This article will touch on the most basic elements of equine color genetics and provide
photo examples to help you correctly describe the horses in your fiction.
If you simply want to properly describe the color of your character’s horse skip down to the photo links of HADEED and QADIFAN. A mature war-horse would probably not be younger than 7 or 8 years old, and these two mature stallions will give you examples of what your horse may look like. If you wish to describe an older horse, look at the photo link of YASMEEN.
If this is a saddle horse or young horse that is in training, GWAIHIR and ANDURIL are good examples of the amount of grey that a younger saddle horses would show.
If you need to comment on your character’s horses’ parentage or foals, the look of a herd, or your character’s horses’ past or future appearance, the below information below may be helpful to you.
First of all, I should explain that there can be a huge difference between a horse’s actual genetic color and its visual color. By that, I mean the difference between what the horse can produce (as a sire or dam) and what it looks like to someone standing beside it. How this is important to you depends on the role of the horse in your story. If your character is riding the horse, you probably only need descriptions of the visual coat color. If your character comments on his horse’s parentage or is in any way involved in horse breeding, you may need some of the additional information.
Genetically, there are only two colors of horses, red (chestnut) and black. A horse that looks brown is genetically red/chestnut. The diversity you see in the pasture is genetic combinations and/or restrictions and/or dilutions of red and black. The wonderful grey battle-steeds of the Rohirrim were all born dark, either red or black (or some combination) and lightened progressively as they aged. Your character’s horse could change dramatically in coat color and pattern during its life and even from season to season.
Grey horses do not have grey hair; they have a mix of white and dark hair, or white hair over dark skin. This is important to know if your character has horsehair on his clothing.
Horses are only occasionally born the color they will appear as adults. I’ll probably never live down the time I picked up a young kitten, examined it’s fur carefully around the eyes, checked the undercoat, and mused aloud what color it would be when it grew up. I was answered with resounding, astounded silence by my mother and sister, then laughter when they realized I was serious.
Back to horses.
A chestnut sire to a chestnut dam (red to red) will always produce red (chestnut). By adding any other color, you start looking at percents of possibility, and almost anything is possible. You are generally safe to have a foal colored like one of the parents, especially in the case of combinations (bay) and dilutions (dun, buckskin, grulla). For example: horses such as the palomino (yellow/gold) and the cremello (pale yellow, creamy off-white) are from a genetic ‘dilute’ or double-dilute of a chestnut. Discussion of horse breeding in regard to coat colors other than red/chestnut(brown), black, bay and of course, grey, is beyond the scope of this article, and the reader is encouraged to seek other articles with more detailed information.
The simple thing to remember is that the genetic modifier that causes a horse to grey is dominant regardless of base color and other genetic modifiers. That means a foal that is going to grey must have at least one grey parent. Generally, the first sign you have that a foal will turn grey will be a few white hairs on the eyelids (not eyelashes). There may be some present at birth, but you may not see any at all for a month or more.
A horse (sire or dam) that carries a grey modifier will be genetically ‘wired’ to produce a grey foal sometimes, or grey foals all the time. The genetic terms are heterozygous (a grey horse that will sometimes produce grey) or homozygous (will always produce grey). I doubt your characters would know these terms, but they would certainly know that some grey stock will always produce grey.
A grey horse (that is, a horse that will be grey as an adult) will lighten gradually from its birth color, as it ages, until it looks white. Typically, the barrel (body) and neck will lighten first, then the legs and head, then the mane and tail. True white horses are rare and tend to have problems such as sensitivity to the sun and intolerance to insects.
Here is an example of how knowledge of grey color progression could be used in description in a fic. In the years following the large battles, after many horses had been killed, or if a family was not wealthy enough to keep a valuable war-horse, a character might ride a very young horse or a very old horse that should be retired. The young horse would be darker grey, the old horse pure white. The old horse might also have battle scars or the legs may show signs of hard use such as a lump or knot in the tendon (back of the front leg between the knee and fetlock) or slight puffiness around and above the fetlocks, called 'windpuffs'. (Fetlocks are the lowest joints above the hoofs.)
The links and explanations below provide examples of young and mature horses as they age so you can see the progression and variation of color in the greys. They are not sorted by age because many of the links show the same horse at different ages. This is to help you correctly age your horse’s description throughout your fic. Horses naturally vary a great deal and, if you are not going to compare the horse’s color to itself at different periods in its life, you will be safe to choose a pic from any of the links below to describe your horse as long as you stay within the general guidelines of ‘young’, ‘mature’, or ‘aged’.
HADEED <--- click on the horse's name to open a new window with his photo page
Hadeed is a mature grey stallion, a younger half-brother to Yasmeen. He is about ten years old in these photos. Qadifan is about 5 years old in the 2nd – 4th photos and about 11 years old in the others. You can see that both of these stallions appear ‘white’ with black mane and tail, and black knees and hocks.
This is the probable age of the fully trained war-horses that would be ridden to battle. A grey war-horse could have a little more grey than either of these, though not as much as Gwaihir, and may be completely white (with a dark muzzle and eyes).
