The roan gene ("Rn") mixes white hairs evenly throughout the base coat of the main body. True roans usually have normally (non-roaned) colored faces and lower legs.
Rabicano | Roan-ish Variations
for similar patterns.
(Normal head coloring may include stars, strips, snips, blazes,
Aidan, from Devils Garden HMA - a strawberry
bay roan adopted by Pat Hyatt of Napa
Blue Velvet, a blue roan mare
from Devils Garden adopted by Karen Floyd
Roan is not progressive -- it doesn't get lighter over the years, as grey does.
Roan does, however, change seasonally - being very light, even white, at certain times and dark at others.
Wilbur Mustang, in May *left) and January (right)
Suzi Kicker's Misty Bleu, showing seasonal changes in roan
The Roan coloring may not be apparent in the foal coat, but
appears with the first shedding. The roan pattern is stable throughout life.
True roan is caused by the "Rn" gene, which is dominant.
A horse must be a roan in order to have roan offspring.
Roan does not "crop out" - at least one parent must be roan.
The Rn gene has long been believed to be lethal in the homozygous state, with all RnRn embryos being resorbed very early in the pregnancy (usually before the owner knew the mare had conceived). However, recent research at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of California, Davis, has proven this long-held theory
to be incorrect.
Roan itself is not lethal. Several stallions have been identified that are homozygous for roan and have tested as such. It is not a test that is commercially available to the public, but it is possible to test for it based on a nearby gene (we don't know the gene for roan). Roan was only thought to be lethal because a paper was published in 1979 by Harold Hintz at Cornell that showed, statistically, that roan should be an embryonic lethal because of the ratios of roan-to-non-roan foals born to two roan parents. This turned out not to have a genetic basis, according to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of California, Davis.
TYPES OF ROANS:
RED ("Strawberry") ROAN
Strawberry Roan is the result of the dominant Roan ("Rn")
gene modifying Red (sorrel or chestnut). Like all red-based horses, the points may be any shade of red,
white, gold, silver, grey, or brown, even very dark brown - just not pure black.
BAY (formerly called "RED")
BAY ROAN (sometimes also called "Red Roan") results when a BAY base coat is modified by the ROAN gene.
Bay Roan from Blue Wing HMA, September, 2003
Bay roans have the black points and red/brown faces of "regular" roans, but additionally their bodies are colored by a mix of red and white hairs (and maybe black hairs, too, if other factors are present).
Many people call these "Red Roans" - I have used the term "Bay" because it is accurate genetically, and avoids confusion with Strawberry Roan, which can also be called "Red Roan."
Like all true roans, Bay Roans change coloring seasonally - being whiter in spring and early fall, and less obviously roaned in summer and winter. Except for this seasonal change, and except for the foal coat (which often "hides" the roaning - Roan often does not become apparent until the first foal coat has been shed) red roan is a stable color. An adult or elderly roan horse will be no more roaned than it was as a two-year-old.
BLUE (Black-based) ROAN
BLUE ROAN is the ROAN gene on a BLACK base.
A true Blue Roan is fairly rare, and is a striking pattern -
one of the most sought-after among Mustangs.
In its early stages,
Gray can look very much like roan, and many young gray horses are incorrectly labeled as roans.
horses may have some coat variations through the seasons, but Grays continue
to produce more and more white hairs as they grow older. Grays also develop
white hairs over their faces and lower legs.
This filly appears to be red roan, but if you look closely, you can see the early stages of greying...note light circles around eyes
The white hairs on the face are a giveaway that this "roan" yearling
is actually in the early stages of graying
See GRAY for more about
the Gray gene and the Graying process
Like the yearling at left, this 2-year-old (our Ruby) may appear to
many to be a roan, but the roaning/graying on her face gives away
that she is undergoing a graying process rather than being a roan.
Note that with the graying process, the face is "roaning" faster than the body. With true roan, the face is not roaned.
Gray is also progressive: over time, the horse continues to lighten, going through the classic dapple gray phase, and then finally, almost pure white.
Roan is a stable color throughout life, although it goes through
seasonal variations, being "whitest" in springtime.
ROAN vs. GREY:
- A Roan's face shows
little or no roaning (light hairs mixed in). Horses undergoing GREYING often show grey first on the backs of their ears and the area around the eyes.
The face is usually the whitest part of the body, and lightens
quicker than the rest of the body.
Face of a true Blue Roan Mustang
Ruby's face is much whiter than the
rest of her body at this stage.
- Roan is a stable coloration throughout life, whereas Gray
is progressive. The original birth color is gradually (or rapidly!) overtaken by grey, until the entire horse is grey (may retain black points) and will eventually fade to white.
(The Varnish Appaloosa pattern, below, develops similarly - gradually smudging and blending another appaloosa pattern into an overall grey roan appearance, much like varnish being brushed over wet paint.)
Blue Roan Brabant Belgians at the Grass Valley Draft Horse Classic
Ruby. a gray mustang from Twin Peaks HMA
Note the black face on the roan
(at left) and the light face on the gray (above)
Another pattern that looks similar to ROAN is
VARNISH ROAN APPALOOSA. This pattern is caused by the Lp gene, and is unrelated to Roan.
Blue Roan mare with foal
A Roan horse displays the full base color, with roaning added to the body coat. The "points" (mane, tail, and lower legs) and face have little or no roaning.
The Roan pattern may not be apparent in the foal coat, but is stable through life thereafter.
Roan changes seasonally (more white in the winter coat) but is otherwise stable throughout life.
Varnish Roan usually has a whitish or grey body, with color mainly on the cheeks of the face, and around the knees.
The Varnish Appaloosa pattern is not stable. Much like the Grey gene, the horse is born another color (usually another appaloosa pattern), and the Varnish pattern gradually overtakes it.
It is called "Varnish" becasue of the unique way that the colors
begin to smudge and blend, much like taking a varnish-laden paint
brush over a wet painting.
is also similar to both roan and gray, in that roaning can
cover the entire body, including the face:
Sabino Roan is a stable pattern - it does not
significantly lighten with age. Some sabino roans can be very difficult
to distinguish from gray. With experience, one will develop an "eye" for
With time, it will become obvious if the horse is a
gray instead of a sabino, since gray is progressive.
RED OR BAY ROAN?
RED OR STRAWBERRY ROAN?
Genetically, the roan gene can act on any of the base colors,
and can occur in combination with any other color effect, including pinto, dun,
Roan on black is called Blue Roan; But from there it gets confusing - conventional terminology and various breed registries define the colors differently.
Until recently, many color registries defined "Red Roan" as being what is
genetically a Bay Roan, leaving "Strawberry Roan" for a red-based roan. Now
Since color terminology is not standardized, you can choose whichever terms you want. It is important to understand, however, that others may be using the terms differently.
It helps to understand the genetics involved.
This guy could easily be confused with a young gray. But
there is something a little different. And over time, he swill stay the
same, whereas a gray will continue to lighten over the years, until it
The Roan coat
usually develops "corning" over time. Wherever the skin is scratched, the hair grows in as the base color, rather than with roaning, giving a splotched effect known as "corn" - so-called because its appearance is reminiscent of an ear of Indian corn.
RABICANO / RUBICANO vs. TRUE
Rabicano/Rubicano is often confused with true Roan. Rabicano is a genetic modifier that creates roaning that is usually
limited to the underside, flanks, legs, and tail head areas. Rubicanos often have a 'coon tail' of white barring at the tail head and white hairs in the flanks. Rabicanos
often look so similar to roans that they may simply be called "roan" although
genetically, roan and rabicano are distinct and different from one another.
PICTURES OF ROANS: