A Horse of a Different Color (and a giveaway!)

Kathleen Rice Adams headerReaders of traditional westerns and western romance tend to expect certain kinds of characters in stories. After strong men and feisty women, far and away the next most expected character is a horse. That’s how western movies came by the somewhat pejorative monikers “oater” and “horse opera.”

gray, chestnut, and bay roan horse

From left: a gray, a chestnut, and a bay roan

I can’t speak for other western romance authors, but when I put a horse in a story, it can’t be just any old horse. The horse must fit the story and the human character with whom it pals around. All sorts of traits (including breed, size, and temperament) play into the decision, but one of the most obvious is coat color.

The color of a fictional horse says quite a bit about its rider. If a human character doesn’t want to stand out in a crowd, he or she most likely will ride a chestnut or sorrel, the two most common colors. Bays are another good choice for “don’t look at me” characters. Conversely, “flashy” horses—those with lots of white, like Appaloosas, palominos, and paints—send the subconscious message the character wants to be seen.

Duns and buckskins lend an aura of toughness to their riders, male or female. Don’t ask me why, but I’m sure there’s some complicated psychological explanation somewhere. And then there are the uncommon colors that make human characters seem rebellious: grullas and roans.

Because it sometimes can be difficult to visualize horse colors—and because everyone who reads western romance likes to look at pictures of pretty horses, right?—I thought I’d provide some helpful visuals.

Without further ado…

chestnut horsechestnut horseChestnuts are red horses. Period. The shade can vary along a continuum from light to dark. Although manes and tails may be a lighter shade, they usually are the same color as the horse’s body. Liver chestnuts are so dark they seem almost brown. White blazes and stockings are optional. In Prodigal Gun, hero Mason Caine rides only “plain” chestnuts—ones with small or no white markings—because he wants to fade into the scenery.

sorrel horsesorrel horseSorrels are red, too, but the line between sorrel and chestnut can be vague. Sorrel is a light, bright red—sometimes described as “copper penny red.” Some folks call sorrels a subset of chestnut; others say sorrel is distinct from chestnut because true sorrels have flaxen manes and tails. I’m staying out of that argument. Brit Moonchaser, the main characters in my forthcoming novel Ghosts in the Shadows, rides a sorrel gelding with a flaxen mane and tail—mostly because I like the color.

mahogany bay horse

mahogany bay

blood bay horses

blood bays

Bay horses range from a light reddish-brown to a dark, almost black, red. All bay horses have black manes, tails, and lower legs (called “points”). The darkest are called mahogany bay. One of the most striking bays, I think, is blood bay—a deep, bright red. “Flashy” blood bays are particularly attractive. A dangerous, flashy blood bay stallion plays a significant role in Ghosts in the Shadows.

buckskin horses

buckskin mare and foal

buckskin quarter horse

buckskin quarter horse

Buckskins are tan or golden horses with dark
manes, legs, and tails. The tips of their ears also sport dark hair. White stockings and blazes are not uncommon. Cole McCord, the Texas Ranger in Prodigal Gun, rides a buckskin gelding. Cole is a by-the-book, no-nonsense lawman.

three-week-old red dun horse

three-week-old red dun

dark dun horse

dark dun

Duns often are confused with buckskins. Their coats run the same color spectrum, and both have dark points. The difference is this: Duns bear “primitive markings”; buckskins don’t. Primitive markings include a dark line down the center of the back from withers to tail, a dark splash across the shoulders, zebra stripes on the legs, and rings on the forehead (called “cobwebbing”). Many of the markings may be virtually invisible, but the line down the back is a dead giveaway and it’s always present. Often, duns’ tails will bear a dark stripe, as well. Whit McCandless, the rancher with an inflexibility problem in the short novella Peaches, rides a lineback dun.

grullo horse

light grullo mare

grullo horse

See the stripe down his back?

