Horses come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. The most common colors include bay, chestnut, and black. However, horses can be any color — and some have very unique coats. The genetics of equine color are complicated, but we do know that a handful of genes work together to create specific (yet wildly different) coats and spotting patterns in horses.
A horse’s basic color is determined by two genes – one from each parent. The other two genes determine the pattern of white hairs on the horse’s body. This means that horses can be any color — from black to silver dapple — but their coats may have an array of varying patterns of white hairs.
Most people are familiar with the term “pinto.” This describes a horse with larger than normal white patches on top of a darker base color. However, there are actually many other terms used to describe these spotting patterns, depending on what color is mixed with the white. Examples of these are tobiano, overo, tovero, and sabino. These spotting patterns are most common in paints and some other breeds such as the Gypsy Vanner.
Another type of spotting pattern is called leopard. Leopard horses have dark spots of a range of sizes on a white background. These horses are often referred to as Appaloosas, and they are very common in the American Paint Horse and Knabstrupper horse breeds. Leopard Appaloosas have a distinctive look, and they also tend to have striped hooves, mottled skin pigment on the face or genitals, and a visible white sclera in their eyes.
Some horses have a completely white coat, and these are known as snowflake or varnish roan. These horses typically have a very sparse mane and tail.
Interestingly, a white horse can develop a gray coat as it gets older. This is because the color of the hair is determined by the protein in the mane and tail. Therefore, when those proteins change, the color of the horse’s hair can alter as well.
Other spotting patterns include rose gray and flaxen gray. These are not the same as regular gray because they have a pinkish-gray color to them. Additionally, a grey horse can have various dapples on its body.
Finally, there is also a pattern of white and brown called roaned. This is a stage that some bay or chestnut-colored young horses go through as they age. They can become a light copper red, or they can be so dark that they almost look black. This is a very rare spotting pattern, but it is beautiful to see. This is because the white and brown colors are interspersed with each other.