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Horse Colors, Color Genes, & Color Patterns |
Disclaimer: I am not a geneticist. The information on these color pages represents the best scientific info I have been able to locate. Theories and knowledge change over time, and it may be you know something I don't - this site is not intended to be "the last word" in colors, just a guide for those wishing to explore the topic.
Color genetics are the same for all horses, regardless of breed or ancestry.
Since this is a Mustang website,
I use and prefer pictures of wild, or formerly-wild horses wherever possible.
There are many great websites about horse colors,
currently on the Internet. A simple Google search will turn up quite
a few. If you would prefer, I have prepared this easy-to-read and
Colors and color patterns in mustangs are extremely varied, the inheritance of the early Spanish Horses who came in many colors and patterns.
- Dr. Phillip Sponenberg
Horse Color variations are so numerous, and they go by so many names, that it may seem impossibly complicated to understand. But understanding horse coloring does not have to be so hard.|
Think of it as LAYERS, like painting with stencils or making wax-resist batik.
You start with a BASE COLOR: it will be one of two: Red or Black. That's all there are.
Every horse is, at base, either
red or black.
The base color is determined by one "gene" - the Extension Locus. With the dominant form of Extension, the horse can be either red or black,
but in reality will be black, except in the presence of a second "gene" - Agouti, which makes Bay,
by restricting the black pigment to the "Points: (ear tips, mane, tail,
In its recessive form
the Extension Locus creates red pigment. All other colors and color patterns are created by the actions of genetic modifiers on these two base pigments.
photo: Andi Harmon
RED (chestnut, sorrel)
"Chrome" is a term
that refers to white markings on the face (stars, snips, blazes, aprons) and lower legs (socks, etc). |
Chrome is determined genetically (by a color blocking agent) that may be an entirely separate component to coloring, or it may be part of certain pinto patterns.
Chrome is not considered in identifying the base color.
A horse may be any color or combination of colors and also have chrome - or not.
What About BAY?
Because many color genes affect BAY differently than Red or Black, BAY is also considered a "Base Color" although genetically it is the result of a genetic modifier ("Agouti") on the base color Black.
White is not a hair pigment, but
rather, the complete lack of, or blocking of pigment production.
Recent research into equine DNA is making exciting discoveries into
the range and scope of the "W" series of alleles possible on the
KITS gene. Currently there are over 20 known variants, which include
most (but not all) pinto spotting patterns as well as roan and pure
Stay tuned! In the meantime,
Tapestry blog often discusses the most recent developments, as
well as in-depth exploration of all colors and color patterns.
Or, if you want a simple, easily red explanation, get
BROWN is not a color gene in itself. Brown comes about in many ways:
The most common useage of the term "Brown" in horses refers to a black horse or donkey with tan or lighter muzzle, and lighter mottling around the flanks.
Smokey Black may appear "brown."
Silver Dapples on Black creates "Chocolate"
Dark Red or Bay horses also appear "brown"
Here's a quick Pictorial Overview
of all the Known Horse Color "Genes"* (*common use, not technically correct) and how they affect each
AGOUTI (BAY modifier)
no effect on red;
may be carried "silently" by red
Agouti On Black
Bay can range from almost buckskin to almost black.
Bay foals are born with light legs and tails
BAY & "Wild Type Bay"A+)
(One of the Four DILUTION factors)
Creme is a mixed dominant, creating one effect if heterozygous and a more intensified effect if homozygous.
Single Creme: Palomino
Single Creme: |
(sometimes hard to identify - can be positively identified by genetic testing for Creme)
Single Creme : Buckskin
Double Creme on Red: Cremello
Double Creme on Black: Smokey Cream
(Looks Cremello or Perlino but can be identified by genetic testing for Black and Agouti)
This Champion Welsh Stallion owned by Shirley Brand was tested by UC Davis to be Smokey Cream
photo: Greg Schultz
Double Creme on Bay: Perlino
Creme can also team with other dilutions (dun, silver, pearl, champagne) and other patterns (pinto, roan, etc) to create a spectrum of colors.
(another DILUTION Gene)
Champagne on Red =Gold
Champagne on Black
Champagne + Bay
Champagne + Creme on Red = Ivory
photo: American Cream Draft Horses Colonial Williamsburg Sour Cream (CW Sour Cream), reg. #230, and the colt is Colonial Williamsburg Cream Soda (CW Cream Soda), reg. #299
Champagne on Smoky Black
Champagne + Buckskin
(a DILUTION Gene)
Dun on Red = Red Dun
Dun can also team up with other color patterns for
Red Dun Sabino
Dun on Black = Grulla/o
Zebra Dun, Bay Dun, Classic Dun
Also See DUN vs BUCKSKIN
Bay dun Tobiano
Dun on Palomino: "Dunalino"
Dun on Smokey Black
Looks light Grullo
This is a wild horse - the only way to tell for sure what color it is would be a genetic test - it could be a dunskin, too.
Dun on Buckskin
is a recessive that dilutes red mane and tail to blonde or white
No effect on Black but may be carried "silently"
No effect on Bay but may be carried "silently"
(Part of the OVERO paint/pinto group)
Photo: Stacy Snow
Photo: Ashley Rose
If you're breeding Frames, be sure to read:
Overo Lethal White Syndrome
Grey/gray is a progressive color - actually a color replacing gene.
The foal may be any color (depending on the rest of its genetics) at birth. The gray gene causes the color to be gradually replaced by white hairs, bringing the horse through a roan-ish phase, then glorious dapple gray, then lighter and lighter until the horse is either almost pure white (but with black skin) or "fleabitten" gray (white with dark freckles or specks)
The famous "White Stallions" of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, and the famous Lippizanner Stallions are grays in the final, mature white form.
|"LP" - THE APPALOOSA COMPLEX:|
Appaloosa coloring is complex, and recent research indicates that more than one gene is at work. Appaloosa coloring is not always stable throughout life, often becoming a "varnish" pattern at maturity.
Photo: Cody Pendant
|PANGARE (Mealy Factor)|
Maybe Seal Brown
Wild Type Bay
Angelo from Sinbad, Utah HMA
|PEARL ("Barlink Factor")|
Pearl was long thought to be just an especially shiny, metallic-looking version of Creme. Like Creme, Pearl is a mixed dominant, creating one effect if heterozygous and a more intensified effect if homozygous. Pearl can also team with other dilutions (dun, silver, champagne) to create a spectrum of effects.
Champagne & Pearl
PINTO / PAINT, WHITE and WHITE SPOTTING PATTERNS:
FRAME and SPLASH
TOBIANO, SABINO, MAXIMUM WHITE, TOVERO,
ROAN, and MISCELLANEOUS WHITE SPOTTING PATTERNS are Alleles of the W
gene. Frame, Splash, and Argentian Manchado result from unrelated
Aidan from Devils Garden, adopted by Melissa Mattis
(The fourth DILUTION Gene)
AKA Silver Dapples, Taffy, Chocolate
No effect on Red;
may be carried "silently" by red
Robin, owned by Marcia Grahn
SOOTY / SMUTTY
Also responsible for Dappling
Chocolate / Sooty Palomino
"Silver" manes on certain palominos and flaxen chestnuts
Does not show up on Black
Seal Brown maybe
"fake dorsal stripe"
Ponokamita, one of the "Internet Six" older South Steens studs sold under the new 2005 sale rider
Genetic agent that blocks color. A genetically White
horse has normally-colored eyes. A white horse is NOT an albino. The
various White genetic variants are also responsible for many types of
There are so many
excellent websites for horse color genetics, that I won't compete with
them. I will, however, offer this book (print, on paper, not virtual)
for my own explanations: