An equestrian’s favorite lie is that a horse’s color doesn’t matter. We should be most interested in confirmation and personality, right? A horse‘s color has nothing to do with its athleticism and trainability. Often, breeding for color can come at the expense of these other more important traits. The truth is we all care what color our horses are. We all have a favorite color, and so do the judges (if your discipline relies on them).
If humans didn’t care about such trivial things, we wouldn’t have more than a couple of colors to choose from in the first place. Except for the basic bays, duns, and blacks, the other colors have been encouraged since the domestication of the animals.
Horses were bred for color long before modern breeders, shows, and standards. As long as the focus remains on temperament and good health, there’s no shame in preferring a flashy horse!
Basic Horse Colors
You may be surprised to learn that there are only three basic horse colors, and everything else is a variation of these three colors. The basic horse colors are bay, black, and chestnut.
You will find these four colors in any breed that isn’t color specific. The only natural pigments for a horse to display are red or black, and these basic colors are all combinations of these pigments.
Bay is the most common color for a horse and has many shades. A bay is a brown horse with black points (mane, tail, and stockings). A bay horse can be light brown or so dark that you may confuse them with a black horse. It’s important to remember that bays possess brown pigment. If you walk a dark bay into the sun, you’ll see a brown tint to even the darkest bay’s coat. A bay horse may still have white socks or face markings.
Black horses have a black coat and black points. They aren’t required to be completely black and can have white markings on their face and legs. What’s important is that they don’t show any brown or red. Displaying these other colors would qualify them as a different color altogether. Black horses are relatively uncommon compared to the rest of the basic colors because the black gene is recessive.
A chestnut horse is a brown horse with brown points. These points, or their mane and tail, can be lighter than their coat, the same color, or darker. They may also have white socks and face markings, and these features are common for this color. The most important thing is that they don’t have any black markings or features.
Common Horse Colors
So what about the rest? There are many variations to these three base colors, yet they are still not rare colors. They are either the addition or absence of pigments that are present in the base colors. These colors are considered flashy in the show ring but are unlikely to be so rare that a breeder has compromised quality for color.
Bay horses will always have a black mane and tail, but their coat colors vary drastically.
Dark bays are often confused with black horses, but they are never entirely black. They will have a base red or brown color with black points. The browns and reds especially come through when the sun hits their dark coat. These chocolate horses stand out, especially with quality leather tack.
A blood bay is distinguished from a standard bay by increasing red pigment in their coats. These animals are stunning, with chestnut bodies and black manes and tails.
Buckskin horses are a cream dilution of a bay horse. They have black points and black stockings. Their bodies can range from a light cream to dark but pull more brown than red. Buckskins may have white markings on their face and feet.
The requirements for a chestnut horse remain a brown or red body, with the same color or lighter mane and tail.
Some western riders consider any chestnut a sorrel, but other equestrians find a distinction between the two. A sorrel horse is a chestnut with a lighter mane and tail than its coat. They may be confused with a palomino horse, but notice the red tinge to their coat and mane.
A liver chestnut has much more black pigment than a standard chestnut and could be confused with a black horse. A liver chestnut has a deep brown coat and a deep brown main to match.
Notice the red or brown pigment in their coat to differentiate them from a solid black horse. Liver chestnuts are often confused with a dark bay horse, but a bay would have a completely black mane. Move these horses into the sun to identify their true coat and hair color.
Add a little cream to your chestnut filly, and you’ll end up with a stunning palomino. A palomino horse has a cream coat with a white mane. The palomino has become an iconic American color due to movies and shows, especially westerns. Trigger, one of the most famous horses, was a palomino thoroughbred cross on the Roy Rogers show.
You can’t do much with a pure black horse except removing black pigment. Black variations are lighter versions of a black horse. The benefit of breeding from a black horse is that they have no brown or red pigment to deal with.
Greys are simply black horses that have less black pigment and start to pull white. A grey horse can be born a much darker color and turn grey as it hits maturity.
Dapple grey horses have beautiful dark rings against a lighter coat. Any color can have dappling, but dapple greys are famous as their own color.
Any Color Variation: Applying White
Any base coat can have white applied to it. Pinto, Appaloosa, and Roan are three different ways to apply white (outside of small markings) to any of the previously listed colors.
A pinto horse is a mixture of white with any of the basic colors or their variations. Each pinto horse is a unique arrangement of the white splashes, like a thumbprint or irises. You may have heard of paint horses, but a paint horse is a specific breed.
A paint horse is pinto colored American stock horse. Many other breeds can have pinto coloring, and the pinto gene may activate on any color. There are five types of Pinto horse: tobiano, overo, tovero, medicine hat, sabino, and splash white. These variations do not refer to the base color; instead, they refer to how the white is structured on the pinto.
This may sound obscure, but it takes different genes to display white in different areas or in different ways. These color variations help breeders know what type of pinto they will end up with.
This is the most common pinto variation. The white patches on a tobiano extend up from their stomach and over their back. They have pretty equal parts base color and white, and they usually have solid colored heads.
An overo pinto has a solid-colored back. They usually have all-white heads, and their legs are their base color. They look as though someone poured paint on their bellies but missed their legs.
Sabino pintos look similar to overo pintos, except their legs are always white, and their heads usually sport a large blaze. They will also have more jagged lines between their white areas and their base color. Sometimes they are so scattered and light in color that Sabinos are confused with roans.
