Five Major Variations in Horse Color

Five Major Variations in Horse Color

Can you identify these special differences in a horse color?

A large group of mares and foals stand in a grass pasture with a small pond in the foreground of the photo.

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Horse color, with its endless rainbow of colors, is a fascinating topic to learn about. 

Basic colors can be pretty simple to figure out, but there are major variations that can throw off newcomers. These five tips will help you identify major variations in horse color and make you a pro in no time!


It’s easy to mistake a flaxen horse for a palomino.

The flaxen variation affects only sorrel or chestnut horses and causes only the mane and tail color to be lightened. The body color stays the normal shade for a chestnut or sorrel. The flaxen mane and tail can sometimes make the flaxen horse appear similar to a palomino. However, the palomino color is caused by the presence of a cream gene dilution, and it affects both the body and mane and tail color, diluting the body coat color to a golden shade as well as diluting the mane and tail to white. 

The flaxen trait is thought to be hereditary, but research into it is ongoing, and details are still unknown. 


This variation in horse color appears as white flecking on a horse’s coat and is commonly mistaken for roan. 

Rabicano (rah-bih-KAH-no) is also commonly called “ticking,” “coon tail” or “skunk tail” and is a specific set of white markings that always affects the base of the tail and usually also involves flecked white hair on the flank and belly of a horse. 

In its most minimal form, it will show only a white frosting of hair 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 classic 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.

A rabicano horse is not a roan horse – the genes involved are different. Rabicano is not an official AQHA color, but rather a marking that can be noted on a horse’s registration certificate.


Named for a famous Thoroughbred stallion foaled in 1877 that carried them, Bend-Or (sometimes called Ben d’Or) spots are also called smut or grease spots. 

They are small black spots that show up most commonly on light-colored horses, such as palomino and sorrel. 

It is not known what causes them. They can be noted on a horse’s registration certificate. 


Like Bend-Or spots, Birdcatcher spots are also named for a Thoroughbred stallion that had them. 

These, however, are almost the opposite, as they are small white spots. There might be only small one or there might be a series of dime-sized spots clustered together. 

It is not known what causes these, either. They can be noted on a horse’s registration certificate. 


The only pinto pattern known to exist in American Quarter Horses is the overo (oh-VEHR-oh) pattern. This includes the subpatterns of frame, splash and sabino. The other pinto patterns, tobiano and tovero (a mix of tobiano and overo) have yet to be discovered in the Quarter Horse breed. 

Excessive white is an undesirable trait in the American Quarter Horse, and its presence will be noted on a horse’s registration papers. 

Breeding two overo horses can cause a recessive trait called lethal white syndrome. This is an all-white foal that is born with intestinal tract abnormalities and dies shortly thereafter. If a breeder crosses two frame overo horses that are heterozygous carriers, there is a 25 percent chance of producing a lethal white foal (homozygous carrier). The University of California-Davis has a test available to determine if a horse is a carrier of the lethal white gene.

  • Frame is a coloration that looks like a frame of color surrounding a patch of white. Horses with this pattern usually have white on the face and at least one dark leg. The white on the horse’s body rarely crosses over the horse’s spine, and the spots are usually fairly jagged. 
  • Splash-white horses look as if they were picked up and dipped in white paint. The white begins at the bottom (legs and lips) and moves upward. The markings can vary from minimal markings (sometimes as little as just a snip) to much more extensive markings. Markings are usually crisp with smooth edges, and blue eyes are very common. 
  • Sabino (sah-BEE-no) produces an extremely variable amount of white spotting from normal socks to excessive markings. Its most common characteristics include markings on the face from snip to bald face, almost always accompanied by a white spot on the lower lip or chin; leg white; and roan hairs interspersed in the coat. The roaning is not necessarily evenly spread over the horse’s body. Patches of white on the leg (especially the knee) unconnected to white markings is another sabino trait. 

Explore the world of horse colors with the American Quarter Horse Coat Color Genetics e-book.