horse colours

A Guide To Horse Colours

There’s no denying that horses are unique creatures. No two horses are the same, from their breed to their personality type. And the same can be said about their colours.

While there are only a few base colours for horses, they can mix and match to create unique and vivid markings. So, if you want to learn more about the colours of the horse rainbow, read on.

This complete guide to horse colours will cover common, uncommon, and rare coat colours.

Common Colours

In this section, I’ll look at the most common horse colours. The two pigments that contribute to a horse’s coat are pheomelanin (which is red) and eumelanin (which is black).


Chestnut horses are the most common colour you’ll find. They can come in some different shades and their mane and tail are usually the same colour as their coat.

A chestnut horse’s coat colours also show as:

  • Liver chestnut: A very dark red coat. Also known as a dark chestnut
  • Light chestnut: Light chestnuts have a pale chestnut coat, mane and tail.
  • Flaxen chestnut: Any shade of chestnut with a light mane and tail.


As mysterious as they are, horses with black coats are truly beautiful animals. While black isn’t an uncommon colour, a true black coat is very rare. Perhaps the most iconic black horse breed is the Friesian, which comes from Holland.

They’re sometimes confused with liver chestnut-coloured horses. However, the way to tell them apart is to look at the band around their hoof. On a chestnut horse, it will always be red, no matter the shade.

Black horses have two main colour categories:

  • Smokey black: The smokey black coat is very similar to the true black coat, with the main difference being a pinch of cream. Smokey black horses are also well known for their blue eyes.
  • True black: For a horse to be considered true black, it has to have a completely black coat, except for a few markings. A true black horse won’t get lighter if they spend time in the sun (also known as sun bleaching).


A roan pattern (sometimes called a “varnish”) appears as white hairs mixed with coloured hairs that show through the horse’s base coat colour. Roan horses are born with this colour.

The variation of colours come in different shades:

  • Bay roan: A bay roan is the result of a true roan on a bay base coat. The bay roan usually has black lower legs, a black mane and tail, and white and red hairs on the body and head.
  • Blue roan: A blue roan has a dark coat with white hairs that make the horse look blue, hence the name. A blue roan has a black coat with black points. As far as variations go, a blue roan is also the rarest of the roan shades. A foal can look black until it’s about one or two years old when the white hairs begin to mix. Like all roans, a blue roan won’t lose its colour with age.
  • Red roan: A red roan usually has a mixture of red and white hairs all over the body. The genetic makeup of a red roan is the same as a chestnut’s, with the only difference being the roan gene from one parent. The most distinctive feature of a fiery red roan is its solid-coloured head. Additionally, a red roan is also known for its even-tempered personality and reddish mane.
  • Strawberry roan: A strawberry roan has pink skin and a reddish coat and looks like it’s been covered with fresh snow. Strawberry roans can range from having almost an entire chestnut base coat to a very light pink everywhere but the mane and tail, face, and lower legs.


Sorrel horses have a reddish coat without any black. Their name comes from the colour of the flower of a sorrel herb. They’re often confused with a chestnut horse because of their very similar colour. However, the main difference between a sorrel and a chestnut coat is that a sorrel’s mane and tail are always lighter than the coat.


Dun horses have a combination of red and black pigment, which gives them a light, almost golden colour. Because of their colour, dun horses are sometimes confused with buckskin, even though they don’t share the same shade. Dun horses have unique characteristics that help you spot them.

Firstly, they have primitive markings, which are usually seen in horse breeds that have been around for hundreds of years. Dun horses will always have a dorsal stripe running down their back, and sometimes a shoulder stripe.

Secondly, they’re also known for their iconic zebra stripes on their legs. Zebras can also be considered a variant of the dun gene!

The dun colours also come in a few variations:

  • Bay dun: Another name for the classic dun. Their colours range from yellow to dusty gold.
  • Red dun: A sorrel horse with a dun gene. They can range from pale red to light tan.
  • Grullo: Black horses with a dun gene are known as grullos. They have a silvery, mousy, or smokey colour.


Grey horses are unique because their coat colours are a result of depigmentation. What that means is that their skin loses the red and black colour. Grey horses can be born with any base coat colour and they usually develop white hairs that become more prominent as the horse gets older. This colour change can happen quickly or slowly, depending on the horse.

Most adult grey horses become completely white, but they do have variations and patterns.

  • Flea-bitten grey: A grey coat with speckles.
  • Iron grey: A grey coat with a bluish tint.
  • Rose grey: Rose grey horses have a grey coat with a reddish tint.
  • Dapple grey: A dapple grey horse can be identified by its grey coat with light rings.
  • Pure white grey: A grey coat, mane and tail that’s lost all of its pigment.
  • Blood market grey: A grey coat with patches of red hair.


Pinto horses are a spotted breed and were a favourite of cowboys and Native Americans. They’re known for having large patches of white and one other colour.

