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Chestnut Vs. Sorrel Horse: What Is The Difference?

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Both sporting shining, reddish-brown coats, the chestnut, and the sorrel horse are beautiful and eye-catching. Since their coloring is so spectacular, you’d almost think there is just one name for it – it is not immediately clear that there are actually differences between the two colors – chestnut and sorrel.

Though both chestnut and sorrel refer to the same general tone of reddish-brown (or brownish-red), the colors are slightly different from each other and possess a few unique characteristics that do not overlap.

The General Difference Between Chestnut and Sorrel

A lot of what it comes down to is in lightness or darkness of shade. (source)

Basically, a sorrel horse has a completely red base coat color (aside from the possibility of white markings), and a chestnut horse’s coat color can be any shade of red, including almost brown or ‘liver’ chestnut.

Many people describe a sorrel as a “true” red. The red can be any shade, whether it’s light or dark. Most have the same color throughout their body, mane, and tail, with no other markings (apart from white on the face or legs).

A sorrel horse can, however, have a flaxen colored mane and tail, but if there are black markings anywhere on his body, that horse would then be considered chestnut.

Chestnut is often described simply as “red”, often takes on a darker sheen, or can even look wine-colored. They can be darker than a sorrel and can include horses whose coats have a brownish tint to them.

Chestnut horses can have manes and tails that are flaxen (as a sorrel horse’s are) or that can match the color of their body. Even a horse that has a mane and tail so dark it appears black is still classified as a chestnut.

What’s interesting to note here, though, is that that particular coloring is an illusion – chestnut horses do not possess the genetic properties to produce black manes or tails.

The dark appearance is instead the result of very heavy red coloring of mane and tail, making it appear black when placed against the horse’s body.

And, to top it all off, you can’t always determine a chestnut or sorrel horse while they are a foal. Once a young horse loses their first coat, they can turn out to be a completely different color.

Genetic and Phenotypic Details of Sorrel and Chestnut Horses

Broadly speaking, a chestnut horse and a sorrel horse are actually the same, in a genetic sense. The gene that provides for red coloring of a coat is a recessive gene, so any horse born with a red coat would need to be in possession of two red genes.

Since it is a recessive gene, the presence of any other gene color would override it and cancel out the red. For this reason, too, two red parents will always produce a red foal, as the only color genes they carry are red.

Genetics of Sorrel and Chestnut Horses

If you were to order a coat color test on a chestnut or sorrel horse, you would see one of the following on your equine DNA report. Note that in every case, a red horse will test ‘ee’. If the horse does not test ‘ee’ it is not any shade of red.

The differences in genetics, then, is the agouti gene. On a sorrel or chestnut horse we can’t visually tell if the horse has agouti or not. The gene does not express itself on a red-based horse so a DNA test is the best way to know with certainty whether or not the sorrel or chestnut horse carries Agouti.

eeAAThis horse is homozygous for Agouti. Offspring can not be black or grulla no matter what color the other parent is.
eeAaHeterozygous Agouti. Offspring can be any color.
eeaaNo Agouti. Offspring can be any color. The color of the other parent will largely determine the color of the foal.

Determining your horse’s coat color is as easy as pulling a few hairs and sending them in for analysis. My article on Equine DNA Testing has some great resources for you to check out.

Classifying the Phenotypic expression of Sorrel/Chestnut in Horses

A lot of the difference, too, comes down to regions and horse use. For a very long time, horses were referred to as “sorrel” instead of “chestnut” only when they had a reddish body, but with a mane and tail of equal of lighter shade.

Also, “chestnut” is, in general, more commonly used to refer to any reddish coated horse in Europe and for thoroughbreds and Arabians, whereas “sorrel” is a term more often used in the Americas to describe quarter horses.

Another difference in naming that isn’t so much color is the style of riding. Western-ridden horses are traditionally called sorrels, while horses that are used for English riding are typically referred to as chestnuts.

Essentially, the red coat, in all shades, is the result of genetics allowing for two recessive genes to determine color.

Both the chestnut and the sorrel horse colors are genetically identical, with differences in distinction coming down to simply humans further breaking down a classification system by the phenotypic, or visual, appearance of the color.

However, there has been one school of thought that says chestnuts are genetically different from sorrels in Belgian Draft Horses specifically, with the sorrel being recessive to the chestnut.

What is a sorrel horse? A sorrel horse is a bright red, similar to that of the sorrel flower. Sorrel horses may have a mane and tail that vary in color from a matching red to a very bright white. Genetically, sorrel and chestnut horses are the same.

What is a chestnut horse? A chestnut horse is a very dark red, sometimes appearing almost brown much like the color of a

Shades of Red Horses

Within chestnuts and sorrels, there are further distinctions that describe different coats by shade.

Liver chestnut: This is the darkest chestnut – in fact, the darkest of all the red shades! It presents as a reddish black. It can even be so dark, that sometimes this shade of red can look almost fully black or even with purple tones. Sometimes this is also referred to as “dark chestnut”.

