What Are the Basic Horse Coat Colors? (With Pictures)

What are the basic horse coat colors?

Well, how long is a piece of string?

It’s not exactly that extensive but horses have only a few basic base coat colors and dozens of shades within that.

So, let’s get started and explore that wonderful world of beautiful horse colors.

What Are the Basic Horse Coat Colors?

You might find it surprising that under all the bling and different shades, horses only have two main genes that control the basic coat colors.

Yep, that’s it two! Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens of versions of those genes and many other mutations. 

But that is the most simple way to put it. The basic coat colors are black, bay, and chestnut. From these, depending on the other color genes at play you get all the other interesting, and sometimes strikingly unusual coat colors.

Horse Color Genetics

Before I dive into all the colors, I think it’s important to touch on the main genes and their different variations, and how they control color. It will, I hope, give you a much better understanding of the colors I’m going to talk about.

The UK College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment explains these two color-controlling genes is pretty scientific terms. I’m going to try and put it in plain English for you.

The first is ‘E’(Extension) which allows black to come through. Then you have ‘A’ (Agouti) which influences where black pigment is allowed to express itself on the horse. [1]

‘E’ (black)’, which is an allele, is a dominant gene. You also have the recessive ‘e’ (red) and ‘a’. Now, there is a LOT more to this and it would fill books, but that’s the basics that will get you started.

If you want to learn more about horse coat color genetics, I think you’ll enjoy this video. It certainly helped me get a grasp of Equine coat color genetics.

So, on to the colors, the most fun part anyway!

1. Black Horse Coat Color

friesian horse gracefully walking

Black color is one of my favorites on a horse. When clean, and shiny they are pretty spectacular to look at. The color is also more unusual than bay, chestnut, and even grey. 

Plus all those childhood classic films that make you dream of running away to ride horses usually feature a black horse!

As you saw above ‘E’ the black gene is dominant, which might confuse you since a black horse is actually more unusual than a chestnut (red, ‘a’, recessive) or bay. I think the vets at Spring Hill Equine do a great job explaining this.

This is where ‘A’ (Agouti), dominant, or the recessive ‘a’ (agouti) come in. “On a black-based horse, the aguti gene determines whether the black will be all over the horse or only on certain parts (like the mane, tail, and legs).” [2]

So if a horse has ‘A’ then black pigments are restricted to certain parts of the body. This is the mane, tail, and legs. When a horse has ‘aa’ black has no restrictions.

For a horse to be black it has to have a black base coat, which is either EE or Ee and aa. As you can see, since ‘A’ is dominant and restrictive, a fully black horse is actually rarer.

I’ll explain how agouti is involved for other colors as I work through here.

Are you wondering what horse breeds have black coats? While some breeds have more black horses than others it is a color found in most. Check out this cool video of breeds that have black horses. It has some great pictures!

2. Bay Coat Color

Bay coat colors come in many different shades. And while it is probably the most common color, it is also the one with the most variety. My all-time favorite, it a blood bay with white socks and a white blaze.

They are just so flashy-looking! I love how the white socks contrast with the black hairs on the legs and merge into the reddish bay.

sandy bay horse

All bay horses have black points, a black mane, and a black tail. This is because they the at least one ‘A’ (aguoti) gene, which I introduced you to in the black coat color section.

There are several different shades, which I cover in detail in bay horse color. But for quick reference I’ve listed them here:

  • Dark bay
  • Blood bay
  • Bay roan
  • Wild bay
  • Sandy bay
  • Bay dun
  • Bay pinto
  • Silver bay
  • Leopard bay

All bay horses have a black base, which means they carry the ‘E’ gene. The reason they are not entirely black is due to the ‘A’ gene which restricts it to certain areas, which included the mane and tail. 

It also means that they have black points on their legs, usually up to around their knees. Their lower legs are either totally black or broken up by white socks. For a horse to have a bay coat it needs to have the following genetics: EE/AA, Ee/AA, EE/Aa, or Ee/AA.

Spring Hill Equine vets put the reason why we have more bay horses than other colors simply: “Because the big ‘A’, which restricts black, making bay, is dominant to the little ‘a’, and there happen to be a lot bigger ‘A’s floating around in the horse population than little ‘a’s.” [2]

Nearly all horse breeds contain bay coats. Some bays look like they are brown horse.

Now that you might be hooked on the genes the create different horse colors, you probably want to learn more about the sciences of horse color genetics. 

