How I learned to stop worrying and love incorrect color terminology


Okay, maybe not love – but certainly stop worrying about it.

Like a lot of people who find horse color fascinating, I once spent no small amount of time online, spreading the Gospel of Proper Color Terminology. Surely if I just presented the facts in a convincing manner, I could save the world from people who were convinced they had palomino Arabians!

Fortunately for my own sanity, my career as a parent – begun just a few years after large numbers of horse people discovered the internet – got in the way of my missionary zeal. Toddlers do not recognize the need for uninterrupted bathroom breaks, never mind enough time to compose an extended explanation about why you really should not call your double-diluted cream an albino. Children also raised my threshold for the type of thing that required immediate action. I could live with someone on the internet being wrong; it was not like they had just painted on my bathroom walls with chocolate pudding.

Looking back, though, I see that my enforced absence from online discussions had unexpected benefits. For a researcher there is a significant downside to spending a lot of energy “correcting” wrong information. If you spend too much time telling people that some common misperception is wrong, you run the risk of having that response become automatic.  It makes it a lot harder to reassess your position, because it is a rare person that can argue a position for a long time without getting their ego involved in being proven right. From there, it is easy to overstate your case. “Your flaxen chestnut Arabian is not a palomino” becomes “there have never been palomino Arabians”, which then becomes “Arabians do not carry any dilution genes.”  The first is – or at least to date has been – true. The next statement is actually open for debate, and the last one is incorrect. (See also, here. Similarly diluted Morgans can be found here.)

And intriguing painting of the early Twentieth Century Turkish Arabian, Übeyyan. How accurate was this portrait? And what color was he?

The other downside to spending a lot of time correcting errors is that if you automatically dismiss something, it is really easy to overlook important information. Even when people are wrong, they may still hold a clue, a piece of the puzzle you are trying to assemble.

I sometimes get asked why I spend so much time with older documents when so much has changed in our understanding of coat color genetics. Why, for instance, spend time translating Valto Klemola’s 1931 paper on “Recessive Pied” when there are papers written just this year and last on what we now call Splashed White? Surely the new information replaces Klemola’s theory about recessive spotting in horses.

I am sure my husband also wonders why I need books about horse color published in 1912. After twenty years of losing more and more shelf space to them, he has given up asking.

But the fact is that Klemola – and many of the other earlier authors – were not entirely wrong. They were almost always working from a partial picture, but often the piece that they were seeing was not incorrect. It was simply incomplete.  Read with an understanding of the larger picture, what these older researchers have to say can still provide valuable information. The same is true for owners and breeders who may not have the same grounding in the latest scientific theories. They still have the potential to be valuable observers. It is worth being open to what they have to say, without being excessively concerned about the “correctness” of how it is said.

At the moment terminology – particularly the terms we use when talking about white patterns – are in a state of transition. We are struggling with words that do not completely fit our present understanding. I hope to tackle that in more detail in a future post. It is worth remembering, however, that the real reason for adopting a consistent set of terms is so that we may all communicate more clearly with one another. It may take a little more effort, and perhaps a few more words (and patience) than it once did, but that is ultimately the goal.

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4 Responses to How I learned to stop worrying and love incorrect color terminology

  1. jodiethalegend August 22, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Yeah… but… when someone with a bay stallion goes around telling people he is ‘dun’ and could sire cream dilutes… well, it makes me die a little inside 😉

  2. Suzan Lee Jackson August 22, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Vocabulary words and definitions are very important to communicating and learning. This is how we learn forreign languages, etc. With all the knowledge abounding today, what needs to be done is to finally figure out with all horsemen what words and definitions will be acceptable to the majority and proceed from there.

  3. Henriette Smit-Arriens August 24, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    The old french nomenclature shows how even well established definitions have changed. Colour names depended on the colours of individual hairs, not on genotype. For example you had blanc (white), noir (black) or alezan (chestnut) if all hairs were the same colour, but a mixture of black and white was called gris (grey), a mixture of red and white aubère (strawberry?) and a mixture of black, red and white rouan. We now use roan for all base colours, but people have difficulty associating the action of “roan” with one specific gene. The French now say grisonant in the case of progressive greying and granité in the case of, well, mixed with white. That would or should usually mean proper roan…

  4. Anna Jane October 20, 2014 at 3:36 am #

    I love this post.
    I suppose it has been especially helpful in reminding me to have a better attitude towards people who don’t know any better.
    For me, it’s dog genetics and incorrectly labelling dogs.
    I work in a local RSPCA branch and am constantly biting my tongue when the other staff label dogs onto the computer system incorrectly.
    For some it doesn’t matter, but when a Brindle Red Staffie is labelled as ‘Black’ by one person, ‘Red’ by another, and ‘Red Fawn Brindle’ it gets very confusing.
    That and the fact that Sable is given to German Shepherd only but not masked dogs.
    A classic is also the roaning caused by the Cattle Dog influence in the mixed breeds, always referred to as ‘blue’ and always confusing people as to which dog they are getting out of the cage… “But there’s no blue dog in there….”
    So frustrating.
    I would absolutely love for animal places like RSPCA and Vet Clinics to have a generic colour chart and how to recognise those colours.
    My dream, but I daresay not a reality.
    My little rant and thanks again for this post.