Grullas or grullos (grew-ya; grew-yo) are essentially blue duns, a color combination that occurs when the dun coat color gene crosses the black coat color gene. Grullas/grullos (either is correct), sometimes called “mouse duns,” also bear primitive markings. The color is striking, if uncommon. Quinn Barclay, the hero in the award-winning short novella The Second-Best Ranger in Texas, rides a grulla gelding with a drinking problem.

bay roan quarter horse

bay roan

strawberry roan horse

strawberry roan

Roans come in red, bay, and blue. They look “mottled” because white hair mixes with the horse’s base color evenly across most of the body. Roans’ heads and lower legs are the solid base color. Blue roans have black heads, manes, and tails. Bay roans have black manes, tails, and legs. Red roans—sometimes called strawberry roans—have chestnut heads, manes, tails, and legs. Latimer, a gunman who wants everyone to know who he is, rides a strawberry roan gelding in Prodigal Gun.

paint horsepaint horsePaint and pinto horses are marked with large splotches of white and any other color. (In the Old West, the terms paint and pinto were interchangeable. Nowadays there are technical differences between the two having to do with bloodlines.) Paints come in three varieties—Tobiano, Overo, and Tovero—but unless an author is writing a contemporary story set among the horsey set, nobody cares. Jessie, the heroine in Prodigal Gun, is rebellious from the word go. Her horse, Caliente, is a black-and-white paint mare.

palomino Tennessee Walking Horse

palomino Tennessee Walking Horse

palomino and chestnut horses

palomino mare with her chestnut foal

Palominos can range in color from almost white to deep chocolate, but the vast majority have coats “within three shades of a newly minted gold coin.” All have white or flaxen manes and tails. Everyone remembers Roy Rogers’s Trigger, right?

varnish roan Appaloosa

varnish roan Appaloosa

Appaloosa horse striped hoof

Appaloosa hoof

Appaloosas are easy to spot. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) The breed is said to have originated among the Nez Perce Indians, who bred them for their spotted coats. Appies can be almost any base color and come in several patterns, but perhaps the best known are leopards (spots evenly distributed over a light-colored horse) and blankets (commonly a splash of white with spots across the rump of a darker base coat, although there are other blanket patterns). Many have striped hooves. Varnish roan is an exceptionally striking and uncommon version of the leopard pattern and is distinguished from other roans by the appearance of dark spots over prominent bones (hips, knees, facial bones, etc.). I haven’t found a character in need of an Appaloosa yet, but I’m sure I will.

What’s your favorite horse color? One of these? Something else? Let us know in the comments. I’ll draw the name of one commenter, and that person will receive a KINDLE version of his or her choice from my backlist. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)

Kathleen Rice Adams

A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s tales, even the good guys wear black hats.


Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.


Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang’s hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.


43 Comments

  1. Thanks for the lesson on horse coloring. I have heard the terms for these colorations, but didn’t know what a couple were. My favorite was a palomino then I decided I liked a jet black horse with a star on the forehead and 4 white stockings.

    1. Jet-black with white points makes for a striking animal, doesn’t it? Thanks for mentioning that, Patricia!

  2. I love the blood bays, the buckskins and duns. Thanks for the nice lesson.

    1. You’re welcome, Debra! Blood bay and sorrel are my two favorite colors. 🙂

  3. I’ve loved horses all of my life–even owned a few when I was younger. Appaloosas have always been one of my favorites, but I love the coloring of the Grullas and blue roans too.

    1. In person (in equine?), grulla is one of those “double-take” colors: You’ve got to take another look to make sure your eyes didn’t deceive. It’s an uncommon color and be really attractive. Roans REALLY stand out because they like two different horses were smashed together. 😀

  4. Wow, what an informative post! My daughter will love to read it. I love the paint and grulla colored horses.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Susan! I hope your daughter does, too. 🙂 Paints are a favorite in westerns and western historical romance, even though they weren’t all that common among white people during the period. Go figure.

