Coat-Color Modifiers

Horse-breeding tip: Color modifiers change a horse’s appearance.

Dappling is one of the variations that add interest - and sometimes confusion - to the coat-color palette. Journal photo

Maybe you’re pretty sure you’ve got a handle on the basics of horse color. You know sorrel is recessive, and you know that if you breed your red mare to your red stallion, you’re going to get a red foal. So why did the baby show up with a white mane and tail? How could he be a palomino? The simple answer to that question is he can’t. That new bundle of equine joy is a flaxen sorrel. Easily mistaken for a palomino, the flaxen modifier lightens the mane and tail to a cream or golden color and affects only red-based horses (sorrel, chestnut, red dun).

Another common modifier is a “dirty” coat color known as sooty or smutty. This modifier works on both red and black base colors and darkens areas of the horse’s coat. It can be very minimal, perhaps only appearing on the head or as a darkening along the topline, or it can be extensive, causing the whole body to darken and the horse to be mistaken for a different color. The most minimal expression of sooty – a stripe along the backbone – is often confused with the dorsal stripe of a dun horse and is sometimes called counter shading. It can appear on a horse of any color and does not indicate that the horse carries the gene for dun. The horse must carry other dun factors (such as leg barring) and have a parent that carries the dun gene.

Get the entire series on horse colors with AQHA’s Quarter Horse Coat Colors e-book. It’s a great resource and a wonderful addition to any horseman’s library. Plus, it includes a bonus article on the rare brindle coat pattern.

If your horse has shading around its muzzle, for example light, cream-colored hair on a sorrel horse, or brown on a dark bay, it’s called mealy or pangare (pan-guh-RAY). The shading usually also occurs around the underside, such as the elbows, flanks and buttocks of the horse. A horse with a network of light and dark spots with round centers (usually concentrated on the barrel and rump) has what is called dappling. Dapples are found on horses of all colors and are usually indicative of excellent nutrition and physical fitness. They can vary significantly over years and seasons.

Color Facts

  • Sootiness is prevalent in horses and can cause a color to become very dark (such as a dark buckskin or dark bay that looks nearly black).

  • A dorsal stripe on a horse does not necessarily mean it is a dun. This is usually the most minimal form of sootiness, often called countershading.