Seeing Silver: The Rare Silver Gene

Seeing Silver: The Rare Silver Gene

Silver is rare in most breeds, including the American Quarter Horse. A gene that dilutes black horse hair, silver also tends to produce dapples.

silver dilution

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Lesli Kathman

If you ask the average person about the color of a horse, you will most likely get a very literal answer. To them, a chestnut horse might be brown, a grulla might be gray and a light gray horse might be white. As horse people, we have our own language that describes horse colors more precisely. Brown refers to a very specific horse color, and there are more terms – sorrel, chestnut, liver, bay, dun – that communicate just what kind of horse we are describing.

Scientific discoveries have begun to show that horses have a wider variety of colors than previously realized. Our vocabulary has expanded to include words like champagne, pearl and rabicano. For most horsemen, these colors are not as familiar as the more common bays, chestnuts, palominos and duns. One reason these colors are not as well-known is that they are often mistaken for more familiar colors. There are differences, though, and developing your eye for them can help you recognize them when you see them. Silver is commonly mistaken for a different color, when in actuality, it is a dilution.

The Silver Dilution

Genes that lighten the color of the hair are called dilutions. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the cream dilution, which produces palominos and buckskins. Cream dilutes red hair to a gold or yellow color. It does not change black hair, which is why buckskins have golden bodies but still have black points (mane, tail, legs). Silver is a gene that does the opposite. It dilutes black, but does not change the red hair. Where cream turns red hair yellow, silver turns black hair to a color somewhere between pale taupe and deep chocolate black. Silver also turns black hair in the mane and tail flaxen.

Silver is rare in most breeds, including the American Quarter Horse. Because black horses are also uncommon, the most common type of silver is bay silver.

Black Silver

A black horse with the silver dilution appears taupe or chocolate with a flaxen mane and tail. These are called “black silvers.” Because the lighter shades of black silver are often dappled, one of the popular names for the color is “silver dapple.”

Black silvers can be mistaken for palomino, particularly the darker, sooty shade sometimes called chocolate palomino. Both black silver and chocolate palomino have flaxen manes and tails, often mixed with gray or black hairs, and both colors tend to be dappled. The difference between the two is the tone. Underneath the dark hairs, a chocolate palomino still has a red coat that has been diluted to yellow. The effect is a very warm, golden tone.

A black silver has a black coat that has been diluted to a much cooler shade of taupe. As the name might suggest, the diluted black hair has a silvery rather than a golden cast. Although it is a dilution, silver tends to produce deep, rich colors with pale manes and tails. It is a striking combination that many find attractive. So look closely the next time you see a bay horse with a flaxen mane, or a chocolate horse with a white mane and tail. It just might be a rare silver.

Red, Bay and Brown Silver

Adding the silver dilution to a bay horse, which has a red body and black points, results in a horse that has chocolate-black legs, a flaxen mane and tail, and an unchanged red body. These are called “red silvers” or “bay silvers.”

Chestnut horses do not show the silver gene when they have it, because they do not have black hair to dilute. Sometimes they are called silver carriers, because they can produce black and bay silvers, but they do not look any different from an ordinary chestnut horse.

When silver occurs on a clear red bay, the result looks like a combination of bay and chestnut. These horses are often described as chestnut with black legs, or bay with a flaxen mane and tail. Close examination shows that the legs are not really black. The color is closer to chocolate, with the area near the hoof noticeably paler than the rest of the leg. The mane, too, is darker at the roots than might be expected of a flaxen chestnut.

The very darkest bay silvers, called brown silvers, are sometimes mistaken for liver chestnuts. Because the horse is already dark, there is less contrast between the chocolate legs and the red body. Usually the placement of darkest hair on the legs, particularly on the backs of the hocks, is a good sign that it is really a bay horse with its points diluted by silver, but genetic color testing is the only way to be sure.

Identifying the Silver Dilution

These three legs show how the tone varies between the three similar colors. The horse on the left has the yellow tones of a sooty palomino. The horse in the middle has the cool silver tones of a bay silver. And the last horse has the rich red tones of a liver chestnut.

silver dilution horse legs

These images below show the difference in tone between palominos and black silvers. The top right image is a clear palomino. Below is a sooty palomino, which, while darker than the first still has yellow undertones. The last image is the shade of black silver often called silver dapple. It has a more silvery, cool tone than the two palominos.

silver dilution compared to palomino horses