The Nebraska Extension Horse Program put together this really interesting video ‘Horse Colors through Genetics.’ It is long, I warn you but if you have a serious interest this is definitely for you.

3. Gray Horse Coat

Gray horses are beautiful at all stages of their life due to their unique genes. They are born as their base color, which is either black, chestnut, or even bay. However, over time they turn dark gray which gradually lightens until the horse appears to have a white coat.

a stunning Andalusian dapple gray horse walking in the grasses

Young gray horses often have beautiful dapples which are a pattern or white rimmed rings over their body. They are known as dapple gray.

Unfortunately, this stunning coloring doesn’t last and fades with time. The gene that causes a gray coat is the dominant ‘G’ alleles. According to UC Davis, all horses that carry the ‘G’ gene will be gray. [3]

Horses that are gray can have two main genetic color makeups’: N/G or G/G. A horse with N/G will produce a gray foal 50% of the time. A horse with G/G will always produce a gray foal.

If you breed two gray horses together, you can only get a gray foal. This is because ‘G’ is dominant.

Some horse breeds contain more gray horses than others, as it has been bred into it as a preference. This includes the Lippizaner and Percheron.

For a more detailed explanation of the gray coat gene and why these horses turn white, you’ll find this video really helpful.

4. Chestnut Coat Color

Chestnut is the other main base color. In other words, it is the red gene instead of the black gene. The use of the word Sorrel to describe lighter shades of chestnut is common in North American.

However, all these are chestnuts, including the sorrel horse. So if you hear a horse referred to as sorrel, you will now know it will have that distinctive reddish coppery coat.

I do love a chestnut horse! Especially a dark or liver chestnut with some white markings. Not everyone loves a chestnut for some reason, especially a chestnut mare. It is an unfortunate myth that chestnut mares are difficult and cranky.

I have a chestnut mare that is wonderful and affectionate. She is strong-willed but so level-headed. That has nothing to do with her coat color but the temperament she inherited from her mother, who is also chestnut.

Anyway, let’s get back on track. Chestnut horses do not have any black on them at all. Their mane and tail are also chestnut but these are sometimes a lighter or darker shade than their body.

The gene for chestnut is known as Red Factor. [4] According to Kathryn Graves, Ph.D. from UK Animal Genetic Testing and Research Laboratory, “chestnut is a recessive trait, meaning that all chestnut horses have a homozygous (e/e) genotype for that color.” [1]

A chestnut horse can still carry the ‘A’ black controlling agouti gene, but it is not expressed. However, they can pass this on to their offspring where it can be expressed depending on the parents’ genetics. [5]

Chestnut horse

Chestnuts come in a variety of shades. Liver chestnut, which is the darkest shade is my favorite but I’m a big lover of chestnuts with flaxen mane’s and tails for me it is one of the prettiest horse colors! Unfortunately, flaxen chestnut manes and tails are rarer.

Chestnut coat color is particularly common in the Belgian draft horse and the Halflinger breed. Quarter horse colors also commonly include chestnut.

Despite the myth that is held against chestnut horses by some people, especially chestnut mares they have proven themselves time and time again at the highest level of horse sports. 

In recent years, some of the best showjumping horses have been chestnut mares.

For some fun, after those heavy genetics videos, take a look at some of the most famous chestnut racehorses here. Oh, and you may have heard some of the names before (Secretariat comes to mind)

Interesting Horse Coat Colors

After the basic horse colors, you will come across some more unusual ones. While these are not as common as the basic ones I’ve talked about already, they aren’t very rare either.

With these coat colors, we start to get into more complicated genetics but don’t worry, in simple terms it’s pretty easy to understand. So, let’s get started!

Palomino Horse Coat Color

a running palomino horse

This stunning color ranges from a deep golden to light like cream. They of course have beautiful blonde manes and tails. 

To get a palomino coat color, you first need a red factor (chestnut) gene. In other words a chestnut base color.

You then need at least one cream dilution gene.[6] The dilution gene lightens the red chestnut to the amazing golden color of palomino. This is the C or Ccr gene. (the cream gene)

There are several shades of palomino. The rarest, and in my opinion, the most striking is a chocolate palomino. Especially if they have some white markings. They certainly turn heads!

The mane and tail of the palomino come in a variety of shades, just like the coat. Some even have a stunning white mane. Some might consider these horses to have a yellow color.

