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Horse coat colors

Published: 2017-06-05 15:54:20 Categories: Guides Rss feed

Equine Coat colours

Coat colours – do you know them all?

Everybody, who begins their journey with horse riding, wants to know as much about horses as possible, before exploring the ride itself. One of the first topics you will touch upon is equine coat colours. When you know at least the basic ones, you will proudly educate your friends that a horse is "sable," not "black," and the one they call "brown" is in fact "dun."

However, things get messy when it turns out that there are many more coat colours than just the basic ones...

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Why are there so many coat colours?

Wild horses were probably of homogenous coats, which matched the place they lived in and the season. Such abundance of coat colours is a result of mutations perpetuated by domestication of horses, changing their environmental circumstances and artificial selection in breeding.

Equine coat color chart



It turns out that the coat and tail colour are genetically predisposed. Coats such as: dun, sable, grey, spotted, palomino or bay are conditioned by the combination of five genes. Other combinations decide whether the horse will be of piebald or white coat.

The coat colour depends on how much pigment a horse has in his skin. White coat is an effect of lack of pigment. In fact, the "grey" coat is not really a type of coat colour, but a fault in colouration. The conditioning Grey gene causes gradual loss of the ability to produce pigment, which results in greying, which peaks when the horse is ca.10 years old. Foals are born having a coat colour (chestnut, black, bay), and they become lighter each year along with the annual change of coat. What is important, this phenomena does not occur at horses of different coat colours.

When speaking about light coats - on legs (the so-called socks, heels etc.) or head - they remain the say throughout their whole lives. Dark coats are fairly rare, virtually only in dun horses.

You can observe a dark line along the spine (e.g. Konik), it is a remain of the primal coat colour, characteristic for the wild ancestors of horses.

Coat colours division

According to experts, the coats can be divided into:

  • basic (grey, black, bay, and chestnut);
  • highlighted (dark bay, palomino, buckskin, perlino, cremello and smoky cream, dun, champagne, silver);
  • patterns of white coat (roan, piebald, spotted).

1. Basic coats

Chestnut: brown-yellow or reddish colour, mane and tail in the same shade or lighter (never black!), limbs without black-and-tan.

Chestnut horse

chestnut coat, source:

Various shades:

  • light chestnut – reddish gold coat colour, mane and tail are lighter, sometimes almost white, usually with highlighted lower legs;
  • Light chestnut horse

    light chestnut, source:

  • liver chestnut – dark reddish coat in various shades up to almost chocolate one, mane and tail are in the same colour;
    Liver chestnut horse

    liver chestnut, source:

  • sorrel – dark chestnut coat, mane and tail are lighter;
    Sorrel - dark chestnut coated horse

    sorrel chestnut, source:

Bay coat: brown coat of various shades - from light to brown and almost black, mane, tail and lower legs - black.

  • blood bay, is an exception, because in this type of coat, horses have lower legs in the same colour as their body - bright red
  • Blood bay coat horseblood bay, source:

  • dark bay– dark brown coat colour;
    Dark bay horse

    dark bay, source:

  • black bay – black coat, only on the nostrils, flanks, groins and on the inner side of the upper legs the coat is dark brown or yellowish (markings);

    Black bay horse

    black bay

Black coat: completely black body, tail and mane;

Black coated horse

black coat, source:

2. Brightened coats

formed by the Cream gene

Palomino coat: chestnut coat highlighted with Cream gene, coat is light yellow, sometimes appearing orange, tail and mane are lighter, even white, hooves are usually light, skin and eyes are highlighted, such horses sometimes have the so-called fish eyes

Palomino coated horse

palomino coat, source:

Cremello: chestnut doubly brightened with the Cream gene, almost complete lack of pigment in the skin (pink skin), eyes with blue iris, yellow hooves and cream, almost white coat and mane.

