Horse markings

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All of these young stallions are chestnut, but unique markings can be used to identify individuals Two year old budjonny stallions in russia.jpg
All of these young stallions are chestnut, but unique markings can be used to identify individuals

Markings on horses are usually distinctive white areas on an otherwise dark base coat color. Most horses have some markings, and they help to identify the horse as a unique individual. Markings are present at birth and do not change over the course of the horse's life. Most markings have pink skin underneath most of the white hairs, though a few faint markings may occasionally have white hair with no underlying pink skin. Markings may appear to change slightly when a horse grows or sheds its winter coat, however this difference is simply a factor of hair coat length; the underlying pattern does not change.


On a gray horse, markings visible at birth may become hidden as the horse turns white with age, but markings can still be determined by trimming the horse's hair closely, then wetting down the coat to see where there is pink skin and black skin under the hair.

Recent studies have examined the genetics behind white markings and have located certain genetic loci that influence their expression. [1]

In addition to white markings on a base coat, there are other markings or patterns that are used to identify horses as with Appaloosa, Pinto or Brindle, as well as artificial markings such as branding.

Types of white markings

Facial markings

Facial markings are usually described by shape and location. There may be more than one distinct facial marking and if so, will be named separately. Occasionally, when a white marking extends over an eye, that eye may be blue instead of brown, though this is not consistently seen in all cases.

Facial markings. Top row, L-R: blaze, stripe, stripe (or thin blaze) and snip, irregular blaze, interrupted stripe, bald face. Bottom row, L-R: faint star, star, star and strip, irregular star, snip, lip masking. HorseFaceMarkings2.png
Facial markings. Top row, L-R: blaze, stripe, stripe (or thin blaze) and snip, irregular blaze, interrupted stripe, bald face. Bottom row, L-R: faint star, star, star and strip, irregular star, snip, lip masking.

Common facial markings are:

Additional terms used to describe facial markings include the following:

Leg markings

Leg markings. Top row, L-R: Stocking, Sock or Boot, Fetlock or Sock. Bottom row, L-R: Pastern, Coronet, Partial Pastern Horsemarkings legs.png
Leg markings. Top row, L-R: Stocking, Sock or Boot, Fetlock or Sock. Bottom row, L-R: Pastern, Coronet, Partial Pastern

Leg markings are usually described by the highest point of the horse's leg that is covered by white. As a general rule, the horse's hoof beneath a white marking at the coronary line will also be light-colored ("white"). If a horse has a partial marking or ermine spots at the coronary band, the hoof may be both dark and light, corresponding with the hair coat immediately above. Where the leopard gene is present, the hoof may be striped even if markings are not visible at the coronary band.

From tallest to shortest, common leg markings are:

Additional terms used to describe white leg markings include:


Facial markings

Leg markings

Inheritance of white markings

A horse's genes influence whether it will have white markings, though the exact genes involved could differ between breeds. [2] Chestnut horses generally have more extensive white markings than bay or black horses. [2] [3] Horses with the W20 allele typically have white face and leg markings. [4]

Non-white markings

Ermine marks (just above the hoof)
Palomino Bend-Or Spot.jpg
A Bend-Or Spot

Other markings

This horse has a belly spot. It also has a blaze and three stockings Clydesdale horse.jpg
This horse has a belly spot. It also has a blaze and three stockings

Horses may have isolated body spots that are not large or numerous enough to qualify them as an Appaloosa, Pinto or Paint. Such markings are usually simply called "body spots," sometimes identified by location, i.e. "belly spot," "flank spot," etc. When this type of isolated spotting occurs, it usually involves sabino genetics.

Horses may develop white markings over areas where there was an injury to the animal, either to cover scar tissue from a cut or abrasion, or to reflect harm to the underlying skin or nerves. One common type of scarring that produces patches of white hairs are "saddle marks," which are round or oval marks on either side of the withers, produced by a pinching saddle that had been worn over a long period of time.

Natural markings

Birdcatcher spots are small white spots, about the size of a dime to the size of a quarter. They have not been linked to any specific breed, but they do tend to run in families. These spots may occur late in a horse's life, or may occur and then disappear. The spots may look like scars, but they are not caused by skin damage. The name comes from a Thoroughbred horse named Birdcatcher, who had similar flecks of white on his flank and tail. [6]

Ticking or rabicano involves white flecks of hair at the flank, and white hairs at the base of the tail. The most minimal form can have only striped white frosting at the base of the tail, called a coon tail or skunk tail. [7] Flecks of white on the root of the tail or scattered over the flanks may also be called Birdcatcher ticks. [8]

Scarring, skin disease and injury

Scarring on a horse usually results in white hairs growing in over the injured area, though occasionally there may be no hair growth over the scar at all.

Other identifying features

A tovero horse with blue eyes and "Medicine hat" markings. APHA Mare2.jpg
A tovero horse with blue eyes and "Medicine hat" markings.

