angle-left Learn how Horses get Their Colors

Learn how Horses get Their Colors

Break down the genetic basics of American Quarter Horse coat colors.
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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. All of these horse colors 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, palomino, roan, etc.  – are just modifications of these two basics.

The Base-ics

  • All horse colors are caused by two pigments. One is responsible for black, and the other for the reds, ranging from yellow to dark 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. 
  • Ignore the white markings – this is the first rule in identifying a horse's color. They are different than base colors, like icing on a cake.

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 two copies of the red gene. 

  • A black-based horse is any animal that exhibits black on the points (ears, mane, tail and legs). Black-based colors are black, bay, buckskin, grulla, dun, blue and bay roan, perlino and 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. 
  • A red horse won't have any black on the points, even if the mane and tail appear dark or black. Sorrel and chestnut are red, as are palomino, cremello, red roan and red dun.
  • 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. 
  • Sorrel and chestnut, genetically the same color, 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 a dark mane and tail, which is caused by a higher concentration of pigment.