Cremello coate horse

cremello coat, source:

Buckskin: bay brightened with the Cream gene, coat on the head and body is light brown, mane and tail are black or dark brown, coats vary from very light, almost cream to dark brown, eyes and skin are brightened. This coat is easy to mistake with dun, however Smokey Cream horses usually do not have streaks.
Buckskin coated horse

buckskin, source:

Perlino: bay coat doubly brightened, cream coat, mane, tail and markings slightly darker, pink skin, blue eyes.
Perlino coat horse

perlino coat, source:

Smoky black: black coat brightened with the Cream gene, it is difficult to differentiate from the black, but is characterised with chocolate shade of the coar and reddish mane, with brightened skin and eyes.

Smoky cream: black coat doubly brightened, coat is grey-cream, pink skin, blue eyes.
Smoky cream horse

smoky cream, source:

formed with the Dun gene;

Dun – it is based on the bay coat, dun horses have yellow and flaxen or bright brown coat, their manes and tails are black, the heads are usually darker than the rest of their bodies, limbs are darkened - with the majority of black hairs, they usually have a line on the spine (like the primitive horses had) in dark brown colour and horizontal streaks on the forearms and gaskins, their manes and tails are usually two-coloured;

  • buckskin dun/yellow dun – bright yellow coat, usually with shine;
  • bay dun – with black hairs on the back, loins, croup and on the sides

Bay dun horse

dun coat, source:

Red dun: is forms on the basis of chestnut coat, the hair is like in the dun coat, but without the black pigment, mixed hair, usually bright with beige-red neck, head and legs are red, just as the streaks which is currently visible;
Red dun horse

Mouse-grey: it is formed on the basis of black coat, neck is grey-ashen, head and legs are darker, these horses have a dark line along the spine and usually horizontal streaks on the limbs, they have two-coloured tail and mane with the majority of black hairs;

  • light grey– bright ashen coat;
  • steelgrey – dark grey coat

Steelgray horse

mouse-grey coat, source:

Rare coat, formed with the Silver gene, they are usually observed at Shetland ponies. The coat may have various shades depending on what was the basic colour.

Silver dapple: coat brightened to chocolate, mane and tail white or white-brown, these horses usually have dapples that disappear with age

Silver dapple horse

silver dapple, source:

Silver dapple bay: brown coat remains the same, marking on the legs are brightened to chocolate, tail and mane are white or white-brown;
Silver dapple bay horse

silver dapple bay, source:


Just as rare as silver coats. Horses brightened with the Champagne gene have grey-pink skin with dark spots, their eyes change with time - foals have blue eyes, then they turn green to become brown (amber) when they are adult.

Gold champagne: golden coat, mane and tail lighter or in the same colour

Gold champagne horse

gold champagne, source:

Classic champagne: coat of light brown-grey shade, tail and mane are slightly more reddish;
Classic champagne horse

classic champagne, source:

Amber champagne: golden-brown coar, mane, tail and limbs are darker;

3. Patterns of white coats:

They belong to a different type of coat, because they can appear on the basis on any of the above mentioned coat colours.

Roan coat – there are more or less regularly placed white hairs on the basic coat, however the head, neck, lower legs, mane and tail have the majority of the basic coat hairs. Foals are born with dark coat colours, they turn roan while they change their coat for the first time (moult) and stay roan for the rest of their lives.

  • bay roan– on the basis of bay coat
  • Bay roan horsebay roan, source:
  • blue roan – on the basis of black coat;
  • red roan – on the basis of chestnut coat;

    Grey coat – foals are born with dark coloured coats, then they start greying from the head to the croup, but dark hairs remain in their croups, manes, tails and lower legs. You can observe the following variation of grey coat colours:

  • light grey – white with darker croup and legs;

  • Light grey horse

    light grey, source:

  • dark grey – dun shade of coat - dark grey;

  • dapple grey – with round dark spots on the body, especially on the croup, in the size of small apples;

  • Dapple grey horse

    dapple grey, source:

  • flea-bitten grey – usually appears when the horse is old, after he went completely grey, it has small dark brown spots that are evenly placed on the surface of the horse's white coat;
    Flea-bittien grey horse

    flea-bitten grey, source:

  • honey grey – greying from chestnut, reddish-white coat;

  • rose grey – greying from bay, dark brown-white coat;Rose grey horse

  • spotted – white coat covered with small reddish or black spots;

Pinto coats – the horse can have big non-regular spots on the whole body, the spots can be white on pink skin alternatively with spots of different colours on dark skin - depending on the coat colour we differentiate coats based on bay, chestnut etc. Tails and mains are white or two-coloured.