Splashed white pintos also have white bellies, faces, and legs. You can differentiate them from Sabinos by the structure of these splashes. They are well defined, like Tobiano or Overo pintos.
Medicine hat pintos are mostly white horses with small splashes of base color around the ears. They may have small splashes elsewhere, but their “medicine hat” is their dead giveaway.
Appaloosas are both a breed and a color. The appaloosa color, or leopard color, has been around since before the appaloosa breed was established. These horses are characterized by a mottled or spotted pattern of their base color against white. Even on a horse with very small spots, the spots are actually the base color of the horse, and the white is the modifier.
An appaloosa’s white splash tends to gravitate toward its hindquarters. They can be a solid base color except for just a patch of spotted white on their butts. The appaloosa variations are named after the horse’s base colors: bay, black, chestnut, palomino, buckskin, cremello, roan, gray, dun, and grulla.
Roans are horses with intermingled white coat hairs in their base coat hairs. Their base color will be obvious on their faces, stockings, mane and tail.
A bay roan has a black mane, tail, and stockings with a dusty brown coat. If you look closely, you’ll see white hairs intermingled with their base coat color. It may not seem obvious, but bay roans are the most varied of the three types of roan. They can be very light, with white scattered thoroughly through their coats, or so dark you’d think they had a black base and were a blue roan.
A red roan is a roan horse with a chestnut base. They have classic chestnut color points with a chestnut base coat. What makes them a roan is the equal amount of white hair mixed into their red and brown coats, but their manes remain the deep chestnut color. Bay roans used to be considered red roans, but the colors were separated for clarity.
Often true black horses look almost blue, and this feature really stands out in their roan variation. A blue roan horse is a black horse with an equal amount of white hairs dispersed in its coat. Their mane, tail, and stockings remain completely black. From a distance, the white and black coat looks almost blue, hence their name. This is the easiest way to tell a dark bay roan from a blue roan.
Every horse’s color begins from either a red or black pigment. Every color on this list is made by either adding or subtracting color genes. This may be easy to swallow when looking at the basic colors, the cream dilutions, and paint horses, but some rare colors make this fact unbelievable.
Breeders must consider genetics from both sides when trying to determine what foal their pairing will produce. Same as our hair and eye color, horse colors are dominant or recessive. You could easily breed out a valuable color with the wrong combination.
Did you know the ancestors of modern horses were one of the first species to be decimated by early humans? The equine mammal that originally inhabited North America was hunted to extinction on our arrival. Wild horses that roam our western states now are not native. The species we snuffed out were smaller, native, and naturally less damaging to the environment.
Humans haven’t always been a positive thing for the species, and this includes overbreeding for color. There are many health issues tied to rarer colors that responsible breeders track closely to keep out of their program. Do your research before shopping for a particular horse color, and always prioritize confirmation, accomplishments, and personality over color.
A Word on “White” Horses
Grey horses turn white as they age. For instance, Shadowfax in the Lord of the Rings movies (a famous white horse) was played by three grey Andalusians. The famous all-white Lipizzaner stallions are born a mousy grey or brown and turn the stark white as they age.
Lippizaners are unique because their breed is usually always born grey, and are known for being an all-white breed. Every once in a while, there is a brown or black Lippizaner born that does not turn white with age, and though the horse has had extensive training to perform, the stable sells it to preserve the all-white performing team.
White horses are almost always older grey horses, but true white horses exist. They are called true white and have pink skin and light-colored eyes. They are incredibly rare because the all-white gene is usually fatal for a horse. A white horse is born white, with a white mane and tail. There will be no brown or black anywhere on the baby.
Because of their pink skin, people often confuse true white horses with Albino. Albino horses do not exist. Horses don’t possess the Albino mutation.
A Horse of a Different Color
This list wouldn’t be nearly as complicated if humans didn’t love flashy colors on a horse. There has to be a way to trace the variations, or there would be no way to replicate them reliably. What we’ve achieved with a species that was mostly shades of tan and black (and barely large enough to hold human weight) when we found them is incredible.
There are many more colors and variations than what could be considered common horse colors included in this list and even more specific variations of those that I have included. There is a color out there for every horse lover. Personally, I have always loved blue roans and dapple greys, and learning they were closely related is exciting news for me! If you could choose any color of colt or filly, which would it be?
Common Horse Colors Guide: FAQs
Answer: Common horse colors are bay, palomino, dun, dapple gray, buckskin, roan, pinto, appaloosa, gray, chestnut, and black. The basic colors are bay, chestnut, and black.
Answer: Roan horses can be any base color, with white intermingled in their fur. This gives them a dusty look and makes their base color stand out. They may be confused with some types of appaloosa or paint, but you’ll notice their base color pulls through aggressively on their mane, tail, stockings, and head.
Answer: If both the mane and tail of the horse are red as well as the body, they are a chestnut. If the mane and tail are darker than the body or black, they are a bay horse.
Answer: You may be referring to a palomino if its tail and mane are white. If it is yellow or cream with a black mane and tail, it is a buckskin or dun horse. Palominos and buckskins can be base colors for pintos and appaloosas, but you’ll notice a lot more white on them than just their mane and tail (for a palomino).
Answer: Bay is the most common horse color, though its variations can be quite rare.
Answer: White horses are almost always called grey. This is due to the fact that they were born grey and their true color is grey. There are true white horses with pink skin and light eyes, but they are scarce. Often, all-white foals will die of colic within a week of being born due to a genetic issue with the white allele.