The colours and patterns vary, depending on a horse’s base coat colours. The most common base colours are black, brown, and bay. Pinto horses are distinguished by their unique white markings:

  • Tobiano: In Tobiano horses, the white markings are rounded and regular.
  • Overo: Overo horses have irregular, jagged patches that look like they’re spreading from the horse’s stomach. They also have white markings on their head.
  • Tovero: The Tovero is a mix of the Tobiano and Overo. They have a mixture of regular and irregular patches.


Bay horses have a reddish-brown or completely brown body with black manes, tails, ears, and legs. It’s one of the most common base coat colours for many horse breeds. Because they’re a common base for so many other horse colours, it’s no surprise that you can find multiple colour variations for them.

  • Blood bay: Very similar in colour to the dark bay, a blood bay is the most well-known variant of a bay coat and is a rich red colour.
  • Copper bay: A copper bay is slightly lighter than the usual bay coat. It’s similar to the colour of a copper coin.
  • Dark bay: Also known as the mahogany bay, the dark bay horse has a very deep reddish brown coat.
  • Wild bay: Wild bays look almost exactly like normal bay horses. The biggest difference is that the markings on their legs don’t go as high up as normal bays.


Buckskin horses usually have a golden coat with a black mane and tail. They were given the name because they matched the buckskin clothing that was popular with Native Americans and early American settlers. Buckskins can be separated into a couple of shades:

  • Buttermilk: Also known as a light buckskin, buttermilk horses have a very light, almost cream-coloured coat. This is thanks to the cream gene that dilutes their coat colours.
  • Gold buckskin: Considered the most well-known colour, golden buckskins have a rich, gold coat.
  • Dark buckskin: Dark buckskins have an almost-bronze coat. It’s close to the colour of light brown horses, but it still has the characteristic golden sheen.
  • Dusty buckskin: With a pale gold colour, dusty buckskin is seen in horses that spend a lot of time in the sun.
  • Dappled buckskin: Dappled buckskins have circular patterns all over their body. The dapples sit on their gold coat, giving them a shiny speckled look.
  • Sooty buckskin: Sooty buckskins have a darker coat that looks almost like smudging. You can see it prominently along their back and sometimes on their legs and face.
  • Silver buckskin: A silver buckskin has the shimmer of the golden coat combined with other genetics. This gives it a shiny silver coat.


Palomino horses look very similar to gold buckskin horses. They have a yellow or gold coat with a white or light cream mane and tail. Their unique combination of white hairs mixed with other coat colours makes them unique in their colour and their variations.

  • Light palomino: Light palominos have a pale, cream-coloured coat.
  • Golden palomino: Like the golden buckskin, the golden palomino is considered the most iconic colour, with a gold coat featuring a stark white mane and tail.
  • Dark palomino: Dark palominos have a dark gold or tan colour that looks a lot like caramel.
  • Dappled palomino: Dappled palominos have dapples on their shimmery coat, giving them sparkly and unique coat patterns.
  • Chocolate palomino: One of the less common shades of a palomino is the chocolate colour. They have a light mane and tail but have a brownish-gold coat.
  • Honey palomino: Also known as taffy palominos, honey palominos have a softer colour that looks like honey. It’s not as bright as the gold palomino, but it’s still very distinct from lighter shades.


Appaloosas are an ideal horse breed for equestrians thanks to their gentle nature. They’re easy to notice because of all of their spots, with their skin covered in splotches due to the white and dark hairs across their bodies. There are five unique patterns you’ll come across:

  • Blanket: These horses have a solid base coat with a splash-white pattern over the hips, which looks like a blanket.
  • Snowflake: With the snowflake patterns, the horse has a dark base coat with white spots over the body – usually around the hindquarters.
  • Varnish roan: The varnish roan pattern is unique to this horse breed. It’s made up of a mixture of dark and light hairs with a mottled skin pattern.
  • Leopard: The leopard pattern consists of a white or light base coat with dark spots covering the entire body. Horses with just a few spots are known as having a “few spot leopard” pattern.
  • Frost: The frost pattern is more subtle than other patterns but looks a lot like the snowflake pattern. The main difference is that the white hairs are mostly found over the loins and hips.


These horses have a base coat that has been diluted with the cream gene. They have pink skin under their white hair, which sets them apart from a truly white horse.

The palomino, buckskin, and smokey black horse families all contain the cream gene. I’ll talk more about some rare cream-gene horses shortly, but you’ll notice that all of them are more likely to have blue eyes.


The term “brown” horse is used willy-nilly to describe any horse that has a brown coat. However, there are a couple of specific genes that go into making a truly brown horse. The main one is the “agouti” gene. This gene restricts black pigment to certain areas of the body.

As for shades, you can categorise brown horses into four groups:

  • Light brown: A light brown horse has a milk-chocolate-coloured coat, with a darker tail and mane.
  • Standard brown: Standard brown horses have a coat that looks a lot like dark chocolate, with a slightly darker tail and mane.
  • Dark brown: Dark brown horses have an almost-black coat. You can tell them apart by the fact that a dark brown horse has a lighter muzzle and eyes than a black horse.
  • Seal brown: Seal brown is used to describe an almost black horse that has tan eyes and a muzzle. It’s very similar to dark brown horses, but the colours on the muzzle and eyes are much lighter.