The most common breed to have a palomino coat is the American Quarter Horse. It is very rare and non-existent in some breeds, such as the Friesian. 

Due to their color, some people might call a palomino a beige horse. However, there is no such color a beige when it comes to horse coat colors.

For something light that will put a smile on your face, I found this cute video that has lots of images of palomino horses. As you will see they come in lots of different shades. Enjoy!

Roan Horse Coat Color

roan horse

Roan is a standout color that I really like. This color is a dark base that is mingled with many white hairs. It is considered a type of horse coat pattern.

According to UC Davis, the roan gene that produces this coat pattern has yet to be identified. [7] There are different types of roan horse coats. If roaning is expressed on a black coat you get what people refer to as a blue roan.

When roan (white hairs) mingles with a bay coat, you get a bay roan. And for a chestnut base coat, you get a strawberry roan. All roans, except a strawberry roan, have black leg points, black manes, and black tails.

Unlike gray horses, a roan does not get whiter as the horse ages. Also, an interesting little tidbit I learned some time ago about roan horses is that when they get an injury that leaves a scar that scar grows black or chestnut hair.

In other coat colors, such a bay, black, and chestnut, the scarred area grows white hair. Pretty cool, no?

You won’t find roan Thoroughbreds or Arabian horses but it does exist in many other breeds, including the American Quarter Horse.

Like I said, I really like roan horse coats. The white hairs mixed with the darker color create a really cool effect. Check out this beautiful American  Quarter Horse stallion that is strawberry roan, which is also called red roan.

Appaloosa Horse Coat Color

appaloosa

The Appaloosa has to be one of the coolest coat colors. It is also a breed of horse with an interesting history. 

It is thought that the Appaloosa has its origins with the Nez Perce tribe that lived in the Pacific Northwest. [8] These horses were prized for their great temperaments, surefootedness, and their unique spotted coats.

Appaloosa horses have a base coat color, which can be black, bay, or chestnut. The horse is then either covered in white, which creates spots. The number of spots and the pattern varies from horse to horse.

A leopard Appaloosa is a coat pattern that leaves spots all over the body. A blanket appaloosa is a coat that just has white over the back and haunches.

Each horse has its own unique color patterns. Not unlike human fingerprints.

For a horse to express a leopard coat it needs the gene PATN1 (Pattern 1) and LP (leopard complex [9] It is the PATN1 that determines how much white the coat has, so it is a controlling gene, similar to the agouti.

A unique feature of the Appaloosa is the eyes. Horses with this coat pattern, particularly the Appaloosa breed have white sclera. All horses have a white sclera surrounding their iris. However, in appaloosas this white is visible, and in other horses, it is not unless the eye rolls.

The Appaloosa breed isn’t the only one to carry these genes that produce a spotted pattern. It is also common in the Knabstrupper, Pony of the Americas, the British Spotted Pony, and the Miniature Horse.

To learn more about the unique genetics that creates this really cool coat I suggest having a looking at this video: ‘ Stacking the odds of appaloosa color in your favor’

It is a three-part video series. Here is the first one. You should be able to easily follow on to numbers two and three from the first one.

Paint Horse Coat Color

When looking at these beautiful horses, it’s easy to know why they are called paints. A paint horse has a multi-color coat. They all have large white patterns with either black, palomino, gray, bay, or chestnut patches.

Another name that is not used as much now for this coat pattern is pinto horses. In Europe, they are usually referred to as colored horses.

Unlike grey horses, which have black skin under their white hair, paint horses have pink skin under their white spots.

black paint horse

Every horse is born with its own unique pattern, which is pretty cool! Within paint horse coat colors there are a number of recognized patterns according to the American Paint Horse Association. [10]

Let’s learn about them now!

Tobiano

To be considered a Tobiano coat pattern the horse has to have the following characteristics:

  • White on the legs and white feet
  • No more white on the face than a non-paint horse
  • Their spots tend to be more vertical in shape than horizontal
  • Some Tobianos can have so few spots they don’t look like a paint horse  at all

Overo

Overo pattern is a common term that lumps together a few different paint coat patterns. It can make things confusing. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, so don’t worry if you don’t get it at first!

In simple words, and Overo is a horse with a spotted pattern that is not a Tobiano.

