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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

A Horse of a Different Color

Today I’d like to delve a wee bit into one of the more animal science-y topics I encounter in my line of work: the color of horses.

So many of the horses I see are plain chestnut (a reddish brown), or bay, which is a horse with a brown body and a black mane and tail. These are extremely common colors, especially for popular breeds such as Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Quarter Horses, which make up a bulk of my practice. And don’t get me wrong: A glossy chestnut coat can gleam in the sunshine and take your breath away. But it always makes my day to see a wild-colored four-legged thing at the end of the drive when I pull up for yearly vaccines. Dappled gray? Gorgeous! Black with a white blaze? Beautiful! And the piece de resistance? Spots!

Suffice it to say, there are so many more colors within the horse world than just brown. In fact, there’s practically a whole rainbow.

Let’s start with my favorite color pattern: the pinto. With large splotches of white and brown or white and black, it’s no wonder these horses are common sights in parades, rodeos, and Western films. Here’s also my chance to clear a little confusion about some horse vernacular: The term “pinto” is used to describe any horse (or pony) with large splotches of white and another solid color. The term “Paint” is actually considered a breed of horse: one whose parents are either both Paints themselves, or one parent being Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred and the other a Paint. Ideally, a Paint should have the coloring of a pinto, but to make things more confusing, sometimes the genetics just don’t pan out and a Paint has a solid coat. Those horses are called “breeding stock Paints.” For more information, check out each color/breed’s website: the American Paint Horse Association and the Pinto Horse Association of America.

Transitioning from large splotches to smaller spots, we have the Appaloosa. This color (it is also considered a breed) has a rich history as a favored mount of the Nez Perce Native Americans in the northwest. Referred to originally as “A Palouse Horse” in geographic reference to the Palouse River, the name developed over time into “Appaloosa.” Appaloosas can have color patterns ranging from “leopard spot” to “snowflake” with bodies covered in polka dots, or just their haunches covered in a white frosting, respectively.

Now, how about the palomino, that blonde bombshell of the horse world with a body the color of a freshly minted copper penny and a creamy white mane and tail? Or the buckskin, a darker variety of the palomino, with a yellow body and dark mane and tail? Please don’t even get me started on the fascinating topic of the genetics of these colors — I could cover an entire month’s blogs about that!

Sometimes in my travels I’ll see a pinto, and occasionally I’ll treat a palomino. Rarely do I get to feast my eyes on a flashy Appaloosa, and I’ve never had my hands on some of the more rare breeds such as the Akhal-Teke, a rare breed from Turkmenistan known for having a literal metallic sheen to its coat.

Although I admittedly get a little tired sometimes when I’m faced with vaccinating an entire barn of brown and bay horses, I suppose I’m being a little too superficial in my quest for a horse of a different color. But sometimes, I just can’t pass up a little flashy equine chrome!

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Abramova Kseniya / via Shutterstock

Comments  2

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  • I Confess
    03/29/2013 06:10pm

    I confess that I've not given much thought to the coloring of horses, but after clicking on the links provided, it makes me want to take a box of sugar cubes to someone's horse farm (is that kind of treat still allowed?) The horses on the Pinto site were beautiful!

    Dr. O'Brien, do you have any background in horse training? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  • 03/31/2013 07:43pm

    An occasional sugar cube is still allowed, just ask the owners first to be sure :)

    To answer your question, I'm honestly a very poor animal trainer - I think mostly because I lack the patience that is necessary when working with animals in that way. The closest I come to being a trainer is training my dog to "sit" and "shake". And... that's about it. I do believe in positive reinforcement - you do catch more flies with honey than vinegar and rewarding good behavior, in my experience gets you more progress than constantly punishing bad behavior in animals. This is certainly true in horses where a scared or spooked horse can be very dangerous. Some folks actually clicker train their horses, just like some dog owners do. Perhaps we've just come across another blog topic?

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