Uncommon Colours

Just like secondary colours, uncommon horse coats come from a mixture of common horse coat colours.


Sometimes known as a white ticking, this horse has very limited varnishing in a very specific pattern. They can come in any common coat colour but have some very unique features, including:

Skunk tail: White hairs in the tail of this breed look a lot like a skunk’s tail. It’s especially noticeable in Rabicanos with dark skin.

White streaking: Rabicano horses tend to have white hairs mixed throughout their body, especially around the rib areas.

Champagne (Classic, Gold, Amber)

Champagne horses are known for their one-of-a-kind coats, which come about because of the champagne gene. It affects both their skin and eye colours and can occur on any base coat-coloured horse, which leads to a few unique champagne variants:

  • Classic: This shade of champagne comes from the champagne gene acting on a black coat. They have a dark colour with a silver sheen, and amber or green eyes and can also have mottled skin.
  • Amber: When a bay base coat meets the champagne gene, you get amber champagne horses. These horses have a unique amber-coloured body with black points and mottled pink skin.
  • Gold: Gold champagne comes about when the champagne gene reacts to a chestnut coat. Gold champagne horses have tails and manes that are either the same shade or slightly lighter than their body. The body, mane and tail of these horses also has a glitter to it.


The pearl gene is only found in a handful of horse breeds, which makes it truly unique. It’s difficult to tell apart from the cream gene, but it’s most visible when it mixes with the cream gene. Horses with the pearl gene have an almost shimmery coat. You’ll notice it most around the eyes and muzzle.

Chocolate Flaxen

A chocolate flaxen horse is known for its beautiful colour combinations. The body is a dark brown, almost like chocolate, while the tail and mane are pale and creamy, like straw. This contrast of light and dark makes it a beautiful horse that’s sure to catch anybody’s eye.

Rare Colours

These colours are the most unique combination of common and uncommon coats and genes. Horses with rare colours are usually very difficult to come by and are only found in a few places around the world.


Cremellow horses are caramel-coloured horses with a light chestnut base coat. They have telltale blue eyes and pink skin. Because they’re the result of two cream genes in action, they’re not commonly found.


Perlino horses have a coat that’s slightly darker than the cremello’s. Their colour only comes about on a bay coat and has a slightly rosy tint to it. They’re shimmery in the sun, and they have pink skin around their nose and eyes. Like other cream-gene horses, they tend to have blue eyes.


Brindle horses are known for their unique coats that have a black and brown striping pattern. You can think of something like a tortoiseshell cat, or a tiger’s stripes. Because they’re so rare, it’s not considered a standard pattern on any breed, and there isn’t any way to genetically test for it.

Camarillo White

A Camarillo white horse has a pure white coat. It usually has pink skin and keeps the bright white coat colour well into old age. They’re born this light colour, and stay that way as they grow older.

Metallic Sheen

While gold, pearl and champagne all create shimmery coats, there’s one horse breed that’s known for its metallic sheen. The Akhal-Teke is a horse breed from Turkmenistan and there are only around 6,600 of these horses in the world.

They get their colour because their hair allows more light to shine through. They can have many base coats and also tend to have blue eyes.


The term “sabino” refers to a white spotting pattern in horses. These spots are usually jagged and irregular and are found around their stomach, eyes and chin. They also look like they’re wearing white marks up to their knees, which look like socks.

True White

True white horses are considered extremely rare. They’re born with pink skin and a white coat. That white coat will remain the same for their entire life because of the dominant white gene. Apart from the white coat, these horses have a white dorsal stripe, mane and tail.


Sorraia horses are usually the same colour as dun horses. They also share the dark dorsal stripe and black points, with the biggest difference being that Sorraia horses have two-toned manes and tails.


The mushroom gene was only discovered in 2014 and horses with this gene have a muted sepia colour. The dorsal stripe, mane and tail are either the same colour or slightly lighter. It’s commonly found in Shetland ponies.


Which horse colour is most popular?

The most common colour in horse breeds is bay. It’s the basis for a lot of other coat colours.

Which horse colour is the most expensive?

While the colours make them beautiful, the colour of a horse isn’t the only factor in its pricing. With that being said, the Akhal-Teke is the only horse with a metallic sheen that also costs a pretty penny. So you could say that the metallic sheen is the most expensive. The average cost for an Akhal-Teke is around £80,000 ($100,000).

What is the rarest horse colour?

The rarest horse colour is mushroom. That might be because it was only recently discovered, or because there are very few mushroom horses. Time will tell!


Whether you’re a horse lover, a horse breeder, or just somebody who likes colours, there’s no denying that a horse’s colours are as varied as everything else about it. And, with the latest colour discovery in 2014, there’s a good chance we haven’t seen all of the colours yet!

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