Appaloosa color shifting


One of the things that used to stump me, when I first began painting horses, was the base color on many of the Appaloosas. Often the horses had an odd pewter brown coloring that did not look quite like chestnut – not even liver chestnut – and was not really black. Many years later, I found myself owning just such a horse. The picture above is my mare, Sprinkles. In that particular picture, she is three years old. If you look closely, you can see that her lower legs are a bronze color. In bright sunlight, that is the best term for her coloring. In lower light, and when she is in her winter coat, she is closer to a dull pewter.

Her previous owners thought she was a grulla, probably because they mistook the split in her blanket for a dorsal stripe. I also wonder if they weren’t subconsciously seeing what seemed pretty clear to me, which was that the tones in her coat were all wrong for even the dullest red-pigmented horse. She looked like a diluted black horse of some kind.

And that is exactly what her tests from UC Davis showed her to be. She is genetically black (Eeaa) without any known dilution gene. Her coloring isn’t the result of sun-fading. Most blacks that sun-fade retain a certain amount of darker pigment on their lower legs. Her lower legs are the palest tones on her body. This photo was taken last summer, when she was eight years old. The lighter area at the top of her leg is appaloosa-related roaning. Although there are a few white spots on her legs (none visible in this shot), there are no roan hairs below her knees. The hair itself is lighter and somewhat iridescent.


When I got her results back in 2008, I posted a series of comparison photos on my studio blog to show how the tones on lower legs differed. This is the sort of thing that artists need to be able to see in order to capture different colors in a believable way. It’s also something that artistically inclined people tend to do well, which is probably why many artists are good at guessing color when tests are not available.

I’ll give the same caveat about these photos that I did when I first posted them. Photographs are not the best way to really see these differences, even for people that are good at noticing them. All the ways we record and transmit images (film, printing, monitors) can distort color, and with something like this what we are dealing with are very subtle differences in tone. These images were taken with the same equipment in close proximity to one another, but still viewing these colors in real life – preferrably side-by-side – is the best way to see. Indeed, the tone in color is really best studied from life because the camera rarely captures what is so obvious in person. But this is as close as we can get over the internet!

These are the legs of a sooty palomino pony. Notice how yellow in tone the lightest areas are. “Yellowness” is one of the best indicators for the presence of the cream gene.

These are the legs of a red silver pony. This horse is genetically bay, and you can see the unaltered red hairs on the upper leg. His black lower leg has been diluted by the silver gene, turning it a bluish chocolate. The overall tone on the lower legs is very cool, especially compared to the yellow of the palomino above.


And these are Sprinkle’s legs. Again, she’s genetically black so like the silver legs above, this is a diluted form of black. The color isn’t cool, however. It isn’t yellow, but it’s not really red either. If I had to call it something, I would say it is a bronze tone.


Here is a side-by-side comparison of the leg color, with an addition of a sooty chestnut to compare against a truly red leg.  (The image links to a much larger version.)


And finally here are bronzed legs beside a flaxen chestnut leg and a truly black leg, showing the contrasting tones.

To my knowledge, no formal studies have been done to determine what causes this. It does not happen to all black appaloosas, but it is not especially rare either. Tomorrow I will post a few more examples.

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25 Responses to Appaloosa color shifting

  1. summerhorse March 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    This was discussed on The Appaloosa Project yahoogroup back when it existed. One of the more extreme examples is Peppermint Patty who went from dark grulla to a very light red dun color. I haven’t been to TAP site in awhile but at the time it was unknown why this happens. Her sire Grand Design (think his name is) also has some dilution in his coat.

  2. summerhorse March 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    Oops, it is A’va Minted Design, her dam is PP who is chestnut.

    • The Equine Tapestry March 9, 2012 at 7:47 am #

      Yes, she’s coming up in the next post. Her owner was very kind in allowing me to use her photos in the book. She’s actually on the back cover so people can see her in full color.

