Little white dots


In the previous post, I included an image of a really interesting Greyhound with white dots on his coat. In horses, small white dots on a colored background are often called Birdcatcher Spots. They are not usually as large or as abundant as the spots on that particular dog, which is probably why they go unmentioned in most registry applications. The horse above is a good example of this kind of spotting. You might want to click on the image to get the larger version, and even then the small spots on his hindquarters, barrel and neck are easy to miss if you are not looking for them.

Here is a close-up of some similar spots. Both the horse above and this one are Saddlebreds, where the trait is not uncommon.


To my knowledge, there have not been formal studies on Birdcatcher Spots. My own experience has been that they are more often seen on chestnuts than any of the black-based colors. (A reader did share an image of a dark bay with very prominent white spots on our Facebook page back in late December.) The spots also seem to occur more often in the “thin-skinned” breeds with finer coats – breeds like Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Saddlebreds. Some have noted that horses with these flecks are more prone to getting white hair growing back over skin abrasions. The horse above did have what appeared to be a few minor abrasions that were growing white hair. A similar tendency might also explain why some roans become covered in dark lines and specks, since injuries on roans tend to grow back with dark hair rather than white.

That does not seem to be the explanation for all cases, however. Here is another Saddlebred from the same show, with unusual white spots on her face. One is just visible on her right ear in this image, and another just behind the browband. A third can be seen in front of the cavesson, and there was another on the left tear bone (not visible here). When asked, her owner said she had always had odd spots like this. Other than her broken blaze, she was a seal brown horse with no other white markings. (She was a very striking horse with a slightly baroque head shape that reminded me of some of the older images of carriage horses I saw while writing my book, and I would have happily taken her home with me!)


Here is another instance of random white spots, this time on a tobiano.


Although this fellow had roan hairs around the edges of his pattern, a bit like the horse at the top of this post, and he did have the kind of blaze that might suggest that one of the sabino patterns was present, these were the only round spots like this on his coat so they seemed almost out of place there.

It seems likely that there are multiple causes, either environmental or genetic or some combination, that cause white spots. Reports of how the spots appear, and whether or not they are permanent, vary. Some owners report that their horse was solid colored and then became spotted with a single shedding. Others report that the spots appeared over time. Some say the placement of the spots shift with each shedding. Still others seem to have spots that get progressively larger and more roaned over time. Unfortunately with subtle color variations like these, it is often hard to assemble enough information to draw firm conclusions.

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10 Responses to Little white dots

  1. Danielle January 24, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    We have a Friesian mix at our barn that has about 5 random spots on her coat. All are on her shoulders or croup. She also as a strange broken up blaze similar to the liver chestnut but more broken. She also has a cruella de vil streak in her forelock.

  2. chris January 24, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Oy, typed a nice comment and my internet crashed and lost it…

    Anyway, my friend’s seal brown (dark bay) TB without markings has spotting that comes and goes. It’s always concentrated at his front legs and chest, some on his body, never on his head that I recall. They last a year or so and darken over in a matter of weeks. Months or years later they come back and never exactly the same spot.

    One time, he had a few spots around his coronary band and ended up with striped hooves. In that same spotting cycle, he lost pigment around his eyes giving it a mottled look. As always, the whole thing darkened back over.

    Vet thought it was possibly fungal, but skin biopsies were normal. Meds don’t make it darken faster and no other horses got it. 100% purebred TB with tattoo and papers, no appaloosa blood.

  3. Jennifer January 27, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    I have a smaller pony mare that is a New ForestxWelsh section B. She is a chestnut as well, with some small, white spots all over her body. When she was younger new spots showed after she had shed out her wintercoat, but that hasn`t happened in a few years.
    I did speak with an owner of a half sister to her once, and she also had some white spots. They had the same stallion as dad, a palomino New Forest. If you want I can send pictures of her.

    Excuse my english, I`m from Sweden


  4. Joy January 28, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    My TB/QH chestnut mare has been getting the same small white spots since I bought her at 1 year old. She is 7 now and keeps getting more.

  5. CERT January 28, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    My in-laws have a chestnut mare who is a Quarter Horse Missouri Fox Trotter cross that was born on their property. She was born with a white star and right hind pastern, but was otherwise unmarked. She’s six now and has several white spots that have showed up over time. Her mother (an essentially foundation-bred QH) doesn’t have any spots and what I remember of the stallion was as an unmarked chestnut. Anyway, I’m quite interested in birdcatcher spots, how they are inherited and function.

  6. heathentakespictures January 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    my SSH pony has a random white dot that appeared a few years ago on her hind leg/rump area…it’s about the size of a silver dollar. It hasn’t changed size or anything, no injury to that area or anything. And she hasn’t developed any more on her small bit of black she has on her body.

  7. lyndagraveline February 11, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

    I also have a bay appendix who does not have even a hint of white markings on him at all but has a few birdcatcher spots. Generally the bigger the spots are the longer they stay on him. New ones appear at the same rate that the old ones disappear. Has about 10 small spots from 2mm to 1cm scattered over his body. The only spot that hasn’t faded over time is the biggest one on his back right before his hip but I’m not 100% certain that it’s not a saddle sore.

  8. Therese June 19, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Never seen birdcatcher spots on a SWB before, perhaps you have…either way figured that it would be something worth “reporting”

  9. Jussi February 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    I have a 14 year old mare (Estonian Sport Horse ESH) and she is chesnut and white marks only in head… Within two years something weird happend now there are lots of white spots around??? Also mane and tail have lot of white now…

  10. Natalie December 8, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    I’d LOVE to learn more about random spots. My mare (now 9 1/2) was plain bay and then at 6yrs old started spotting…first a few, then a whole bunch, then this year a little less but still plenty. The second year into the spots, she started roaning/frosting in her mane as well (need to get newer pics of that in her album). Her father (full Arab) had not a spot of white on him, seal brown. Mom is a QH/Morgan and has some white markings and later in life got one, small white spot on her lower back belly. But nothing else. It sure makes my mare fun to look at, but can’t figure where it comes from. Also doesn’t look like normal birdcatcher spots I could find pics of, what with the mane starting to get frosting and even some ‘ticks’ of white in her body hair (can’t get any decent pics of that, as they are few and very far between..but white hair for sure). Here are some pics…