The American Mustang is such a beautiful horse. They roam the American West and, ever so often, the government gathers excess horses and offers them for adoption to the public. It is amazing that for just $125 you can adopt one of these majestic creatures.
Most of the mustangs you see are bay or brown but mustangs come in a wide variety of colors. In fact, they come in almost every color imaginable.
What color can mustang horses be? Mustang horses can be almost any color. This includes the basic colors like bay, brown and chestnut; dilute colors like dun, palomino and, buckskin; as well as the more uncommon roan, pinto and appaloosa colors. They can even be pearl.
Almost all of the horses in this post are BLM mustangs but these colors are present in many other breeds as well. When you look at these mustang horse pictures, remember that there are tens of thousands of BLM mustangs, even fancy colored ones, can be adopted for $125. Pedigreed or not, they are all beautiful!
If you are interested in learning more about mustangs, check out our mustang category on this blog.
Special thanks to the group members on the Adopt A Mustang Facebook Group for contributing their photos to this post. Being able to participate in awesome communities like these is just one more reason to adopt a BLM mustang!
Let’s take a look at how we notate colors. Use this table of contents to jump to the section you are most interested in if you like.
Horse Coat Color Notation
In order to understand the color code notations written below, you need a basic primer on equine coat color notation.
Horse coat color genes come in pairs. For each color gene listed in this article, a horses genetic makeup is one of these three options:
Two Copies of the Gene are Present = Homozygous = Both genes capitalized i.e. EE or CrCr (first letter capitalized for notations with more than one letter).
One Copy of the Gene is Present = Heterozygous = One gene is capitalized, the other is lowercase i.e. Ee or Crcr. It can also be represented as n/Cr or n/Prl for the dilute and modifier genes.
No copies of the gene are present = Homozygous Recessive = both genes are lowercase i.e. ee or crcr
For every color except black and agouti, homozygous recessive genes are usually omitted. When not listed they are presumed not present or not tested for.
In some cases, the genetic makeup is assumed but not verified with testing. For example, we know that a bay horse has one copy of the black gene (E) but we don’t know if the horse is EE or Ee without testing. We can still write this as E_.
Similarly, a chestnut horse that hasn’t been tested for agouti could be written as ee__ where “__” notates we haven’t forgotten about agouti, but we haven’t tested for it either.
Agouti always follows black in genetic notation. I haven’t found any literature specifying a hierarchy for positioning other color genes in coat color notation.
Slashes or No Slashes
When writing out genes sometimes you will see notation with slashes and sometimes you will see it without. I.e. EE vs E/E or CrCr vs Cr/Cr.
I have found no sources that state one is more accepted than the other. I prefer notation without the slash so that is what I tend to use throughout the article.
Every horse walking the planet has one of two base colors, black or not black (which we call red). Palominos, buckskins, champagne horses, grays…they are all either black or red.
In the absence of all other modifiers, a horse with the black gene (EE or Ee) will be pure black. A horse with no black gene (ee) will be red. What happens after that is entirely dependent on the modifiers a horse has.
A true black horse can be represented with the following annotation:
Heterozygous Black = Eeaa
Homozygous Black = EEaa
Sorrel and Chestnut horses are just different shades of red. Red horses have two recessive copies of the black gene.
Their genetic code is one of three possibilities:
Chestnut, homozygous Agouti = eeAA
Chestnut, heterozygous Agouti = eeAa
Chestnut, no Agouti = eeaa
Chestnut, untested for Agouti = ee
Because the agouti gene only affects black pigment, you can’t tell if a chestnut horse has the agouti gene unless you get it tested. For more information on equine coat color testing, check out my article on Equine DNA Tests.
Sometimes, chestnut horses can LOOK like Palominos even though they don’t carry the cream gene. This coloration is called “Flaxen”. It can be mild or extreme. Here are some BLM mustangs with flaxen manes and tails that make them look like palominos.
Bay horses have at least one dominate black gene (E) and one dominate Agouti gene (A). They can be represented with the following annotations: EeAa, EeAA, EEAa, or EEAA.
The brown color in horses is typically genetically similar to the Bay color however researchers theorize that there is a variant of the Agouti gene that causes the muddy color. They called this gene At but, unfortunately, it was never proven in peer-reviewed studies.