A different way of inheriting this coat type causes the appearance of certain kinds of pinto coats:

Tobiano coat

Tobiano coat has in fact two patterns – tobiano and calico tobiano:

  • tobiano pattern: on a white, non-pigmented coat the horse has spots that seem to be "flowing down" from him, they have smooth edges. White spots can go over the spine and there are various types of spots on the legs. Mane depends on how the spots are formed - in places with white spots, hair is white. Tail is either one- or two-coloured.
  • Tobiano patterned horse

    tobiano coat, source:

  • calico tobiano pattern: it occurs at horses singly brightened with the Cream gene, apart from the white spots there are also spots "not included" by brightening, namely e.g. bay ones.

  • Calico Tobiano patterned horse

    calico tobiano, source:

Overo coat

  • frame overo pattern: coloured jagged spots that seem to form a "frame" around white spots of also jagged edges, that do not go over the spine. Their legs are usually coloured, many variations on the head.
  • Frame over pattern horse

    frame overo, source:

  • sabino pattern: spots are on the legs, head and belly, their edges are jagged, usually their white hairs are mixed with coloured ones, which resembles roan coat.

  • Sabino pattern horse

    sabino coat, source:

  • splash white pattern: horses of this coat look like they have walked into white paint - their patches stretch from legs, through belly to the head, sometimes they can appear on almost whole body of the horse, however unlike the sabino horses, they have smooth edges. These horses usually have blue eyes.

  • Splash white horse

    splash white, source:

White coat – as we already mentioned, white horses have no pigmnet in their skin, hooves and coat. Their eyes are usually brown, sometimes blue. White coat is usually mistaken with grey one.
White coat horse

white coat, source:

Spotted coat – the most diverse pattern of all the white coats

  • leopard pattern: spotted of the basic coat are scattered on white coat, they appear on the whole body or most of it, the coat around head, neck, sides, belly and groins can be in the basic coat colour or have some white hairs;
  • Leopard pattern horse

    leopard, source:

  • fewspot: they have only few spots, and characteristic for them are triangle-shaped spots right above hooves;

  • Fewspot horse

    fewspot coat, source:

  • speckled pattern: similar to leopard - basic coat colour spots on white coat, but they are smaller;

  • snowflake pattern: horse of basic coat is covered with small white spots of 1-3 cm diameters (the opposite of speckled pattern);

  • varnish pattern: it looks a bit like leopard, but it has not spotted spots, it applies to the same body areas as leopard, but these areas are of basic coat colour or mixed, the so-called varnish dark spots can appear;

  • frosted pattern: mixture of coloured and white hair, especially on the croup and loins, as the name suggests it resembles a frosting on a horse;

  • rug pattern - white patch covering mostly the croup and point of hips, but it can reach as far as to the withers;

  • Rug patterned horse

    rug coat, source:

Race and coat

Horses are characterised by wide range of coat colour, which in most cases are not a race feature. However, there are certain exceptions where the race is tightly interrelated with a particular coat colour, e.g. haflinger (chestnut coat with pale male and tail), appaloosa (spotted coat), Konik (mouse-grey coat), palomino, Fjord horse (dun coat), Friesian horse (black and chestnut coat [however they are not allowed in breeding], the only possible variety is a small star on a gelding's head), albino (white coat). Most noble races of warm-blooded horses (e.g. Holsteiner, Arab, folblut, trakehner) occur only in basic coats - bay, black, chestnut and grey.


Correct identification of coat more often than not is very problematic. In such situation it is worth to take a look at the ancestors' or offspring's coats. Both the horse's coat and its varieties remain a crucial element of horses' characteristics - it is mentioned in all the horse's documents (e.g. passport), because it helps in identifying them.

On the basis of:

Martin Haller, Rasy koni, Józef Kulisiewicz, Jacek Łojek (tłum.), Multico Oficyna Wydawnicza, Warszawa 2002

Wacław Próchniewicz, Akademia jeździecka cz. 1, Akademia Jeździecka s.c., Warszawa 2007

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