The Roan Quarter Horse Color

The Roan Quarter Horse Color

Flashy and popular, roans come in every shade from red to blue to bay.

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Roans: You can spot one from a mile away. Classically a stunning silver color with a dark head and legs, the roan is a popular mount.

What color is a roan horse? 

The roan gene produces a color pattern of white over any base color, although it is easiest to see on darker colors due to the contrast. Classic or true roan appears as white hairs intermixed with colored hairs (the base coat) across the horse’s body, leaving only the head and legs untouched and giving the body a silvery appearance. Sometimes, a roan will have a concentration of white hairs above the eyes, making the horse appear to have white eyebrows. On occasion, the roaning can appear only over the croup and hip area (this is referred to as “minimal expression”).

  • A sorrel or chestnut horse with the roan gene = a red roan

  • A black horse with roaning = a blue roan

  • A bay with roaning = a bay roan

  • All other colors can also carry the roan gene, although light colors like palomino make the roaning difficult to see.

For registration purposes, AQHA recognizes these horses as their base color and notes that they carry the roan gene. Roan is a dominant gene, so at least one of the parents must be a roan for the trait to be passed on. A horse can carry several modifiers. For example, a horse can have both the dun and roan genes. 

Roan should not be confused with rabicano or sabino markings, which are caused by different genes. Roan typically envelops the horse’s whole body, leaving only the head and legs unaffected.

In addition, areas of a roan’s hair that are scraped away will grow back as the horse’s base color; in the other patterns, generally speaking, the hair will grow back white.

The winter coat is different in that the base coat color will grow longer, but not the roan hair, while a rabicano will appear the same in the summer and winter.

Foals in the early stages of going gray will usually have gray hairs immediately surrounding the eyes and muzzle and on the backs of the ears, as well as on the body.

It is possible for a roan horse to also be gray if he has gray and roan parents. He will begin life as a roan and then gray out as he ages.

Red Roan

The color genetics of a red roan are identical to sorrel and chestnut. The only exception is the expression of the roan gene which is inherited from at least one parent. Red roans have a uniform mixture of red and white hairs on their body and a red head and legs. They may have a red or flaxen main and tail.

Blue Roan

The roan gene affecting a black horse can produce a blue roan if at least one parent carries the roan gene. The color genetics of blue roan are identical to that of black and, to some extent, brown. Some blue roans may carry the cream dilution gene and will have the color genetics similar to buckskins. Blue roans have a uniform mixture of black and white hairs and are darker on head and legs. They can have a few red hairs in the mixture.

Bay Roan

Like the red roan, a bay roan is the roan gene affecting a bay horse. Other than this, the color genetics of bay roan are identical to that of a bay. The roan gene must be inherited from at least one parent known to carry the roan gene, and the black points must be inherited from at least one parent that is black or has black points. Bay roans have a uniform mixture of white and red hairs on a large portion of the body and a darker head. They will have black lower legs and a black main and tail.


Commonly called “ticking,” “coon tail” or “skunk tail,” and appearing as white flecking, rabicano is commonly mistaken for a roan coloration, but it is a marking caused by a different gene. Rabicano is a specific set of white markings that usually affect the base of the tail, flank and belly of a horse. In its most minimal form, it will show only white frosting at the base of the tail, often called a coon or skunk tail because of the striped appearance. A medium expression will have the white tail base, plus white hairs interspersed over the horse’s flanks, creating a roan appearance. In its most extreme manifestation, a rabicano can appear almost like a true roan. It will carry the coon tail and have roaning on the body, concentrated on the flanks and under the elbows, and also have vertical strips of white on the barrel called rib barring.

Rabicano can be confused with another white pattern called sabino. Sabino is another gene that causes a roan effect over the flanks and body. The easiest way to tell the difference is to remember that rabicano always affects the base of the tail, while sabino does not. Sabino does, however, almost always involve facial white with a spot of white on the chin and white socks on the legs, in addition to the body roaning. It is possible for the horse to carry multiple genes, for example, to be both rabicano and sabino. Rabicano is not an official AQHA color, but a marking that can be noted on a horse’s registration certificate. 

Roan Color Facts

  • A true roan is born solid. When he sheds his first foal coat, it will show the roan coloring. It does not change or lighten as he ages.

  • When injured, a roan’s scars will heal in his base color. For example, a red roan’s scar will grow in sorrel (red) hair. An injured sorrel horse, on the other hand, would most likely grow in white hair.

  • Despite popular myth that says homozygous roans are born dead, research has proven the existence of such horses.

  • In 2017, 12 percent of the horses registered with AQHA were roans.

Famous Roan American Quarter Horses

Popular lines of roan horses include the 1935 stallion Red Man (a son of Joe Hancock) and 1957 stallion Blue Valentine, who are famous for their mastery of the rodeo pen.

Others are the 1984 red roan stallion Zippos Mr Good Bar, who sired the 2000 red roan mare Vital Signs Are Good and stamped the distinctive color on many entries in the western pleasure ring.

Another is the 1980 blue roan mare Royal Blue Boon whose progeny revolutionized the cutting world.

Zippos Mr Good Bar

Vital Signs Are Good

(Credit: courtesy of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum)

To learn more about the many coat color possibilities and the genetics behind them, read our e-book American Quarter Horse Coat Color Genetics.