So we don’t know exactly what causes the brown coloration in horses but it is probably a variant of the Agouti gene. As such, the annotation is the same as for bay horses. In brown horses, the clear distinction between the black points and the brown body is muddied or lost. The result is similar to the horses shown below.
Now that we have looked at the base colors lets look at some of the dilutes. There are a variety of different genes that act to dilute or lighten the base colors listed above.
The cream gene in horses is what gives us palominos, buckskins, cremellos and perlinos among others. The resulting color varies depending on what base color the cream gene is acting on as well as how many copies of cream are present.
When writing out the color code for a horse, cream is written as follows:
No Cream = crcr
One Cream = Crcr
Two Cream = CrCr
Let’s take a look at some common combinations:
A palomino horse is a red horse with a cream dilution. The genetic code of a palomino can be represented as eeAACrcr, eeAaCrcr, eeaaCrcr. A palomino that hasn’t been tested for Agouti is simply ee__Crcr.
In each case, note that there is only one copy of the cream gene. If there were two copies present, the horse would be a Cremello (covered separately below).
A buckskin horse is a bay horse with a cream dilution. The genetic code of a buckskin can be represented as E_A_Crcr
Within the buckskin color, there are many variations. Some are super light and some are so dark they almost (or do) look brown instead of buckskin. Horses with coat color shades on the light end of the buckskin color spectrum are typically called “buttermilk buckskin” and on the dark end of the spectrum are called “sooty buckskin” or “smutty buckskin”.
Theoretically, sooty buckskins get their muddy color from the At gene. If that gene does exist, they would technically be more of a Smokey Brown. Since we don’t have scientific evidence that the At gene exists, we just call them sooty or smutty buckskins.
Smokey black horses can be really hard to distinguish from regular black horses. They will sometimes have cream colored inner ear hair, but not always.
Smokey black horses are notated E_aaCrcr. Having one copy of the cream gene doesn’t really do enough to make it evident that a black horse carries cream. There have been many cases where a black stallion breeds a chestnut mare resulting in a palomino or buckskin foal. In that case, you know unequivocally, that the stallion carries a cream gene.
The Dun gene is the one that results in the colors the mustang horse seems to be most widely known for. Grulla and bay dun are the two most common colors used to represent mustangs. They also happen to be very common colors in the popular Kiger and Sulphur mustang herds.
Dun can act to dilute any color though. The typical characteristics of a dun horse are a stripe down the back, leg barring, and sometimes even highlights in the mane and tail.
Dun dilutes red horses to red dun, bay horses to bay dun and a black horse with a dun gene is a grulla. The possibilities are endless though as you can have dun in combination with every other gene here.
In writing down the notation for a dun colored horse, you will typically use the letter D. DD is homozygous, Dd for heterozygous and dd when dun is not present (which is typically omitted).
The color genetics for the three most common dun colors would be:
Red Dun = ee__D_
Bay Dun = E_A_D_
Grulla = E_aaD_
Champagne is one of my favorite horse coat color dilutions. In fact, you may see pictures of two champagne quarter horses I have owned sprinkled throughout this site. The champagne gene kind of acts like cream, except it is very different.
Champagne dilutes red and black, just like cream. The big difference is that the resulting color is typically very metallic in color (not to be confused with the Akhal Teke’s color, that is a different gene). Gold champagnes (sorrel with champagne) are especially beautiful.
Champagne horses typically have mottled skin around their muzzle, eye and inner flank area. They also sometimes have lighter colored eyes.
The champagne color in horses is notated with Ch. Homozygous champagne horses are very rare but they do exist. Unlike cream, it is very unlikely for the champagne gene to hide though, theoretically possible on a gray horse.
Champagne isn’t as common in the mustang breed but it does exist. If you have a photo of a BLM mustang that is champagne in color, email it to us using the contact form and we’d love to include it!
For now, here is a picture of a gold dun champagne quarter horse I once owned. Genetically he is a red dun horse with a champagne gene. His color makeup was eeAAChchDD.
Silver dapple horses really are beautiful to look at. The color is most common in gaited horse breeds and miniatures but does rarely occur in breeds like the Quarter Horse and Paint Horse. The gene is also present, rarely, in mustang herds.
The silver dapple gene dilutes black horses. The most stunning dilution occurs when the silver gene is present on a true black horse. The result is a dark chocolate colored horse with a white mane and tail.
Bay based horses will also show the silver dilution gene. Other modifiers like dun, can make the dilution even more pronounced.
