Horse Coat Colors, Patterns and Markings: The Ultimate Guide

Horses are breathtaking to watch, aren’t they? The way they move is like poetry in motion. Any new rider will tell you how fascinated they are about the animals. But, one thing that confuses most newbies are the horse coat colors.

How to tell horse coat patterns apart and what to call one shade or the other is confusing for beginners. But that’s where we can help you out! In this guide, we’re going to cover all there is to know about coats, patterns, and even horse coat markings.

By the time we’re done, you’ll be able to impress all your friends with your new-found knowledge about horse genetics and why they look the way they do. So without further ado, let’s get started!

Horse Coat Colors

If you’ve ever glanced at a horse color chart and felt intimidated, don’t worry. Trying to understand why modern horses look the way they do is challenging. That’s why we’re starting our guide with five basic horse colors.

1. Bay

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The term bay refers to a horse that has a reddish-brown hue, along with a black tail, mane, and lower legs. Bays also have black ear tips, and these black areas on the horse are called points. Their eyes are also generally brown.

If we talk about genetics, the bay horse color is the result of a black base color along with the agouti gene. The agouti is a type of modifier gene that restricts black pigment to a horse’s lower legs, mane, and tail.

Bays are brown at birth with a black mane and tail, but their legs are somewhat greyish brown. The legs change color when the foal reaches four to six months of age.  By the time a bay is four years of age, it will have developed its points. Also, you should know that bay is the most common color in horses.

2. Black

black horse near mountain at daytime

From literary heroes like Black Stallion to the Black Beauty, black coat horses occupy a special place in our hearts. They’re beautiful and majestic in their appearance, and a pure black horse is quite uncommon.

Only a horse that is ebony from head to toe, along with a black tail and mane is deemed truly black. Also, as the name of the horse suggests, black horses can’t have any brown hair. Though, white markings on the legs and face are allowed.

Some blacks can fade as they grow, however, and manifest a reddish tinge to the coat, tail, or mane. There is no known reason why this fading can occur. The good news is that sometimes this fading can be converted by a simple change in diet.

3. Brown

brown horse on green grass field during daytime

Brown horses tend to have black lower legs and mane, a dark brown coat, and a lighter brown muzzle. However, the color of a brown horse can vary depending on the season, and during winters they’re known to appear darker. And, you can call brown horses the best impersonators of the horse kingdom.

They’re very similar to some bays in their coloration. Though, they can be easily distinguished because the area around their flanks and eyes is mostly a lighter shade of brown. Sometimes, a very dark brown horse can be mistaken for a black with a light muzzle.

Brown foals are often born with countershading, which means they have dorsal stripes or/and shoulder bars. Their color results from the black base color combined with a gene similar to the agouti gene.

4. Chestnut

brown horse standing on brown wooden fence during daytime

The appearance of chestnuts is a little tricky to pin down. That’s because some chestnuts can be almost pale with a light tail and mane, while others have such a deep maroon color that they’re mistaken for blacks.

Typically, however, the chestnut horse color includes brown hair with golden brown to reddish-brown points. Thankfully, the majority of chestnut horses will be right in the middle of the color spectrum and thus, are easy to recognize.

Here’s another pointer to help you tell a chestnut from any other type of horse – a chestnut horse can have a mane or tail that’s darker than their coat, but they will never have black legs, or a black tail or mane.

5. White

white horse running on grass field

There are many types of horses with unique and beautiful coats, but a true white is very rare. As a matter of fact, the majority of white horses tend to be grays with a white hair coat.

A pure white horse will have snow-white hair along with pink skin and brown eyes (though some can have blue eyes). These horses are white at birth and remain so for the rest of their lives.

There’s a misconception that whites are albinos, but you should know that there aren’t any albinos in the horse world. This is because the genetic condition that causes albinism does not exist or occur in horses.

Horse Coat Patterns

Apart from learning how to distinguish between horse breeds and colors, it’s also important to have a sound knowledge of patterns. Here are some of the most common patterns all horse-enthusiasts should know about:

1. Roan

Horse, Animal, Mammal, Equine, Roan, Grazing, Garden

Patterns can help accentuate the personalities of horses, and that’s one of the reasons why breeders take a keen interest in them.

The Roan coat color pattern includes a balanced mixture of colored and unpigmented (white) hairs on the body. Most roans will also have a solid-colored head and points (lower legs, mane, and tail). The body of roans will have white hairs evenly combined with any other color (such as chestnut or black). But, the legs, tail, mane, and head have fewer white hairs or none at all. This pattern is found in many horse breeds.

Another fascinating fact is that a roan pattern is present from birth, even though it’s a bit difficult to discern until the coat sheds out. The pattern can change according to the season, but true roans don’t fade or lighten as they grow older. Some of the most common types of roans are blue roans, red roans, and bay roans.