  3. Kristin Berkery March 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    I think I have an Appy like yours! I’ve wondered for years exactly what his color is. He looks like a diluted black too. I pulled several tail hairs years ago to have him tested, but I didn’t have it done because the tests were $75 each at the time. Now that it’s cheaper I need to do it!

  4. Jenn March 9, 2012 at 1:47 am #

    I think this is what Nehi is too!

  5. Marge Para March 9, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    I was never able to figure out what color Colt was, the few spot I had that you used in some of the blogs. His color was listed on his AppHC papers as a red roan, and his photos as a weanling were b/w photos. But he wasn’t a red roan, he was that dark color on his mane/tail and legs, like your horse Leslie, I never had him tested tho.

    • The Equine Tapestry March 9, 2012 at 7:49 am #

      Yes, Marge! I planned to use his pictures in the next post, because his lower legs have that same tone. Thank you for telling me how he was registered. I suspect a lot of these horses end up registered as chestnuts, since many horsemen are going to use the lighter lower legs as a guide for determining the base color.

  6. Alissa Hoerdt March 9, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    So is there even a guess to whats causing it? Didn’t you say somewhere that its known that Dominant White has mutated to different forms in different blood lines.. Would this/could this be some odd mutation of the silver gene only found in appys? Or is it assumed to be some totally undiscovered gene?

    • The Equine Tapestry March 9, 2012 at 8:27 am #

      Dominant white is really a grouping of a number of separate mutations. They didn’t arise from one another, but are similar events that happened separately.

      But that is a question a lot of people have asked since the different splash genes have been announced. Can an existing mutation further mutate into something different? Or are all variations like dominant white in that they are separate mutations in the same general area of the genetic code, and therefor produce a visually similar result?

      To my knowledge, no formal study has been done on color shifting in appaloosas. My gut says that it is unrelated to the silver (Z) gene, but that’s just a guess until there is more substantial research. I can say that whatever it is, it does not seem to separate out from the appaloosa patterning. That is, appaloosas with the trait do not seem to pass it along to their non-appaloosa offspring.

      • Alissa Hoerdt March 9, 2012 at 8:50 am #

        Thats interesting, thanks for clearing up the dominant white thing.. Are there not enough of these horses for them to be researched formally? Or must be something on the list of things to do for the researchers I guess.. Will be very interesting when there is a study done.

        • The Equine Tapestry March 9, 2012 at 10:34 am #

          With dominant white you often have just one horse, and maybe a handful of descendants, so there isn’t really a lot of commercial demand for a test. That’s especially true when you have a mutation in a breed that is otherwise solid, since it’s pretty obvious when the horse has it or not. So the the number of available tests is probably always going to be small compared to the number of identified mutations.

          • Alissa Hoerdt March 9, 2012 at 11:03 am #

            I was meaning the number of these diluted appys, are there not enough for testing.. There must be a far number for you to notice that the trait isnt passed down no non appy offspring.

          • The Equine Tapestry March 9, 2012 at 11:26 am #

            Sorry I misunderstood the question! 🙂 There are quite a few of them, relatively speaking, but I suspect it’s not a question where the answer has a high economic return. So yes, it’s probably further down the list for researchers, behind the things that generate commercially viable tests.

  7. Marge Para March 9, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Leslie, I have a couple of photos of Colt when he was younger, he had really whited out by the time you took those photos.. he was 26 I think at that time. Would you like me to email you some photos of how he looked when he was younger?

  8. chris March 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    This is so interesting. I had a few that were the exact same weird black shading, also never had tested because of expense and they were geldings so truly didn’t matter. The vet said they were liver chestnut (I knew they weren’t) and many apps had weird “manifestations” of normal colors. This made sense, since I had two fillies who were red dun, very deep red color with bold primitive markings and crisp blankets, both Dreamfinder granddaughters so were cousins. One faded to a light palomino-like shade retaining the primitive markings. The other faded to white with red hocks but no color retained in the other areas associated with varnish roan. Many on that dreamfinder line roan out like that.