The silver dapple gene in horses is notated by the letter Z. Homozygous horses are extremely rare. In addition, some studies have shown homozygous silver horses may have increased instances of eye disorders (source).
Please note that a true silver horse is completely different from a gray horse that is currently dappled. Dapple gray and Silver Dapple are unique colors caused by different genes. The dapple gray will continue to lighten with age and eventually end up white or near white. The silver dapple, in absence of other genes, won’t turn white at all.
A double dilute horse is one that has at least two dilution genes. Most commonly these are cremello, perlino and smokey black however, when other genes are in play, the terminology may change.
What’s the difference between a perlino, cremello and smokey black? A cremello is a chestnut horse with two cream genes, a perlino is a bay horse with two cream genes and a smokey black is a black horse with two cream genes. Cremellos, perlinos and smokey blacks all have pink skin, cream colored coats and light colored eyes.
A cremello horse any red based horse with two copies of the cream gene. The resulting horse is a very light blonde, almost white color with a white mane and tail and blue eyes. Often, cremellos and perlinos are mistakingly called Albinos. This is not the case.
A cremello horse can be assumed to have the following coat color notation assuming testing has not been done and no other genes are visually apparent: ee__CrCr.
Much like the cremello horse, a perlino horse has two copies of the cream gene. This time on a bay base. The notation is then E_A_CrCr.
Perlino horses sometimes have a slightly more pigmented coat color but are, generally, indistinguishable from cremellos by the average person. Typically a coat color test is the best way to determine if the horse you have is cremello or perlino.
Our third and final cream double dilute is the smokey cream. This color occurs when two copies of the cream gene are present on an otherwise true black horse. Smokey cream is very similiar to perlino and coat color testing is best in order to determine whether a horse is Perlino or Smokey Cream. The notation for a smokey cream horse is E_aaCrCr.
The dunskin horse is another one of my favorite colors. This double dilute is the result of cream on a bay dun horse. The resulting color is typically a very light buckskin horse with an apparent dorsal stripe, leg barring and sometimes mane highlights.
In this case, the notation for a bay dun is E_A_CrcrD_.
The pearl gene has been made most popular lately in the Lusitano and Gypsy Vanner horse breeds but it does exist in a wide variety of other horse breeds including paint and quarter horses.
What is the pearl gene in horses? The pearl gene is a dilution gene that acts in combination with another dilution gene to lighten the color of the horse. It will only express itself when there are either two copies of the pearl gene present or one copy of pearl and one copy of cream.
The pearl gene is represented by the letters Prl. It only exhibits in the case of a double dilute. This can happen when:
- there are two copies of the gene present.
- there is one copy of the pearl gene present and one cream dilution gene.
A heterozygous pearl horse (Prlprl) with no cream gene will appear genetically similar to a homozygous recessive horse (one without the pearl gene).
Horse coat color modifiers are different than dilutes. They act on top of whatever base color and dilution is present to modify the color.
The starting point can be any color combination, which is then modified. Let’s take a look at some common modifiers.
The tobiano coat color is commonly associated with the American paint horse but it can appear in a variety of purebred horse breeds. The Gypsy Vanner and Tennessee Walkers are two other popular breeds that can have Tobiano coat coloring.
The Tobiano gene typically results in four white socks and white patches that cross over the topline. There are, of course, exceptions. Minimal tobianos can look like your average horse and, rarely, tobianos can even have fewer than four socks (even no socks!).
The tobiano gene is notated by the letter T. TT is homozygous tobiano and Tt is heterozygous tobiano. If you have not had your tobiano tested for zygosity, the correct notation is T_.
The tobiano pattern is a color modifier. That means the base color can start off any combination of solid colors, dilutions, and or other modifiers. It is entirely possible to have a Grullo Roan Gray Tobiano, for example. Probably pretty rare, but it is possible.
Overo is another coat color that is commonly associated with paint horses but occurs in many other breeds. This horse coat color modifier also causes white patches on the horse however, these patches typically do NOT cross the top-line. They can but they typically don’t. There are different types of Overo including Frame Over, Sabino and Splash White.
Frame overo is notated with the letter “O”. In the homozygous (OO) form, the frame overo gene is lethal. Foals that are born homozygous for frame overo are called “Lethal White foals” and typically do not live beyond one week of age.
