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Horse Colors, Color Patterns, & Color Genetics 

Horses from the 2003 Blue Wings-Seven Troughs gather
Disclaimer: I am not a geneticist. The information on these color pages represents the best scientific info I have been able to locate. The equine genome was finally mapped in 2007, and since then the field of equine color genetics has been changing rapidly. So it is highly possible that by the time you read this, some of this may already be outdated.

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.

Jump to
of Colors

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 affordable book:


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, lower legs).

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.

(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 white.

Stay tuned! In the meantime, The Equine 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 my book:

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 Base Color:





AGOUTI (BAY modifier)
no effect on red;
may be carried "silently" by red


Agouti On Black
Creates BAY

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:
Smoky Black

(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


Dun on Red = Red Dun
Claybank Dun

Dun can also team up with other color patterns for interesting effects:

Red Dun Sabino

Dun on Black = Grulla/o

 Zebra Dun, Bay Dun, Classic Dun







Bay dun Tobiano

Dun on Palomino: "Dunalino"
"Linebacked Palomino"

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
"Dunskin "


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 paint/pinto/White Spotting 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.



Appaloosa coloring is complex, involving more than one gene. Appaloosa coloring is not always stable throughout life, often becoming a "varnish" pattern at maturity. Appaloosa genetics may also alter the base color in a similar way to the dilution genes. The modifying action of the Appaloosa genetics is called "color shifting."

Photo: Cody Pendant

Few Spot


Varnish Roan







PANGARE (Mealy Factor)

"Belgian Sorrel"

Maybe Seal Brown
(one theory)

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


TOBIANO, SABINO,  MAXIMUM WHITE,  TOVERO, ROAN, FRAME,  SPLASH, SABINO, MANCHADO, and MISCELLANEOUS WHITE SPOTTING PATTERNS. The genetics of these popular patterns are complex, and our knowledge - and ways of classifying the patterns - are changing  rapidly.


Bay Rabicano
showing "skunktail"

("True Roan"
or "Dark-Headed Roan")

Aidan from Devils Garden, adopted by Melissa Mattis
Strawberry Roan

Blue Roan

Bay Roan


(The fourth DILUTION Gene)
AKA Silver Dapples, Taffy, Chocolate

No effect on Red;
may be carried "silently" by red





Robin, owned by Marcia Grahn


Also responsible for Dappling

Chocolate / Sooty Palomino

Liver Chestnut

"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

(Dominant White)

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 pinto spotting


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:

Sample Pages: