What Are the 5 Basic Horse Coat Colors?

Horses come in a variety of sizes and breeds, but there are only five basic colors.
Horses come in a variety of sizes and breeds, but there are only five basic colors. (Image: Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

The horse has been able to bridge the gap between livestock and companion animal. Horses have been used as transportation, farming livestock and show animals, but they also are the beloved pets of many adults and children. Horses come in a variety of sizes and breeds and may be suitable for many purposes, but when it comes to color, horses come in one of only five basic hues.


It may seem as though black would be one of the easiest coat colors to determine, but black horses are sometimes confused with brown ones due to the similarities in shading. A discerning eye can pick out a few telltale markers. For instance, a true black horse nearly always has black hooves and black eyes as well as black skin. Also, there should be no brown or tan hairs on the flank or muzzle.


True white horses, like true black ones, have hair of only one color. If hairs of a color other than white are found, the horse is not a true white but a color variation such as roan or gray. Although not all white horses are albinos, some may fit one of the two classifications described by the American Albino Horse Club. Albinos have white bodies and pink skin with brown eyes. “Type A” albinos have ivory bodies and white manes and tails.


Like a black horse, a brown horse is quite dark in color, with a dark mane and tail. Often, a particularly dark brown horse will be mistaken for a black one, and the colors can be quite close. Checking the hairs around the horse’s lips and muzzle can provide a clue to its true color, as a brown horse may have a few lighter brown or tan hairs in that area.


Bay horses have distinctive coats composed of a blending of yellow and red shades. Light-colored bays have more yellow in their coats and have been described by some horsemen as being the color of a loaf of bread. Darker bays have more red tones in their hair and may be a deep mahogany in color, similar to a chestnut horse. However, bay horses can be distinguished by their black manes and tails.


A chestnut horse, sometimes called a sorrel, has a red coat and a mane and tail of nearly the same hue. The coat color may range from a lighter, yellowish-red to a darker red similar to that of a bay horse. Unlike a bay, a chestnut horse does not have a black mane or tail. However, in the case of a flaxen chestnut, the mane and tail may be lighter than the body color.


In addition to the five basic coat colors, horses may be one of five color variations. Many so-called white horses are actually gray, and dappling often appears between the ages of 2 and 5. Roans have white coats mixed with hairs of any of the other basic colors, while duns (buckskins) are shades of yellow and have a stripe down their backs. Palominos are varying shades of gold or copper, usually with white mane and tails. Pintos, also called paints or calicos, have more than one coat color, with one of the colors appearing in large, irregular spots.

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