2. Appaloosa

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Previously, the term Appaloosa was used to describe a spotted horse or pony. Nevertheless, Appaloosa is neither a pattern nor a coat color. In truth, the term stands for a breed of horse that does have a spotted coat and is related to mustangs.

Nowadays, horses with a spotted pattern are correctly referred to as spotted, and the term appaloosa applies to the particular breed. The coat of an Appaloosa is the blend of a base color with a superimposed spotted pattern. Some of the most popular base colors in Appaloosas include palomino, bay, chestnut, black, and a variety of others. And, interestingly enough, this breed is known to have a number of pattern variations.

Predicting an Appaloosa’s color at birth is not easy because they’re not often born with the characteristic leopard spots. Besides that, patterns can also change as the horse ages.

3. Paint/Pinto

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A pinto horse is classified as a color breed, as opposed to other breeds that are known by genetic ancestry. The word ‘pinto’ means spotted or dappled in Spanish, and this is likely why people can get a little confused between the leopard spotting patterns and pinto patterns. However, pinto patterns are genetically and visually distinct from the leopard patterns.

Ordinarily, a pinto’s coat consists of a pattern of white, along with one other color such as dun, sorrel, brown, or buckskin. The horse markings can be of any shape or size, and they can appear on any part of the horse’s body. Although, you should know that pintos can have a dark-colored head without any markings, and they can also have bi-colored tails. Some of the more specific patterns among pinto horses include overo, sabino, tobiano, and tovero.

4. Tobiano

The Tobiano Gene in Horses | 'Homecoming' Blog
Source: homecomingbook.wordpress.com

Tobiano is probably the most common spotted pattern seen in pinto horses because it’s produced by a dominant gene (where one variant of a gene tends to override a different variant of the same gene). If a horse carries the tobiano gene, it’ll likely be white-haired along with pink-skinned patches on a base color coat.

This type of coloration is present at birth and isn’t prone to change as the horse ages unless the horse also carries the gray gene. One trivia fact about tobianos is that a tobiano horse usually has at least one parent who passes down the gene. White markings seem to descend vertically down the body of a tobiano, and they can have white up to their knees and hocks. Dark color will generally appear on both flanks, and spots can extend down over their neck and chest area.

5. Overo

Lethal white syndrome - Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Overo can actually refer to several types of pinto coloration patterns, and the American Paint Horse Association makes use of the term to classify pinto patterns that aren’t Tobiano. Before you get too stressed out about it, let us simplify matters a bit. Typically, overo is a white coat pattern that may be merged with any other color to create a colored horse.

Horses that have the overo pattern will have white that appears on the belly that rarely extends to the back of the horse (that is between its tail and withers). Overos will also have one colored leg and a head that is either mostly white or has a large amount of white. The white color has splashy type edges and is referred to as calico.

6. Dappled

Horse, Equine, Horse Connemara, Color Gray-Dapple

Dapples are random or irregular spots that appear on a horse’s coat. These spots are of a different shade than the surrounding hair. Unlike the leopard complex spots, these spots can appear or disappear during a horse’s lifetime. It’s unclear why horses can get such spots, but they’re more common in grays. That’s because as the horse grays out, some of the hair in its coat can appear lighter or darker than others around it. Though, that doesn’t mean other horses can’t or don’t get them.

For instance, horses that grow lighter in the summer are more likely to get dapples at that time. Furthermore, dapples can sometimes also appear due to diet and can be fixed with nutrition. Some experts also recommend regular worming to rid the horse of parasites. This is because parasites rob the host of nutrients, and result in the horse not being able to shed properly.

7. Flea-Bitten

Source: horses4homes.net

Flea-bitten is the term used to refer to a horse that changes its base coat completely. Although, sometimes such a horse can also appear or turn white. The supposed flea-bitten pattern or gray comprises a white hair coat that’s overlaid with freckles (or small pigmented patches). Most horses that exhibit this pattern go through a small period where they appear pure white.

Additionally, this pattern can vary. Some horses show very little spots on close examination, while others display many speckles. Some of the more freckled horses can be mistaken for roans or sabinos. A flea-bitten horse is usually bay, black, or chestnut-colored at birth. The foal only grays out as it grows older and white hairs start to appear to replace the base color. White hairs most commonly appear by the flanks, eyes, and the muzzle when the horse turns one year of age.

Horse Coat Markings

Markings on horses are notable white patches that appear on a dark base coat color. Unlike color, these are used to identify a particular steed because they don’t change drastically over time and are ordinarily present at birth.

Also, horse body markings are categorised by where they appear (such as head, legs, or body). Some markings are standard and feature on different horse markings charts, and every beginner horse enthusiast should familiarise themselves with them.