  9. Ros Nightingale March 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Palmer J Wagner commented on this colour as being chocolate. I have several Appaloosa horses with this strange coat or leg colour – not really a liver chesnut but a brownish colour.

  10. Angie October 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    Hi there, I was wondering if you minded having a look at my mare’s colouring. We are in South Africa and as far as I know there are no genetic colour labs here. I’ve posted her pic on some Appy groups but nobody can tell me, only when I saw the colour shifting pics on an FB colour group, did I see something similar. I would be happy to email you pics if you could lend me your expertise 🙂
    Many thanks

    • nightingalestud October 13, 2012 at 5:38 am #

      Can you send picture? That strange colour that you talk about, Palmer J Wagner called a ‘chocolate’ brown – since then its about the best colour to cover that unusual darker than liver but not bay.

  11. Alexandra January 13, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Can this color shift happen to sorrel appaloosas? Maybe it’s better hidden and visible only for few very strong shifts??

    I have an appa filly who was born pure sorrel and she turn bay or more exactly bronze bay color after first shedding. Also her mane and tail changed from sorrel to black plus some yellow. Her feet are lighter color, almost yellowish. Plus some white hair – she’s roaining. She has gray eyes.

    Her dam has also changer her color during life from being born normal sorrel to flaxen bronze sorrel to dark palomino with lots of roaning. Her mane and tail are completely pale yellow with little black spot in her mane.

  12. Anfieldappies January 24, 2014 at 2:43 am #

    Actually this phenomenon has been researched by the Appaloosa Project folks. The Appaloosa gene, LP, or “leopard complex” gene is responsible for the fading of black to the bronze shade on the mare above. I had an Appy that was bay/dun with a loud blanket and spots and his coat faded to a light buckskin. His black points remained black and the spots in his blanket stayed darker brown.

  13. Sue Mulder February 5, 2014 at 2:51 am #

    My Appaloosas mare Gaylos Sugarfoot was born black with a blanket and spots, she started to roan as a yearling and turned a dark blue roan. At 8 years old, she shed out to be completely chestnut based,,even the spots on her rump turned red.

  14. LeAnne February 13, 2014 at 7:53 am #

    My old mare was a blue roan but in the summer she could look red roan then she would switch to a blue roan again and her mane and tail went from cream with silver and some black mixed in to black with silver and white mixed in. It would change during the season changes and if I cut her mane short it would grow back in darker or lighter than what it was when I cut it. When she was a foal she had the true blue roan body with the white spotted blanket(just seen pictures) to as she got older she roaned out to almost white, she had a large diamond on her forehead that as she got older it got wider as her face got whiter.

  15. Rhonda May 25, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    I had a few spot mare that was foaled cherry red chestnut but on change of foal coat darkened to a liver color as she varnished. Her full sister (loud leopard) did the same thing. Both of them had the copper/bronze coloration on the lower legs. Their dam was a chestnut leopard, sire was a liver chestnut leopard with spots so dark they were black. He was recorded as bay on registration papers and looked it in his early photos but was genetically tested as a chestnut.

  16. Pam July 18, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    I own a Gypsy stallion as a baby he was black and white tobiano,I had color tested him and the results were: TT, EE, aa …. then at approx 2 years old he started showing signs of red spots on his neck and face. He has mottling on his eye lids and around the corners of his lips, knowing this was a sign of Appaloosa coloring I promptly had him retested and now he comes back as:
    TT, EE, aa. Lp/n
    His color as changed now over the last couple years to a Red Frosted Pintaloosa, I would like to show you a photo of him, but not sure how to attach it here. He can also be seen on my Facebook albums, go to Pam Barthel and Look for RR Tommy Boy Mack, I may also have some photo’s on my farm page: Creek Side Gypsy Farm on Facebook also in my albums on that page.

    i would like to know if I should be testing him for any other coloring or do you think he fits one of your projects. Please let me know.

    Thank you for your help,

    Pam Barthel
    Creek Side Gypsy Farm
    Elk River, MN 55330 USA