What Are Dapples on a Horse?
Have you ever noticed spots on a horse that immediately drew your attention? These gorgeous spots are called dapples!
Dapples still remain a mystery to equine experts, despite the fact that they’re relatively common. These striking markings can appear partly due to genetics, and partly due to the horse’s physical condition and overall health.
Dapples are most often seen on the hindquarters and the topline of the horse. These dots are round or oval, with clearly defined edges. The size of dapples varies and the pattern can cover the entire body. Many grey horses have this dapple effect; however, several coat colours are predisposed to dappling (more on this later).
Our Coach Kara eventing her Dapple Grey horse King Cornet. Clear dappling on his hindquarters.
Usually, the colour of the dapple will be darker than the base coat colour, as you’d see on a dapple grey horse or a white horse. However, dapples may be lighter in colour on a darker coat.
Blue roans can have dapples, for example, but instead of dark hair, their dapples appear as light circles on their coat. The same goes for black horses. This phenomenon is called reversed dappling.
Skye, Our Homebred Connemara x Clydesdale who became a Police horse showing her blue roan dappled coat
The degree of dappling varies between breeds and individual horses, with some horses having only a couple of spots while others have the pattern all over their bodies.
True Dapples and Bloom Dapples
A dappled horse with the genes for these markings is considered to have true dapples.
Bloom dapples, on the other hand, will appear (and disappear) on a horse’s body due to its health, the season and coat condition. Bloom dapples are not that common – or at least not as common as true dapples. That doesn’t stop dapple enthusiasts from trying to bring out these spots on their horses with strategic diet adjustments!
Are Dapples Genetic?
This question has no definitive answer, unfortunately. Dapples have had scientists scratching their heads for the longest time.
As things stand, science indicates that dapples are, in fact, a genetic trait. What makes horse experts so confused is the fact that many horses with the dapple gene do not get dapples.
This can either be because the gene simply isn’t expressed, or because the horse has an underlying health issue or issues.
Certain horse breeds are more likely to get dapples than others; however, there is no guarantee that a horse of that breed will get these lovely markings. It’s also not a given that a foal will inherit dapples from his or her dappled parents.
Our dappled Clydesadle mare Belle, you can see her foal does not yet show dappling
The appearance of dapples can also be influenced by external factors, such as coat quality, diet, and how much direct sunlight a horse receives.
The Dapple Gene
Dapples are triggered by a mutated gene, which causes the hair pigment to differ from the surrounding base colour. The specific gene is called the “KIT gene,” and is responsible for melanin production (melanin is the colour pigment in hair).
Once the KIT gene mutates, less melanin is produced, resulting in the patches we call dapples.
Why Do Some Horses Have Dapples?
Dapple grey horses are the most common dappled horses, but why do some horses have dapples while others don’t?
As I mentioned above, dapples are due to genetics as well as environmental factors.
Genetics: Because of inherited traits, some horses are simply more likely to develop dapples as they age. That said, not all horses carrying the dapple gene will have dapples.
Diet: A horse with a genetic predisposition for dapples is more likely to develop them if they receive a proper diet containing enough protein, copper, zinc, vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids. Feeding horses a high-quality diet could really bring out the dapples.
Grooming: You need to keep your horse’s coat and skin healthy to maintain the dappled appearance. Regular brushing and keeping your horse out of the sun and rain (or getting a waterproof blanket) will help to protect the coat. Spending too much time in extreme weather will result in a dull coat.
Are Horses Born With Dapples?
Foals never have a dappled coat when they are born. They are typically born with their base colour (with a few exceptions) and, in the following weeks and months, the dapples will slowly start to appear.
So, what are these exceptions?
For starters, some grey foals are actually born pitch black! As the horse ages, they slowly develop their dappled grey colour.
June, a Connemara x Clydesdale. Dappling can be seen on her mum, but not on June
June all grown up! Now showing her dapples. Note the complete colour change, she was almost black when she was born and is now a stunning steel blue dappled roan
Although most coat colours can have dapples, chestnut foals are less likely to develop these beautiful markings.
Which Horse Breeds Have Dapples?