Horses can be uniquely identified by more than just markings or brands. A few other physical characteristics sometimes used to distinguish a horse from another are:

Coat colors with distinctive patterns

A brindle chestnut Yarramen.jpg
A brindle chestnut

Some horse coat colors are distinguished by unique patterns. However, even for horses with coat colors that are arranged in a manner unique to each individual horse, these patterns are not called "markings." Some coat colors partially distinguished by unique patterning include:

Related Research Articles

Roan (color)

Roan is a coat color found in many animals, including horses, cattle, antelope and dogs. It is defined generally as an even mixture of white and pigmented hairs that do not "gray out" or fade as the animal ages. There are a variety of genetic conditions which produce the colors described as "roan" in various species.

Palomino Genetic color in horses

Palomino is a genetic color in horses, consisting of a gold coat and white mane and tail; the degree of whiteness can vary from bright white to yellow. Genetically, the palomino color is created by a single allele of a dilution gene called the cream gene working on a "red" (chestnut) base coat. Palomino is created by a genetic mechanism of incomplete dominance, hence it is not considered true-breeding. However, most color breed registries that record palomino horses were founded before equine coat color genetics were understood as well as they are today, therefore the standard definition of a palomino is based on the visible coat color, not heritability nor the underlying presence of the dilution gene.

American Paint Horse American horse breed defined by a part-colored coat

The American Paint Horse is a breed of horse that combines both the conformational characteristics of a western stock horse with a pinto spotting pattern of white and dark coat colors. Developed from a base of spotted horses with Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred bloodlines, the American Paint Horse Association (APHA) breed registry is now one of the largest in North America. The registry allows some non-spotted animals to be registered as "Solid Paint Bred" and considers the American Paint Horse to be a horse breed with distinct characteristics, not merely a color breed.


Skewbald is a colour pattern of horses. A skewbald horse has a coat made up of white patches on a non-black base coat, such as chestnut, bay, or any colour besides black coat. Skewbald horses which are bay and white are sometimes called tricoloured. These horses usually have pink skin under white markings and dark skin under non-white areas. Other than colour, it is similar in appearance to the piebald pattern. Some animals also exhibit colouration of the irises of the eye that match the surrounding skin. The underlying genetic cause is related to a condition known as leucism. The term is also used to describe spotting patterns in various other animals, such as goats.

Bay (horse) Hair coat color of horses

Bay is a hair coat color of horses, characterized by a reddish-brown or brown body color with a black point coloration of the mane, tail, ear edges, and lower legs. Bay is one of the most common coat colors in many horse breeds.

Gray horse

A gray horse has a coat color characterized by progressive depigmentation of the colored hairs of the coat. Most gray horses have black skin and dark eyes; unlike some equine dilution genes and some other genes that lead to depigmentation, gray does not affect skin or eye color. Gray horses may be born any base color, depending on other color genes present. White hairs begin to appear at or shortly after birth and become progressively more prevalent as the horse ages as white hairs become intermingled with hairs of other colors. Graying can occur at different rates—very quickly on one horse and very slowly on another. As adults, most gray horses eventually become completely white, though some retain intermixed light and dark hairs.

Dun gene

The dun gene is a dilution gene that affects both red and black pigments in the coat color of a horse. The dun gene lightens most of the body while leaving the mane, tail, legs, and primitive markings the shade of the undiluted base coat color. A dun horse always has a dark dorsal stripe down the middle of its back, usually has a darker face and legs, and may have transverse striping across the shoulders or horizontal striping on the back of the forelegs. Body color depends on the underlying coat color genetics. A classic "bay dun" is a gray-gold or tan, characterized by a body color ranging from sandy yellow to reddish brown. Duns with a chestnut base may appear a light tan shade, and those with black base coloration are a steel gray. Manes, tails, primitive markings, and other dark areas are usually the shade of the undiluted base coat color. The dun gene may interact with all other coat color alleles.

Pinto horse Horse with coat color that consists of large patches

A pinto horse has a coat color that consists of large patches of white and any other color. The distinction between "pinto" and "solid" can be tenuous, as so-called "solid" horses frequently have areas of white hair. Various cultures throughout history appear to have selectively bred for pinto patterns.

Equine coat color Horse coat colors and markings

Horses exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and distinctive markings. A specialized vocabulary has evolved to describe them.

Varnish roan

Varnish roan describes a horse with coloration similar to roan, but with some changes in color over the years, though not to the extreme of a gray. This type of roaning only occurs in conjunction with the Leopard complex. Varnish roans are born with a dark base coat color, usually with some spotting. As the horse ages, white hairs increase over most of the body, and many spotted markings blur or fade. The varnish roan pattern often appears to spread from the white of any original markings. This color pattern is best known in the Appaloosa breed of horse.

White horse

A white horse is born white and stays white throughout its life. A white horse may have brown, blue, or hazel eyes. "True white" horses, especially those that carry one of the dominant white (W) genes, are rare. Most horses that are commonly referred to as "white" are actually "gray" horses whose hair coats are completely white and may be born of any color and gradually "gray" as time goes on and take on a white appearance.

Black horse Horse coat color

Black is a hair coat color of horses in which the entire hair coat is black. Black is a relatively uncommon coat color, and it is not uncommon to mistake dark chestnuts or bays for black.