Qadifan came to me as a mature horse, with minimal training. I started him under-saddle and used him to clear and mark trail and to pleasure-trail ride in spite of his missing eye. Once the training was in place, the partial lack of vision was not an issue. I don’t believe an experienced war-horse would be retired because of missing an eye.
Here are photos of Yasmeen at age sixteen; you can see that she is completely white, with only a touch of grey left in her mane and tail. The grey you see on her muzzle is not dark hair, but her dark skin showing through where there is no hair.
This mare has a black base, but we believe her to be homozygous for grey since all her foals to date have turned grey. In spite of the fact that she is covered with white hair and looks like a white horse, she is easily recognizable as a grey horse because of her dark muzzle and eyes.
Grey horses have white hair and black skin. When grey horses are wet from sweat or rain, they appear dark grey or ‘blue’ because the white hair ‘disappears’ when it is wet and allows their black skin to show. A horse will have pink skin only under areas such as the spots (star or blaze) on their faces and the ‘socks’ on their legs. Wetting a grey horse in order to see the underlying pink skin can be used as a means of identification. For example, if your characters need to differentiate between two similar grey horses in the case of a dispute or possible mistaken identity, they could wet the horses to see which one has a white sock (pink skin) on the right front leg, and which one doesn’t.
The above link has photos, from birth to age four, of a grey stallion with a chestnut base. That is, he is a chestnut horse with a grey modifier. We know he is heterozygous for grey for two reasons: 1) because he only had one grey parent and 2) because he has produced a chestnut filly (that will stay chestnut). That means that not all his foals will turn grey as they age.
You can see that he was bright red (chestnut) in his two-week-old photos. As a 2-year-old, he has a mix of white hairs growing scattered throughout his coat, some in distinct spots as large as a silver dollar. You’ll see in the various photos that as he lightens (more white, less dark hairs) the bony areas, such as shoulder, knees and hocks, and face bones stay darker, longer. As a 3-4yo, he is silver-grey although he has some distinct white spots. He has a black strip down his back, his knees, hocks and the fronts of his legs are still dark. The black markings on his face in the ‘tongue’ photo will fade, the large pure white splotch will not, except to disappear as the rest of his face turns white to match it. The white markings you see on the side of his face in the photo with the kitten will fade. Also, notice, that as a 4yo his mane is still black and his tail is black at the top and grey and white towards the end.
Anduril is another grey mare (chestnut base) This page shows her progression from birth to 4yo.
Beri is a grey filly with a black base. You can see the progression of greying from a few days old to current photos. Her 3yo photos show how the ‘softer’ areas lighten first, leaving the bony legs, shoulders and hips darker. The pink snip on her muzzle shows the difference in skin color under the grey and white areas.
Glamdring is a chestnut colt, born chestnut (red) and will always be chestnut, but you can see how dramatically the white on his legs changed from the time he was born. He has pink skin only under the hair that stayed white.
Sawannah is a chestnut (red) mare with tan, white, roan and black spots. These are all completely natural and common in her bloodlines. She has pink skin under the blaze on her face and the sock on her leg, but not under the body spots. A chestnut horse will appear darker when it is wet and could be mistaken for a black horse in poor lighting. Fione also is a chestnut with black spots. Sawannah and Fione each have a black spot in the middle of their pink noses. The skin color does not change over time like the hair color can.
Shahin is what is known as a ‘liver chestnut’ (genetically red, looks black or dark brown). She changes color twice a year when she grows, then sheds, her winter coat. Her new hair grows in very dark brown, almost black, and fades to red, then orange in the Texas summer sun.
Cimmerii appears to be black, but is actually a very (very) dark liver chestnut (red). She looks black most of the year, but she does eventually fade by the end of the summer to dark smutty brown, only keeping the black on her head, legs, hips and shoulders.
Witness is a bay mare. That is, a black mare with a genetic modifier that restricts the black to the ‘points’, leaving the rest of her red. Points are the legs, mane and tail, and ear tips. In Witness’ case, she also has barring (stripes) on her legs, a back strip with hip pads and shoulder pads and strips. These are more or less distinct depending on the time of year.
Elros was born a dark, muddy color, faded quickly to look bay and was shedding his baby coat to revel that he would mature to black. You can see the black coming out on his face, knees, hocks, and belly. In his case, he was shedding red hair and growing black. This is different from the chestnut or bay horses that fade to a lighter color from the sun or the grey horses whose coat grows in with more white over a period of time.
Usually a foal that is born black will grey, and a horse that will mature to true black will be born a murky grey or dark brown. If your character’s mare foals a ‘muddy’ colored foal, you will want them to excitedly check the eyelids, hoping not to find the single white hairs that indicate the foal will turn grey rather than be one of the rare black horses. The first of these white hairs may be present at birth, but usually come in within the first few weeks.
The other thing to remember in regards to mature chestnut or black horses is that not only sun, but sweat will bleach the color. In many cases, a horse that has been working outside on a regular basis can have a ‘washed out’ color to its coat.
Comment on hoof color
Hoofs can be black, white (cream/light brown) or striped. Usually if a horse has a white sock or stocking, the hoof on that leg will also be light.