Some breeds are more likely than others to develop dapples. Generally, grey or bay horses are predisposed to dapples. Here are some of the breeds more likely to develop a beautiful dappled coat:
Irish Sport Horse
Do Dappled Horses Come in All Colours?
Theoretically, almost any horse can carry the mutated gene causing dapples. Grey, palomino, bay or buckskin-coloured horses are more likely to have dapples, while chestnuts very rarely develop these spots.
Even though horses with these colourings could have the gene, dapples are not always as obvious and distinctive as they are on grey or lighter-coloured hair.
Do Horses Keep Dapples?
Dapples are sneaky things – one minute they’re there and the next they’re not!
Your horse may have dapples in winter, but once you clip their coat, the dapples disappear.
Since dapples are often influenced by environmental factors, such as the seasons or your horse’s diet, they could be present one day, and then fade or become more prominent the next.
It’s important to remember that each horse is different. Some have dapples during winter, while others showcase these markings during spring.
It may seem completely random, but scientists are almost certain that dapples are related to the horse’s health as well as environmental conditions.
In grey horses, foals are often born black and slowly lighten as they are. This means that dapples only start to appear in older foals. Even then, the dapples can lighten or darken as these horses age.
Do Dapples on a Horse Indicate Good Health?
You can tell a lot about a horse’s health condition by its coat. A dull coat is usually an indicator that there are underlying problems, while a shiny coat means the horse is really healthy.
Because of this, the presence of dapples typically indicates that you are meeting your horse’s dietary needs.
You can make dapples even more pronounced by feeding your horse a diet rich in minerals, vitamins, protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Certain health conditions, like parasites and worms, can prevent your horse’s dapples from developing. If your horse usually has dapples but has lost them despite a healthy diet, these parasites might be to blame!
And, although dapples indicate good health more often than not, there is a flip side: overweight horses often have dapples as well.
I should also mention that just because your horse doesn’t have dapples doesn’t mean it is unhealthy. Sometimes a healthy horse simply doesn’t develop them (even if they have the gene).
Can Grooming Bring Out Dapples?
Although grooming won’t bring about dapples on a horse without the genetic mutation, it can make existing dapples more prominent.
Through regular brushing, you are spreading healthy skin oils through your horse’s coat and also getting rid of any fungus and dust.
Spreading the oils and keeping the coat clean will deliver a soft, shiny coat with very evident dapples.
Here are some grooming tips to bring out those gorgeous dapples:
Brush your dappled horse twice a week to get rid of any dust and dirt.
Use a soft brush on the coat and a stiff brush and a comb on the mane and tail.
Always brush the coat in the same direction as the hair growth.
If you notice dirt or dust on your horse’s coat, use a damp cloth to wipe it off.
Regularly rinse your horse after riding and bathe it often with horse shampoo and conditioner.
If you have to dry your horse’s coat, use a soft towel to pat it dry.
Always check for skin irritation and treat it as needed.
You don’t want all that effort to go to waste, so use a waterproof sheet if your horse is standing out in the rain, and provide shady spots for long summer days to protect the dapple pattern from becoming dull.
Dappled horses are some of the most visually stunning horses around. They come and go as a horse ages and can be really eye catching in the show ring. Breeding plays a big part in a horses coat type, but diet and age can also have a big effect of how the horse’s coat looks. If you want a dappled horse it’s best to buy them when they are a bit older to make sure the dappling is prominent, then with good horse care you can keep your dappled horse looking amazing throughout it’s life.
Do all grey horses have dapples?
A dapple grey horse may be a common sight, but that does not mean all grey horses have dapples or are capable of developing them. Dappling depends on genes, diet, health and the horse’s environment.
How can I know if my horse will be dappled?
There is no certain way to know if your horse will develop dapples. Grey, bay and palomino horses are more likely to develop dapples, whereas these markings are extremely rare in chestnut horses.
The foal of two dappled parents may inherit the genes, but even then the foal may not have dapples!
Dappling is also not connected to specific horse breeds, and although some breeds are more likely to have dapples, there is no guarantee!
Will all dapple grey horses turn white?
Yes, the majority of dapple grey horses will turn into white horses as they age. After the age of nine, your once-dappled grey horse will suddenly be a white horse (but don’t worry, their personality will remain the same!).