Sabino horse

A sabino horse has a group of white spotting patterns that affect the skin and hair. A wide variety of irregular color patterns are accepted as sabino. In the strictest sense, "sabino" refers to the white patterns produced by the Sabino 1 (SB1) gene, for which there is a DNA test. However, other horse enthusiasts also refer to patterns that are visually similar to SB1 as "sabino", even if testing indicates the gene is not present. Use of the term to describe non-SB1 "sabino" patterns in breeds that apparently do not carry the gene is hotly debated by both researchers and horse breeders.

Rabicano horse coat colors and patterns, such as white ticking or roaning

Rabicano, sometimes called white ticking, is a horse coat color characterized by limited roaning in a specific pattern: its most minimal form is expressed by white hairs at the top of a horse's tail, often is expressed by additional interspersed white hairs seen first at the flank, then other parts of the body radiating out from the flank, where the white hairs will be most pronounced. Rabicano is distinct from true roan, which causes evenly interspersed white hairs throughout the body, except for solid-colored head and legs.

Horse grooming

Horse grooming is hygienic care given to a horse, or a process by which the horse's physical appearance is enhanced for horse shows or other types of competition.

Primitive markings

Primitive markings are a group of hair coat markings and qualities seen in several equine species, including horses, donkeys, and asses. In horses, they are associated with primitive breeds, though not limited to such breeds. The markings are particularly associated with the dun coat color family. All dun and non-dun 1 horses possess at least the dorsal stripe, but the presence of the other primitive markings varies. Other common markings may include horizontal striping on the legs, transverse striping across the shoulders, and lighter guard hairs along the edges of a dark mane and tail.

Leopard complex Coat pattern in horses

The leopard complex is a group of genetically related coat patterns in horses. These patterns range from progressive increases in interspersed white hair similar to graying or roan to distinctive, Dalmatian-like leopard spots on a white coat. Secondary characteristics associated with the leopard complex include a white sclera around the eye, striped hooves and mottled skin. The leopard complex gene is also linked to abnormalities in the eyes and vision. These patterns are most closely identified with the Appaloosa and Knabstrupper breeds, though its presence in breeds from Asia to western Europe has indicated that it is due to a very ancient mutation.

Dominant white Horse coat color and its genetics

Dominant white or white spotting is a group of genetically related coat color conditions in the horse, best known for producing an all-white coat, but also able to produce various forms of white spotting and white markings, several of which are sometimes referred to as sabino.

The Pinto Horse Association of America (PtHA) registers horses, utility horses, ponies and miniature horses of various pedigrees with certain kinds of pinto coat colors. The word pinto is Spanish for "paint." In general terms, pinto can apply to any horse marked with unpigmented pink-skinned, white-haired areas on its coat. The Pinto Horse Association of America provides the owners and riders of pintos with a show circuit and a breed organization. The primary requirement for PtHA registration is coat color; the pinto is not a true breed, but a color breed.

Roan (horse) Horse coat color pattern characterized by an even mixture of colored and white hairs on the body

Roan is a horse coat color pattern characterized by an even mixture of colored and white hairs on the body, while the head and "points"—lower legs, mane and tail—are mostly solid-colored. Horses with roan coats have white hairs evenly intermingled throughout any other color. The head, legs, mane and tail have fewer scattered white hairs or none at all. The roan pattern is dominantly-inherited, and is found in many horse breeds. While the specific mutation responsible for roan has not been exactly identified, a DNA test can determine zygosity for roan in several breeds. True roan is always present at birth, though it may be hard to see until after the foal coat sheds out. The coat may lighten or darken from winter to summer, but unlike the gray coat color, which also begins with intermixed white and colored hairs, roans do not become progressively lighter in color as they age. The silvering effect of mixed white and colored hairs can create coats that look bluish or pinkish.


  2. 1 2 "Are Markings Inherited?". Equus Magazine.Cite magazine requires |magazine= (help)
  3. Rieder, Stefan; Hagger, Christian; Obexer-Ruff, Gabriela; Leeb, Tosso; Poncet, Pierre-André (2008). "Genetic Analysis of White Facial and Leg Markings in the Swiss Franches-Montagnes Horse Breed". Journal of Heredity. 99 (2): 130–136. doi: 10.1093/jhered/esm115 . PMID   18296388.
  4. "Dominant White Mutations – W5, W10, W20, and W22". UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. Retrieved Aug 15, 2020.
  5. Medicine Hat horses
  6. "Birdcatcher Spots Explained". Equus Magazine.Cite magazine requires |magazine= (help)
  7. "Skunk Tailed". American Quarter Horse Association. April 10, 2018. Retrieved Aug 16, 2020.
  8. Christopher McGrath (2017). Mr. Darley's Arabian. ISBN   9781681773902. Within five years of his death, one expert would concede: 'It cannot be denied that 'Irish Birdcatcher' has done more for the racehorse than any stallion of modern days - probably than ever was heard of; not alone in speed, but in symmetry of shape and power.' His imprint on the Darley Arabian line was to become so indelible that even today silver flecks in the root of a horse's tail, or scattered over the flanks, are known as 'Birdcatcher ticks'. [from the first page of chapter 12]