Last Updated on February 12, 2022
There is a myriad of horse coat colors out there, but did you know that a red and black horse color forms the base coat of all horses?
The world of equine coat color genetics is a complex and fascinating topic. Let’s find out how horses get their incredible coat colorings!
Black And Red Horse Coat Colors Explained
The creation of a horse’s base coat color is actually very simple and requires just one pair of genes. The gene that creates the base color of a horse is called an extension gene, and a foal inherits one of these from its dam and its sire. Each parent will pass on either a red or black pigment gene to its offspring.
This means that the foal can have one of three combinations of color extension genes:
- Two red genes, which gives a base color of chestnut or sorrel
- Two black genes, resulting in a black coat color
- One red and one black gene, creating a bay coat color.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at the red and black horse color combination. This is a very common color of horse, as there is a high likelihood of this combination of genes occurring.
When we have genes that create red and black horse coloring, the result is a horse that has a chestnut base color on the body. It will then have areas of black hair on the ears and lower legs, as well as a black mane and tail.
The other two base colors, chestnut and black, are less common as they are recessive genes. However, some breeds of horse are more likely to carry these genes, giving a higher proportion of chestnut or black horses amongst their population.
Read more about Buckskin Or Dun – What Is The Difference?
Red Horse Breed And Types
Red horses come in many different shades, from the rich, deep liver chestnut color to the bright and vibrant flaxen chestnut. A chestnut horse is characterised by an absence of black hairs, although the legs may sometimes be darker in color than the body. The mane and tail may be lighter or darker than the body color.
Some breeds have not been influenced by other color changing genes, and have retained a pure chestnut color:
The Suffolk Punch is a large draft horse originating from Suffolk, a county in the south of England. This breed dates back over 500 years, when it was developed as a hard-working and versatile farm horse.
This breed of horse is always chestnut in color, with a range of different shades. These include dark liver chestnut, dull dark chestnut, red chestnut, and bright chestnut. It is very rare to see white markings on a Suffolk Punch horse.
Genetic tests have shown that the European Haflinger horse is closely linked to the Suffolk Punch, and it shares the same chestnut coloring. However, the Haflinger is often a lighter golden shade of chestnut, with a flaxen mane and tail.
Check Out: Are Dominant White Thoroughbred Horses Rare?
Common Black Horse Breeds
Although black is one of the basic horse colors, they are not as common as you might think. The recessive black genes are easily modified by other dominant color-changing genes. However, some breeds are less likely to carry color modifier genes, and have a high proportion of black horses in their population:
Originating from the Netherlands, the Friesian horse is famous for its gleaming black coat and flowing mane and tail. This distinctive breed has an elegant gait, with a high stepping action that show off the black feathered legs.
Interestingly, some bloodlines of the Friesian horse do carry the chestnut gene, so occasionally a chestnut Friesian foal will be born.
The Fell Pony is an ancient breed of pony native to the UK. This pony roamed free on the hills, or fells, of northwest England, and was used to carry heavy loads across treacherous terrain. Fell ponies are commonly black in color, although bay, chestnut, and grey colors are accepted by the breed society.
How Do You Get A Two Colored Horse?
So, if all horses have a base color that is black, bay, or chestnut, how do we get different colored horses?
This happens when the horse also inherits other genes, called color modifiers. These affect the base coat color of the horse, creating the myriad of beautiful coat colors and patterns we see today. So, the red and black horse color genes are still there, but other genes have affected the color in some way.
Here are some of the color modifying genes that a horse might inherit:
Dilution genes lighten the base coat color of the horse, creating some interesting shades. These include the cream dilution gene, that gives perlino, palomino, buckskin, cremello, and smokey black coat colors. The effect of this gene depend on the original base coat color and whether the horse inherits one or two copies of the gene.
The gene that causes grey coat coloring is a dominant gene, so will always affect the final coat color of the horse. It causes a loss in pigment of the hair over time, which is why grey horses are a different color at birth.
The white markings on a horse are the result of one of many different modifier genes. These give us the huge range of variations of white markings, from leopard spotted Appaloosa horses through to skewbald Paint horses.
A horse with roan coloring will have white hairs mixed evenly through the coat.
Fun fact – a horse can have more than one color modifying gene! So you could have a palomino base color that also has spotted white patterning, or a skewbald with roan patches.
So, as we have learned, all horses have a base coat color that is created by a specific set of red and black horse color genes. A foal will inherit these from its dam and sire, and will have either a pair of black genes, a pair of red, or a combination of the two. These give us the base coat colors of black, bay, and chestnut.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on red and black horse colors! Do you have a horse with very unusual coat coloring or markings? Or perhaps you’re trying to figure out what color your new pony is? Leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you!
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse
care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since
she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local
stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She
has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in
various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the
patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went
on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in
the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of
horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for
educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN REVN RVN A1