Chestnut: The standard chestnut, this color possesses a deep red coat, coppery and bright but also with undertones of brown.

Red chestnut: This refers to a classic chestnut horse, but with brighter red tones throughout. Because of that lightness, horses with this shade quality can sometimes also be referred to as a “cherry sorrel”.

Sorrel: A clearly reddish coated horse that contains no black. Genetically the same as the chestnut, sorrel typically refers to lighter shades of red, going up to that clear, bright, red tint.

Light sorrel: having a red coat, but with more palomino or flaxen tones. The light sorrel is sometimes also called “orange”.

Chestnut sorrel: A confusing term, this still refers to a sorrel horse, but with legs that are lighter colored than the body.

Blonde sorrel: One of the lighter sorrel colors, it is a bright, sandy red coat with pale areas around the eyes, muzzle, and flanks, along with paler legs, especially common in American Belgians. This coat color is the unique genetic result of the pangare gene, a gene causing a light or flaxen coat, acting upon a flaxen-maned chestnut.

Breed Registration

Classifying chestnuts or sorrels for breed registries can get a little confusing, as many different breeds have different rules and different definitions.

Certain breeds, most notably the Thoroughbred, the Arabian, and the Morgan horse, stick to one color name for all shades of red, and only register their copper-colored equines as “chestnuts”.

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For draft horse breeds, registries take that “chestnut” name a step further and offer upgradations of the color. The Suffolk chestnut can encompass yellow, light, copper, gold, red, dark and liver, while the Canadian can recognize four shades of chestnut – clear, golden, dark and burnt.

With other draft breeds, though, the distinction for registering as a chestnut or a sorrel comes down to the amount of easily identifiable or distinguishable shades of red versus lighter colors on a coat.

They determine two or fewer shades to be classified as a chestnut, while three or more get classified as a sorrel horse.

When it comes to referring to coat color, chestnuts and sorrels are both generally classified by body-color only, and mane and tail color is not taken into account. (source)

The only exception is for “flaxen chestnuts”, who have a reddish coat and striking light mane and tail.

Further, the American Quarter Horse Association uses both terms, but describes a sorrel as being a type of copper-red chestnut, but purports that chestnut is also a correct term for coat color classification.

Fun Facts About Sorrel Horses

Any specific coat color breed comes with its own unique anecdotes, and the gorgeous redheads of the horse world have their own special trivia.

When it comes to representing the red coat, some breeds sit on wildly opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, the Suffolk Punch is a breed that is exclusively red-coated (as is the Haflinger), while there are other breeds (notably the Friesian) who have worked to try and eliminate the red color entirely.

Chestnut horses are also responsible for an equally striking coat color possibility in their offspring: the palomino, which occurs when a chestnut horse also carries a copy on the cream dilution gene.

The term “sorrel” itself has its origins in referring to the color of the flower spikes of the sorrel plant.

Two different varieties of the sorrel plant, from which the name of the horse color was derived.

Famous Chesnut Horses

Thanks to chestnut being a common color in many of the racing and showing breeds, there are a number of very notable chestnuts in horse history!

Man O’ War: Often considered the greatest racehorse of all time, Man O’ War is one of the most famous chestnuts (and Thoroughbreds) ever. He set numerous records in the world of racing and would go on to be the grandsire to another famous racer, Seabiscuit. (source)

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Secretariat: Everyone knows the name Secretariat, thanks to a riveting 1973 in which he became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. He broke and set a new standard by winning the Belmont Stakes by a whopping 31 lengths. (source)

Ready Teddy: While not as widely known as racehorses, Ready Teddy was a star showjumper, winning the Olympic gold for New Zealand at only eight years of age. (source)

Famous Sorrel Horses

Since sorrels are more inclined to be found in western riding, their heroes will be found in western sports and the history of the Americas.

Little Sorrel: Also known as “Fancy”, Little Sorrel was the famous mount of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. When General Jackson’s original horse, Big Sorrel, was found not suited for battle, Little Sorrel became his chosen war horse. (source)

Champion: On the TV western series, Range Rider, Champion was the sorrel mount of the lead character. (source)

Champion, Jr.: Foal of the original champion, Champion, “Junior” was famously ridden by Gene Autry and was known as the “Wonder Horse of the West”. (source)

Dollar: Another star of westerns, Dollar was one of John Wayne’s horses. Though the actor never owned him, he had a special contract made stipulating that no one else could ever ride Dollar in a film. (source)

Chestnut horses and sorrel horses are essentially two ends of a gorgeous red coat rainbow. Though much of their unique histories are determined by location (a classic East Coast versus West Coast situation), they remain some of the most striking of coat colors and interesting in their differences.

April Lee

I've owned horses for 25 years and have a particular love for gentling wild horses. I write these articles to help others learn more about horses. If you enjoyed the article please take a moment to pin it to Pinterest or share on social media. It really does help! Check out my about page for more detailed information.