  5. Thank you for the great descriptions! These are all beautiful. I used to dream of owning a Palomino, but I wouldn’t turn down an Appie, a Paint or a grulla. 🙂

    Question: In the photo above, the caption says it’s a “palomino mare with her chestnut foal”. Was the stud a chestnut and that’s why the foal is chestnut? Or will the foal develop more palomino coloring as it gets older? I’ve seen calves change color (a pretty gray turning darker, or legs becoming darker), but am not as familiar with foals.

    Bookmarking this post for future reference. 🙂

    1. Paints are beautiful! Thanks for sharing this info.

      1. You’re welcome, Kimberly! 🙂

    2. Pam, I don’t think I’d turn down a horse of any color. 😀

      Horse coat-color genetics are very confusing. “This crossed with that” doesn’t always equal what one might expect. The base coat color of a chestnut is very different from the base coat color of a palomino. A chestnut foal may lighten a bit as it ages, but it’s more likely to darken. In either case, it’ll always be a chestnut. An experienced breeder can tell the coat color of a foal by its skin and eye color.

      Lipizzaners and other gray horses don’t follow that color-maturation process. They’re born with dark coats, skin, and eyes, and their coats lighten as they age. Truly white horses, on the other hand, are born with white coats and skin, and light eyes. They stay white throughout their lives.

  6. Lovely post! I appreciate the descriptions and photos. I’ll be marking this page for future reference!

    1. Glad you like the post, Susanne! My ego loves to hear people found something useful enough to bookmark for future reference. Bookmark away! 🙂

  7. I don’t know much about horses so this will definitely help me visualize as I read books in the future!

    1. Always glad to help, Heidi! 🙂

  8. They are all so beautiful! My fav horse, Jackpot, that I was lucky enough to ride at camp when I was younger was this beautiful white horse with black hair and black spots on the rear. 🙂

    1. Maybe he was an Appy, Colleen? Whatever he was, sounds like he became the love of your life there for a while. 🙂

  9. Well vowing up we had a palomino! He was beautiful! Even more so when his winter coat would shed, he was pure gold! But I love the buckskin mare! So pretty!

    1. A well-groomed palomino is just beautiful in the sunlight, isn’t it? I’ve been trying to figure out whether the buckskin foal has been rolling in the mud or just needs to shed some coat. 😀

  10. I think the painted horses many colors are the prettiest.

    1. Paints are a perennial favorite, Kim. You picked a good color! 🙂

  11. Hi Kathleen, wow, what a terrific and helpful post. I’ll be stopping back here a million times for sure. The prettiest horse we have at the rescue, IMO, is a cremello perlino palomino. She is pink underneath her white hide (and susceptible to melanoma!) with glacier-blue eyes. A beauty, Pearl made her way into one of my stories LOL. I also love the paints. Well and everybody else, too LOL. Thanks for the great pix and info today. xoxo

    1. I think you’ve shown pictures of Pearl, haven’t you? She’s a cremello perlino? I’ve seen some awfully pretty cremellos. Such an unusual color!

      Take more pics the next time you’re out at the rescue! You do such good work out there. Bless you for that, dear friend.

      HUGS!!!!

  12. Wow. What an incredibly helpful and clear way to explain the different types.

    Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome! I don’t know about anyone else, but pictures always help put things in context for me. 🙂

  13. Hi there Kathleen,
    I love horses… and your post is, as usual, very informative. I love palominos – always wanted a palomino ever since I saw Lancer and a certain Johnny Madrid Lancer riding a palomino. Then, my preference goes to pinto and paint… and those dark duns. Grulla are pretty nice, too.

