Neu Perspectives

A Question of Color

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Palomino, tobiano, blood bay or blue roan, it’s easy to get caught up in the color of a horse’s coat.

I think I’ve owned a horse in just about every color. I’ve had roans and sorrels and bays and blacks. I’ve claimed browns and buckskins and chestnuts and grays. It’s possible that a paint or two (or more!) has eaten hay from my feed wagon. I’ve had many friends ask me what my favorite horse color is, and it’s a tough question to answer. In all honesty, my preference changes frequently, often depending on what I own.

What’s the big deal about color anyway? Why do we secretly dream of a chromed-out blue roan when trotting around on a plain sorrel? Does it ultimately matter when choosing a good horse?

The short answer, in my humble opinion, is no.

three horses in a row each of a different color
Photo by Ross Hecox

An athletic horse with an intelligent mind, good heart and sound legs looks good no matter what shade he is born with. If you’ve found yourself a trusty partner on the trail or a scorcher in the competitive arena, you’re lucky enough to be in the company of good horseflesh, be it red, black or purple.

But let’s be honest, color can be an added bonus. It’s fun to be flashy. A horse of a unique or particularly catchy hue can have more sale appeal than a commonly colored horse. Sometimes the right color, stockings or blaze can hide little conformational imperfections and yes, you may even find that a lot more people shoot second glances your way when riding ol’ Paint.

I am fascinated with the genetics and terminology behind horse color. Over the years, I’ve found fantastic research tools both online and in print to help me learn more about equine color, registries and hereditary traits. 

Did you know that a palomino is a diluted gene of a sorrel? That most grays are born sorrel, bay or black and change to gray as they mature? There are discrepancies when it comes to equine color, as well. Some disciplines and breed registrations intertwine the terms “sorrel” and “chestnut,” while others seem to blur the lines between a dark bay and a brown. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the difference between a buckskin and a dun (short answer: a dun sports a sharp, clear dorsal stripe). I could go on and on.

horses in a pasture
Photo by Ross Hecox

One thing to keep in mind when shopping for “colorful” horses (buckskins, palominos and paints, for example) is that some breeding programs are specifically based on promoting that color, rather than focusing on other traits that riders might find more appealing. Be extra particular when looking at conformation, temperament, structural soundness and athleticism. There are plenty of talented horses (and they come in all shades and sizes!), but it is good to remember to look past that initial eye appeal and recognize all the traits present that are important in a mount.

Yes, a buckskin is great for hiding dried mud. A gray will keep you guessing year after year, as her coat will change as she ages. Chestnuts and browns create shiny summer coats, and a golden palomino gives that quintessential “all-American” look. A roan is divine. A blood bay? Fabulous. I personally think that a red sorrel with a flaxen mane, a flashy face and four stockings is appealing on all breeds, shapes and sizes, and who doesn’t love a dapple gray?

No, I suppose it doesn’t really matter what color of horse your cinch is wrapped around. We’ve all got different preferences and find different traits appealing, and we can all recognize something special when we see it. Sorrel, pinto, buckskin or bay, we’re all just lucky to find ourselves in the saddle.

But to be fair and answer that tough question—my favorite color on a horse?  A bay with four white socks. That’s my preference this week, anyway.

2 thoughts on “A Question of Color”

  1. I read some years ago, that buckskins, grullas, and grays are the same gene pool. Is this still the case? Or has it changed?


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