Frame Overo

A frame overo has a coat pattern that resembles a frame. Characteristics of this horse coat color include:

  • Large patches of white on their body
  • Color patches along the body edges, such as along the topline, neck, and belly
  • The color patches do not cross the topline
  • They usually have mostly white faces
  • It is common for them to have blue eyes
  • Only occurs in horses with Spanish ancestry

Splashed White Overo

These horses have less white than other paints. The main characteristics are:

  • The majority of the body is the base coat color. For example, chestnut
  • They have a lot of white on their face
  • They have strong white leg markings
  • Sometimes they will have a white belly patch

Check: Horse Face Markings & How Do They Look Like

When breeding for any of these paint colors breeders really need to understand genetics. This is because it is possible to get a foal with lethal white, which as in the name is deadly.

For example, a Sabino Overo carries the Sb (sabino pattern) gene. You need to avoid breeding two horses together that carry Sb as it can create a foal with lethal white, according to the American Paint Association. [10]

For a little history and some facts you might not know about paint horses, I suggest this short video. I found it really helpful and it includes some great example of this beautiful horse color.

FAQs

Learning the intricacies of horse coat colors is confusing! I still haven’t mastered it, so don’t worry if you still have tons of questions. Here are some great common questions, I’ve answered for you.

What do you call a beige horse?

There is no such thing as a horse coat color named ‘beige’. But it is easy to mistake some colors for beige. You are likely looking at a buckskin, dun, or palomino.

What color is sorrel?

The color sorrel is chestnut. It is a term commonly used in North American to describe light shades of chestnut. However, a sorrel horse is still a chestnut and has the Red Factor gene.

What are the 3 main base colors of horses?

wild bay horse walking towards the mountain

The 3 main base colors of horses a black, bay, and chestnut.

How many horse coat colors are there?

When you count the different variations of the base coat colors, there are at least 25.

What is the rarest horse coat color?

True white is the rarest horse coat color followed by brindle.

What is the difference between a paint horse and appaloosa?

Looking for the best horse breeds for first-time owners? We narrowed the list of 300+ breeds to just the top 10! Check it out!

The difference between an appaloosa and a paint horse is the size of the spots. An appaloosa has smaller spots. They also carry some different genes that influence the coat pattern.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the most important thing about a horse is its temperament, soundness, and ability to do the activities you want. Color should never come into it. A good horse is a good horse.

Though I totally understand how it is tempting to want a horse of a specific color, don’t make this the most important factor if you are buying.

Plus, there are so many beautiful coat colors, it is SO hard to choose!

References

  • 1. Equine Coat Color Genetics 101 | Equine Programs [Internet]. equine.ca.uky.edu. Available from: http://equine.ca.uky.edu/news-story/equine-coat-color-genetics-101
  • 2. Equine Coat Color Genetics, Part 1: Black, Chestnut, Bay [Internet]. Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic. 2014 [cited 2022 Jan 11]. Available from: https://springhillequine.com/equine-coat-color-genetics-part-1-black-chestnut-bay/
  • 3. Gray | Veterinary Genetics Laboratory [Internet]. vgl.ucdavis.edu. [cited 2022 Jan 11]. Available from: https://vgl.ucdavis.edu/test/gray
  • 4. Red Factor | Veterinary Genetics Laboratory [Internet]. vgl.ucdavis.edu. Available from: https://vgl.ucdavis.edu/test/red-factor-horse
  • 5. Genes Determine a Horse’s Coat Color [Internet]. Veterinary Medicine at Illinois. [cited 2022 Jan 11]. Available from: https://vetmed.illinois.edu/pet-health-columns/horse-coat-color/
  • 6. Palomino horse [Internet]. ScienceDaily. [cited 2022 Jan 11]. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/palomino.htm
  • 7. Roan Zygosity Test | Veterinary Genetics Laboratory [Internet]. vgl.ucdavis.edu. Available from: https://vgl.ucdavis.edu/test/roan
  • 8. Appaloosa horse breed [Internet]. www.oregonencyclopedia.org. [cited 2022 Jan 11]. Available from: https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/appaloosa_horse_breed/#.Ycnx0mjP02w
  • 9. Appaloosa Pattern-1 (PATN1) | Veterinary Genetics Laboratory [Internet]. vgl.ucdavis.edu. Available from: https://vgl.ucdavis.edu/test/appaloosa-pattern-1
  • 10. Coat Color Genetics [Internet]. Available from: http://press.apha.com/pdfs/guidebooks/ColorGenGuide.pdf
close up shot of a black horse

What are your favorite horse coat colors? Let us know below!

Siun L
Siun L

Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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