    1. Petit Hibou, it would have been easier to ask you which color you DON’T like! There’s one in every bunch… 😉

      1. ROFL – nah, make it Double ROFL

  14. Kathleen, enjoyed reading the posts. And LOVED the photos! A picture is truly worth a thousand words. :0)
    I used to raise horses and enjoyed researching each breed. We had a palomino mare (quarter horse of the Johnny Zero blood line) and found that you have to breed a palomino to a sorrel to get palomino. (If you breed to another palomino you get sorrel or chestnut or on a rare occasion an albino. Albinos have many health issues because of their lack of skin pigment–like sunburns.) I have pictures of our palomino’s colt which was born sorrel like the stud, but within a few months his mane started growing out white (like someone had bleached the roots with the red tips) He turned the golden color of the palomino mare by eight months.
    We also raised Appaloosa. Nez Perce Indians are noted for breeding them in the states and Canada, but the breed can be traced back to China. They were bred for the Emperor. Peasants weren’t allow to own one. Another appy characteristic is the white shows around the eyes instead of the brown of most horses. Originally they were small, quick and very smart besides each one had their unique coloring. Easy to spot your horse in a herd. :0) Over the years breeders have crossed them with many different breeds to get the color so unless you have a good papers that trace the animal to some original bloodlines, chances it’s a mixture of about anything. :0) Sorry for the long post. Horses have been a big part of my life since I was a teen. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Blessings, Jan

    1. Jan! I’m so glad you made that long comment. You told me a couple of things I didn’t know. LOVE it when that happens! 🙂

      I’ve never been able to figure out coat-color genetics. That whole field of endeavor just gives me headaches. I’ll bet your colt was something to watch as he changed colors. I’d love to see the pictures.

      I was completely unaware of the Appies’ history in China. I’ve got a post coming up about the various horse breeds that were, if not common, at least seen in the Old West. Appies, of course, are one of the breeds. I hope you’ll read that post, too, and help me fill in the gaps!

      Again, THANK YOU for sharing your “horse sense” with everyone. HUGS!!!!

  15. Thanks for all the pictures to go along with the informative post, Kathleen! We recently found another home for our daughter’s chestnut gelding. (Don’t tell him but I’ve always loved dark bays.)

    1. My lips are sealed, Glenda. 😀

  16. I really like a grey horse and I had a couple of grey horses growing up. I an Arab / grey named Sagr and an Arab/ Quarter horse mare. Loved and miss them both! Thank you for sharing about all the different colors. So very interesting! Jenny

    1. You’re welcome, Jenny! How lucky you were to be owned by two Arab-crosses. Most Arabs are even-tempered, and all of them have such regal bearing. Such beautiful horses. 🙂

  17. I love a paint or pinto horse! Thanks so much for all the information.

    1. Score another one for the paints! 😀

  18. I have always loved the Appaloosa with the spots on the rump. That was the only identifier I know for them when I was young.

    Kathleen, I wanted to let you know that my pecan pie was a success and my mom loved it. My only problem was the crust. I have made pies before with successful crusts, but this time the edges got a little overdone. It could be my stove. My mom didn’t mind. 🙂

    1. I’m so glad to hear the pie recipe worked for you and your mom! Because pecan pies have to bake so long, the crust tends to get a little dark. I should have mentioned to cover the crust (only) with tinfoil during the last 10-15 minutes of baking to prevent that. Sorry. 🙁

  19. Thank you so much. I have always loved horses and their range of colors. Today I think my favorite was the Varnish Appaloosa. I imagine that both the paints/pintos and the appaloosas were appreciated for their camouflage in the early West.

  20. Kathleen,
    This is a great visual guide to keep from getting confused. Going to bookmark this page for future use when picking out horses for my characters. Thanks for posting. I tried to make the horse in my last book into just as much of a character as anyone else in the story. A lot of westerns tend to skip over the personality of the horses involved, but like dogs, they also have different temperaments. Since we have a lot of wild marijuana growing in Kansas, I couldn’t help but make the horse a “hemp” junkie, though I don’t know how many people caught the reference.

  21. I always loved palominos, but our horse was a little bay Arabian. I loved that horse like my best buddy. The hero in my book, Chance’s Return, raises Appaloosas. It’s so great that you volunteer at a horse rescue. We visited the Black Hills Wild Horse sanctuary last summer, and it was a wonderful place. I would love to live there! I’ve marked this page a favorite, so I can refer back if I need a refresher course in horse coloring.

  22. I’ve always been fond of Buckskins or Dun. I do love all horses though. I really enjoyed your post. I haven’t thought about all the beautiful colors and breeds for a long time..

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