It is 100% possible to eliminate the possibility of having a lethal white foal born by testing the sire and dam for frame overo before breeding. The frame overo gene does not always clearly express itself. Because the frame overo gene can “hide” in a solid colored horse, it is important to test at least one of the parents in any match to ensure a lethal white foal is not a possibility.
Sabino is one of the paint genes responsible for some of the purebred paint colored thoroughbreds (dominate white being the other gene). It is also common in the Arabian breed which, otherwise has no paint colored horses.
Typically the sabino gene will express itself much like roaning. The effects of the gene vary from horse to horse. A horse with only one copy may exhibit very light, almost imperceptible roaning whereas a horse with two copies of the gene could be almost completely white (source).
Here is an example of a very minimal sabino. She has just a belly spot and very light roaning in her body. You can barely see them even on the closeup.
A maximally expressed sabino will appear almost pure white like this gorgeous BLM filly.
Splash White (Spl)
Of the paint color genes, splash white is my absolute favorite. The hallmark characteristic of the splash white gene is a horse that looks like he was hoisted up and dipped into paint. This can express itself in several different ways. It can be minimally expressed where you may not notice the horse has the gene at all or maximally expressed.
Some horses with splash white pattern may experience deafness depending on how the gene covers their head and ears. Deaf horses do take a little bit of extra care to train but still make great riding / show horses.
Similiar to sabino, this is another “paint” gene causing high white on a horse. Rabicano horses are also a common “paint” expression seen in purebred arabians. The pattern that results is a roan like coloration, usually throughout their barrel and flank. Horses with this pattern also typically have a “skunk” tail or white hairs in their tail head.
Appaloosa (LP & PATN1)
There are two distinct patterns for the Appaloosa pattern. LP and PATN1 are the notations used to identify them. In order to tell which pattern your horse carries, you would need to get a DNA color test done.
The result of either gene is awesome appaloosa characteristics and sometimes spots. It is worth noting that a horse can carry the LP gene and not express it fully. This is how we got some Appaloosa purebred quarter horses (Reminic In Spots). His parents and grandparents were not fully expressing the gene and so were accepted into the AQHA.
The Appaloosa genes can modify any base color. It is entirely possible to have a grulla appaloosa or a buckskin dun appaloosa or a gray appaloosa. I’ve even seen a few absolutely gorgeous champagne appaloosas!
Here are a couple of examples of mustang appaloosas.
Roan is another color I love. It was once thought to be lethal in the homozygous form but that has been proven to be not true. There are many homozygous roans standing at stud. The gene is notated with the letters “Rn”. A homozygous roan is RnRn and a heterozygous roan is Rnrn.
The roan color, like the rest of the modifiers in this category, can act on any base color. It is possible, for example, to have a blue roan tobiano horse. In the case of paint markings or appaloosa pattern, the roan color will only apply to the solid colored portion of the horse.
Gray is often considered a color but, the truth is, it is actually a modifier. No different from tobiano, roan or appaloosa.
A gray horse can have any base color. Gray horses can be born black, roan, palomino, grulla, etc. If they have the gray gene, they will turn gray at some point.
The gray gene is dominant. If even one copy is present, the horse will turn gray. The rate at which each horse turns gray varies from one individual to the next. Typically they are born a solid color and change over time.
Usually, by the time they reach 10 years of age, they will be one of two colors: white or flea-bitten. Though, some horses can take longer to fully gray out.
This is only a small sampling of the color possibilities that exist in the equine world. There are an infinite number of combinations of the genes listed above that can create beautifully colored horses.
The best way to tell what color your horse truly is would be to order a coat color genetic test. Our post on horse DNA testing gives some excellent resources for getting those coat color tests done.
One of my favorite things to do is guess foal colors. Even if you adopted a mustang pregnant off the range, knowing her DNA can help you determine foal color possibilities. Of course, all that matters is a healthy foal but playing with coat color predictions is lots of fun!
If you see a color here that doesn’t have a picture and you have a horse of that color, email me and helpfulhorsehints with at gmail.com. Although I can’t add every picture I get, I will see about getting your picture added (even if it isn’t a mustang) or using it in a future horse color article.
Please note that if your photo has a photographers watermark, I can’t use the photo unless I have the photographers permission. I can only accept photos YOU took.
Other Awesome Articles You May Like:
- Equine DNA Testing for Coat Color and Breed
- How and Where to Adopt A Mustang
- 26 Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse
- 10 Easy Horse Obstacles Under $20
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