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.

A herd of horses standing in a pasture at sunset

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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 23 recognized American Quarter Horse colors: chestnut, sorrel, black, brown, gray, bay, palomino, buckskin, smoky black, smoky cream, cremello, perlino, white, classic champagne, amber champagne, gold champagne, dun, red dun, grullo, red roan, bay roan, brown roan, and blue roan. Six of these colors are not listed on the AQHA registration application as they need to be reviewed by a color expert. These colors are smoky black, smoky cream, classic champagne, amber champagne, gold champagne, and brown roan.

All of these colors are derivatives of two base colors; red and black. All other colors – bay, gray, 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 constructed from the extension gene. (E) is responsible for the black gene while (e) is responsible for the red gene.

White hair results from a lack of pigmentation.

A horse with pink skin lacks pigment and gets the pink color from blood vessels under the surface of the skin.

The exceptions are is smoky creams, 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 E/E (homozygous) or one black and one red gene E/e (heterozygous).

A horse will only appear red if it has no copy of the black gene.

A good rule of thumb is that a black-based horse 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
  • Brown
  • Buckskin
  • Smoky black
  • Grullo
  • Dun
  • Blue roan
  • Bay roan
  • Brown roan
  • Perlino
  • Smoky cream
  • Classic champagne
  • Amber champagne

Some black horses can become sun-faded and appear to have a brown tint to their coat, but genetically are black. It can also be hard to differentiate between brown and black horses. Brown horses can appear so dark as to be nearly black, but they will have 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
  • Gold champagne

Although 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 redder 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 are continuing their studies on what genes make up the coat colors we love.
  • All white markings, including grays, are superimposed over a base body color. 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.
  • As you may have noticed, 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 if you are unsure what color your foal is. 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 later, you can do so for free until the foal is 12 months of age or 6 months after the registration certificate issue date at the time of registration. Learn more about the free correction process.

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