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Horses are wonderfully diverse animals, not just in terms of temperament, but also coat color. Many equine colors and markings exist in the world today, with countless shades and combinations that make every horse unique.
The most common horse colors and patterns are bay, chestnut, gray, black, pinto, and dun. A horse’s color is determined by many factors such as breed, genetics, age, and even season.
Here is a helpful horse coat color chart:
While many horses retain their original color at birth, this is not always the case. Gray horses, for example, can be born any color and will gradually turn lighter as they age. The horse’s skin color, however, remains the same throughout the animal’s life.
Common Horse Coat Colors
A horse’s coat color determines the color of the body hair, mane, and tail. According to scientists, all horse colors originate from just three basic coat colors: bay, chestnut, and black. These are made up of only two types of pigment, red, black, or both.
Bay is by far the most common coat color in horses. It is a combination of red and black hairs on the horse, with red predominant on the body and black on the “points”. A horse’s points include the mane, tail, and lower legs.
The coat color of a bay horse can range from light to dark brown. The most common shades of bay are dark, mahogany, and blood bay. While bay color occurs in most horse breeds, a rare breed called the Cleveland Bay is exclusively this color.
As already mentioned, dark bay is a variation of the bay coat color. Dark bay horses have a dark brown coat with black points and often lighter hair around the eyes, muzzle, elbow, and flanks.
Horses with this color are often mistaken for blacks, as their coat turns a darker shade over the winter. However, their summer coat will always reveal their original color.
Also known as sorrel, a chestnut coat is made up of fully red hairs with no black. A chestnut horse’s long hairs (mane & tail) must also be chestnut, although the shade can be lighter than the body color.
There are three main variations of the chestnut color: light, liver, and flaxen chestnut. Chestnut horses are relatively common in the equestrian world. Chestnut is also the only acceptable color in the Suffolk Punch and Gidran horse breeds.
A flaxen chestnut can be any shade of chestnut, from light to dark red. What distinguishes them is their blond manes and tails that are near-white or even silvery in shade.
Flaxen chestnut is the signature color of the Haflinger horse breed of Austria. It is often confused with the palomino, although flaxen chestnuts will always have some reddish hair in their coat.
Chocolate Flaxen horses have a dark chestnut base color with blonde or silvery manes and tails. This effect is caused by the flaxen genetic modifier that lightens the horse’s long hairs.
It’s no surprise that this dazzling coat color is popular among horse lovers and equestrians. Chocolate flaxen coats are common in the Morgan horse breed, while Black Forest horses are always this color.
Horses with this color have a very dark chestnut coat. Liver chestnut is often referred to as “brown”, although this term is used for various other coat colors.
Sometimes, the liver chestnut shade is so dark it’s hard to distinguish it from black. Very dark chestnuts are common in the Morgan breed and are sometimes called “black chestnuts”.
Black horses have no lighter hairs in their coat except for white markings. While this coat color is not uncommon, a jet-black horse is relatively rare. Horse breeds that are always black include the Friesian and Mérens horse.
In the world of horses, there are two types of black: fading and non-fading. Fading black horses are more common and will reveal lighter hairs when exposed to sunlight for extended periods. Whereas, non-fading blacks stay the same color and have a blueish tinge to their coat.
Also read: 6 Common Black Horse Breeds.
Although not a color per se, most people consider gray one of the horse’s coat colors. In truth, gray horses are formed through the process of graying, which is the addition of white hairs to their original color.
The older a gray horse is, the lighter its coat will be. Lay people often use “white” and “gray” interchangeably when referring to this color. White horses, however, have pink skin from birth, while gray horses always have dark skin.
Variations of gray include dapple gray, fleabitten gray, rose gray and iron gray. A few horse breeds, such as the Camargue or Shagya Arabian, always have gray coat colors.
Dapple gray horses have dark circles called dapples interspersed on their coat. This pattern also occurs on other coat colors and is usually a sign of good care. However, the tendency for dappling can also be genetic.
Since dappling gives an attractive look to horses, they are always in high demand in the equestrian world. As any other gray horse, dapple grays will also turn lighter with age, often to the point of being completely white.
Dun is the most ancient of all horse colors. Horse breeds with primitive origins such as the Fjord or Przewalski’s horse are typically this color.
The coats of dun horses are the color of the sand, while the points (mane, tail, and lower legs) are black. This coat color also features primitive markings, such as a dorsal stripe and often zebra striping on the withers and upper legs.
Grulla is a shade of dun also known as gray dun or mouse gray. Just like the original dun, horses with this coat color also have primitive markings.
Genetically, a grulla horse is created by the dun gene acting on a black base color. Hence why the coat of grulla horses is a shade of faded black. The rare Sorraia horses of Portugal are almost always grulla in color.
Buckskin horses have fabulous cream or golden coats, paired with black points. This coat color is easy to confuse with the common dun, although there is one key difference. Buckskin horses lack primitive markings, while duns always have them.
Buckskin coat color occurs across many horse breeds and is often prone to dabbling. A version of the color is the sooty buckskin, caused by a genetic modifier that darkens the coat with age.
Palomino is undoubtedly one of the most eye-catching coat colors in the horse world. Boasting a golden or cream coat with flaxen manes and tails, palominos are known to be the color “of twenty-two carat gold”.
It is no surprise that palomino horses stand out wherever they go. They were a popular choice in movies and television in the 1940s and ’50s. While there isn’t a horse breed that is always palomino, the color occurs frequently in the Quarter Horse, Akhal-Teke, and Tennessee Walking Horse breeds.