Head

Describing a horse by its color will only get you so far in the horse kingdom. But,horses with facial marks are super-easy to identify and remember. Here are a few of the more popular equine facial marks:

Snip

Let’s kick off the list with the snip. A snip is a small patch of white that runs over a horse’s muzzle, oftentimes to its lips. This type of marking can be large, centered, or uncentered, depending on its size and placement. Snips are commonly near the horse’s nose.

Star

Any horse that has a white spot in the center of its forehead is said to have a star. The marking has little to do with the actual shape of a star, but it’s a great name for a physical characteristic nonetheless. Stars can vary in shape and size. For example, a star may be small, medium, or large.

Bald Faced

A bald-faced mount will have white covering most of the flat surface of its face, including the nose and mouth. The Bald face marking can either extend over the animal’s eye or remain under the eyes.

Blaze

A blaze-face horse will have a white stripe running down its face to the lips, kind of like trailing a blaze of white. That’s how we remember the meaning anyway. A blaze marking can be thick in size or interrupted (with a break in the white line) in appearance.

Flame

A horse with this type of marking will have a few white hairs in the middle of its forehead.

Wall-eyed

In horse-speak, an animal with one blue eye is referred to as wall-eyed. In some cases wall-eyed can also refer to a white mark on the face near the eye area.

Legs

These are some of the leg markings that you could easily find on any horse leg markings chart:

Coronet

A white area just above the hoof, that covers the coronet bend.

Pastern

A mare with this marking will have white that extends from the coronet to the pastern.The white also covers the pastern area.

Half-Pastern

A half pastern marking horse will have white hairs that extend from the coronet but stop where the pastern begins.

Ankle

A white marking that extends from the coronet to and including the fetlock.

Full Stocking

White that starts at the coronet and continues all the way to and including the knees or hocks.

Half Stocking

A white mark that begins at the coronet and continues to the middle of the cannon.

Outside Heel

This marking refers to white hairs placed near the outside heel of the horse.

Inside Heel

Like the name suggests, this white marking is found near the inside heel of the house.

Body

When it comes to horse markings located on the body, these can either be natural or placed there for a particular purpose.

Chestnuts

The term chestnut refers to a rough area near the inside of a horse’s leg. All horses have chestnuts, and all chestnuts have a unique pattern. Some refer to it as – nature’s identification scheme.

Brands

A brand or any other man-made identification mark that works as a brand, fall within this category. Brands are typically found near the shoulder, hip, or cheek area.

Dorsal Stripe

A dorsal stripe is a dark line that runs from right behind the horse’s ears to the dock of the tail.

FAQs About Horse Coat Colors

If you still have lingering doubts or more questions about horse coat colors, don’t forget to give our FAQ section the look over.

What is the most common coat colors in horses?

The most common coat colors in horses are:

  • Black
  • Bay
  • Chestnut
  • Brown
  • Dun
  • Gray
  • White

A horse’s coat is the most distinctive feature. While there are a variety of coats and patterns, there are a few coat colors that are common. It is through these coats and patterns that we can distinguish among the different breeds of horses.

What is the rarest horse coat color?

White is one of the rarest and most distinctive horse coat colors. These horses have white hair with a pink undertone. Sometimes the horse is all white with a few pigments of pink. The beauty of a white horse is that it stays the same color throughout its life span.

Such a horse is born with either brown or blue eyes.

Although there are white horses with grey undertones as well, the pink undertone variety remains the rarest of them all.

How many horse coat colors are there?

Technically speaking, there are four basic horse coat colors and the additional white coat color. So there are 5 main coat colors in horses: Bay, Black, Chestnut, Brown and White. Even though there are various coat colors, they all come under the variations of the main categories.

A few of the variations include

  • Sorrel
  • Palomino
  • Buckskin
  • Gray
  • Roan
  • Dun
  • Pinto

What does a roan horse look like?

A Roan horse is easy to identify. It can be of any base color in general but has a layer of evenly distributed white hair on its body. Also a roan horse’s mane and tail are in solid colors. Roan horses are distinguishable because of their intermingled hair. unlike other horses, their coat color does not lighten with age.

Based on their base color, these horses are identified as either a Bay roan, Brown roan or a Chestnut roan. Roan itself stands for this mixture of white hair with base color and a solid colored mane and tail.

Are blue roan horses rare?

Roan is referred to the coat that has evenly distributed white hair. A blue Roan horse are all those horses that have a dark base to their coat. A dark shade of coat with intermingled white hair gives their coat a bluish shade.

Since this color is very rare, it is very hard to breed. one small alteration and the entire coat can come off differently. As it is so hard to breed these horses, they tend to be very rare.

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