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Much like cats, horses are often described in terms of the color and pattern of their coats. Often, a horse will be described by its specific coat coloration before listing its breed or sex. The color of horses is determined by genetics, leading breeders to use genetic research to achieve desirable color combinations in foals. Although definitions vary slightly between sources, the color of horses is usually broken down into very distinct and descriptive categories.
What the common person would typically describe as a “brown” horse is usually broken down into one of two categories: bay or chestnut. Bay horses carry a specific gene that distinguishes them from the more common chestnut horse, giving them a red-brown coloration. Bay horses are further broken down into dark, blood, medium, and light bay. Although a light bay may have some gold in its coloration, it is always more red than brown.
Another common color of horses is often called “white,” but is more accurately described as gray. Gray horses have dark skin and either white or a mixture of white and black coats. Gray horses typically get whiter coats with age, and are easily confused with truly white horses.
Some breeds of horses are defined by color, such as the Palomino breed. These beautiful golden horses are noted for their thick and stocky bodies and pale manes. Palomino horses are genetically described as a chestnut horse with an additional genetic element called the “cream gene”. Palominos are distinguished from Buckskin horses by their mane and tail. In a Palomino, the mane and tail is similar or lighter than the coat, while in a Buckskin the mane and tail are darker than the coat or black.
Other descriptive terms for the color of horses are based on specific forms of markings on the coat. Appaloosa horses are noted for a distinct leopard print across the main part of their coat. Any horse with leopard markings carries the Lp, or leopard gene pattern, in its genetics. These markings are found in several different breeds of horses, including Arabian, Thoroughbred and Quarter Horses.
Unlike leopard-print Appaloosas, pinto markings are usually large blots of color. The markings may be any shade of black or brown, but pintos are broken down by many professional horse organizations into specific color and pattern groups. For instance, a tobiano pinto will typically have white legs and a white back, with large dark spots across the rest of the coat. By contrast, an overo pinto often displays small, jagged white blotches on an overall dark coat.
There are dozens of descriptive groupings based on the color of horses, but they are by no means all agreed upon. Although genetic research can often determine a bay from a chestnut or a pinto from an American Paint, simple visual information can easily spark controversy about the true color of horses. If you are unfamiliar with the proper names for the color of horses, many websites and books created by professional horse organizations can help you understand the subtle differences with photographs and additional information. However, don’t feel too silly if you are reduced to complimenting “that brown horse with the white blotches;” many horse-lovers will be happy to describe the correct terms for their beloved animals.
I think most horse people understand that people who aren't as familiar with horses may not know the technical names for coat colors. If you refer to a horse color as black, white, cream, brown, or spotted, most people will know what you are talking about.
Growing up our neighbors had horses, and my grandfather always referred to them as painted ponies. Their coats were mostly white with large spots of brown and black, which resembled spots of paint.
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