Horse-Breeding Basics: Quarter Horse Color

Horse-Breeding Basics: Quarter Horse Color

Know the basics of horse color genetics so you can easily determine your newborn foal’s color.

Two horses stand in a green pasture and look toward the camera.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal

Legend says that a red horse is fiery, a dun is tough and a white-legged horse is bad-footed. However, the wisest horsemen also say there is no such thing as a good horse that’s a bad color.

There are 17 recognized American Quarter Horse colors: chestnut, sorrel, black, brown, gray, bay, palomino, buckskin, cremello, perlino, white, dun, red dun, grullo, red roan, bay roan and blue roan. Two additional colors are not listed on the AQHA registration application, as they need color expert review. These colors are smoky black and smoky cream. All of them are derivatives of two base colors.

Simply put, any color of horse you can think of is either black-based or red-based. All other colors – bay, gray or roan, etc. – are just modifications of these two basic colors. Genetics 
is a complicated subject. So, let’s start with the basics.

Base Horse Colors

All horse colors are caused by one or both of two pigments. One is responsible for black, and the other for red.

  • White hair results from an absence of pigment.
  • A horse with pink skin lacks pigment and gets the pink color from blood vessels under the surface of the skin.
  • The exception is perlinos and cremellos, which have pigment, but it’s diluted.

The first rule in identifying a horse’s color is to ignore the white markings. They need to be separated from the base color, like icing on a cake. First identify what type of cake you have, and then consider the icing. Of the two base colors, black is a dominant color and red is recessive.

  • This means that a black horse will appear black whether it has two copies of the black gene (homozygous) or one black and one red gene (heterozygous).
  • A horse will only appear red if it has no copy of the black gene.

A black-based horse is any animal that exhibits black on the points (ears, mane, tail and legs), or is solid black. A red horse won’t have any black on the points, even if the mane and tail appear dark or black.

Black-Based Horse Colors

Black-based colors are:

  • Black
  • Bay
  • Buckskin
  • Grullo
  • Dun
  • Blue roan
  • Bay roan
  • Perlino
  • Brown

Some black horses can become sun-faded and appear to have a brown tint to their coat, but genetically are black. It can be hard to differentiate between brown and black horses. Brown horses can appear so dark as to be nearly black but are given away by brown or tan hairs, usually around the muzzle and groin area of the horse.

Red-Based Horse Colors

The red-based colors are: 

  • Sorrel
  • Chestnut
  • Palomino
  • Cremello
  • Red roan
  • Red dun

Genetically the same color, sorrel and chestnut are used to define different shades of the recessive red gene. A chestnut horse’s coat has a brown tint, with the most extreme color being an almost dark brown “liver” color. Sorrels, on the other hand, appear more red or copper colored. This color can have variations, such as a flaxen mane (sometimes confused with palomino) or have a dark mane and tail, which is caused by a higher concentration of pigment.

Quarter Horse Colors and Markings Chart
Download your free copy of the Quarter Horse Color and Markings Chart.


Important Notes About Horse Color

  • The genetics of coat colors are complicated, and the science of color is an ongoing process. Researchers do not know everything yet.

  • All white markings are superimposed over a base body color. This includes gray horses. Thus, when discussing color inheritance, the base color must be considered and understood. To learn more about white markings, use the AQHA Color and Markings Chart.

  • Foals are rarely born the color or shade they will appear in adulthood. If there is any uncertainty, it is usually best to wait until the foal has shed the foal coat before identifying the color. Papers can be sent to AQHA with the color field left blank. When submitting applications with a blank color field, photos must also be submitted for the AQHA color experts to review. Additionally, if you need to correct a color at a later date, you can do so for free until the foal is 12 months of age or 6 months after the registration certificate issue date. Learn more about the free correction process.

Ready to to learn more about horse color? Download your copy of the American Quarter Horse Coat Color Genetics e-book, free to AQHA members.