When a chestnut horse has two copies of the creme gene, a cremello horse is born. As the name suggests, cremello horses are the color of light cream. They also often have pale blue eyes.
Cremellos are sometimes confused with white or albino colors, although they are genetically different. This coat color is common in the Akhal-Teke breed.
Although very similar to cremellos, perlino horses have a bay base color diluted by two cream genes. This results in a tan or light golden coat with manes and tails the color of rust. The horse’s lower legs are also visibly darker than the body coat.
Perlino is a rare and unique horse color, sometimes found in the Akhal-Teke and Andalusian horse breeds. Similar to cremellos, perlino horses always have pink skin.
White is one of the rarest horse colors on the planet. Horses of this color are born white, often with blue eyes, and stay white for their entire lives. Genetically, there are two types of white horses: dominant white and sabino white.
Many people confuse white horses with light grays, cremellos, or albinos. However, white horses are different in that they have pink skin and no pigment cells. Although white is extremely rare in most horse breeds, the Camarillo White Horse breed is always white.
Also read our article 9 Common White Horse Breeds.
Horse Coat Patterns
In horses, coat patterns are composed of white hairs that cover part of the horse’s original color. Some white patterns will also have pink skin underneath, while others simply blend in with the horse’s base color.
Roan is a color pattern that results in white hairs being mixed with the horse’s original color. Blue roans are essentially black horses with roaning across their bodies. While they often resemble dark gray horses, unlike grays, the color of roan horses doesn’t change with age.
Blue roans also differ from grays in that they have no white hairs on the head. This coat color is typical in the Nokota Horse, a feral horse breed of North America.
Similar to blue roans, bay roans have a roaning pattern on top of a bay base color. Bay roans retain their black points, while their body coat will be lighter due to the presence of white hairs. The color is quite common in the Ardennes horse breed and also the Mustang.
Roans are often confused with the sabino color pattern, which is a rare pinto coloration. However, while white hairs on roans are relatively coherent, sabinos display irregular patches of roaning throughout their bodies.
Red roans have a chestnut base color with roaning affecting most of the body. Sometimes called strawberry roan, they are fairly common in the Mustang horse breed.
Tobiano is a type of pinto coloration alongside over, tovero, and sabino. Pinto horses have large white patches overlaid on their original coat color. “Pinto” and “Paint” are sometimes used interchangeably, however, the latter is the name of a horse breed in the United States.
The white patches of tobiano horses usually extend in a vertical manner across the back. They also have partially or fully white legs and a dark head, often featuring white markings.
In many ways, the overo is the opposite of the tobiano spotting pattern. Overos have irregular white markings with a horizontal orientation that rarely crosses the back. They often have a white head with blue eyes and dark legs.
Overo horses are fairly easy to recognize as they have less white than dark colors. Their patches usually have jagged edges, giving them a truly unique look. Variations of the overo color pattern are frame overo and splashed white.
The tovero spotting pattern combines the features of the tobiano and overo colorations. Tovero horses will often have tobiano markings with a white head typical of the overo family.
Out of the four pinto patterns, tobiano is the most common, followed by overo, tovero, and sabino. There are several horse breeds with predominantly pinto markings, such as the Paint, Gypsy Vanner, and Shetland Pony.
As mentioned above, sabino is a type of pinto spotting pattern. Sabino horses typically have white legs, belly spots, patches of roaning, and white markings extending beyond the face.
Sabinos are easy to confuse with roans or rabicanos, although most will have distinguishing white patches. While other pinto patterns are most common in colored horse breeds, sabinos occur more widely.
This striking spotting pattern is common in the Appaloosa, Knabstrupper, and Noriker horse breeds. It is the result of the leopard gene that also causes striped hooves, mottled skin, and a visible white sclera in the eyes.
Leopard horses have dark spots of different sizes across a white body. Variations of the leopard pattern include blanket, snowflake, varnish roan, and frost.
Blanket is a type of leopard spotting pattern that typically extends from the tail to the withers. It can appear on top of any coat color. Hence why the horse’s original color will often come through the spots inside the blanket.
While leopard markings are present in multiple breeds, blanket coats are limited to the Appaloosa horse breed.
Also read: 10 Beautiful Horse Breeds With Spotted Coats
To learn more about horse colors and how they came to be, check out this educational video below:
Monday 5th of September 2022
Hey!!!! This article is great but isn't a red roan actually a strawberry roan???? Sorry I come from England and you might call it something else.
Wednesday 20th of July 2022
Hello, I love this article, but you can't get white horses they are classified as gray
Saturday 20th of August 2022
Thank you for your comment. The fact is, both gray and white horses do exist, and there is a distinct difference. Gray horses are born dark and go lighter with age, but always retain their dark skin. Whereas, white horses are born with a pure white coat and pink skin, hence why they are a different coat color. Hope this helps 🙂
Tuesday 15th of March 2022
Nice article, though I have spotted some incorrect information:
- The chocolate color with light manes and tail in Rocky Mountain Horses is usually caused by the silver gene on a black coat. They're not flaxen chestnut.
- The horse that's depicted as cremello is not cremello but perlino. You can tell by the manes: cremello horses have white manes whereas the horse in the picture has reddish manes. Also, Cream Drafts are gold champagne, never cremello.
- While Welsh pony's & Cobs can display excessive white markings (usually caused by the W20 allele) the studbook doesn't allow any pinto pattern.
Sunday 20th of March 2022
Thank you for your constructive comment, we will update the article as per your suggestions :))