - for example, the unidentified 'fading black' appears to be frequently (if not always) light activated, and the sooty gene markings can be intensified by feeding sugar beet.

To illustrate the combined effects of 'density' and 'local pattern', consider the patterns on a ginger (red tabby) cat. He has only red pigment, no black, his darker areas are a higher density of red than his paler areas, and in addition to this, he can be 'striped', 'spotted', 'marbled' or 'indistinct' in pattern.

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What's that in your coffee?

Some of you might be thinking "Well, a difference that makes no difference is no difference, is it? What does it matter if my golden horse with a white tail is actually a palomino or a champagne chestnut with 'flaxen factor'?"

The answer is that it all rather depends on what you want to do with what you've got. To make that a bit clearer, consider the following:

I put two mugs of black coffee on the table in front of you. To one of those mugs I add cream, and top it off with whipped cream. To the other mug I add whitewash, and top it off with shaving foam (yummy!). If all you want to do is look at the coffee, or paint a picture of it (or look at your horse, or ride your horse) then it really doesn't matter which one you choose! If you want to drink from your coffee (or breed from your horse), then it might be a good idea to know what's in it!

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Where did all that stuff come from?

Colours didn't appear just for no reason! For a potted history of the evolution of coat colour in horses, take a look at our Horse Colour History page.


If you're fascinated by the precise inheritance of coat colours in mammals, search the web for more in-depth information. It can be a lifetime's study - or just a short-term project for the sake of interest.

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Questions for Geneticists to answer:


Go to Sea Spirit's front page.