Archive | Sabino

The W20 Project


I mentioned in the last post that the known White-spotting (W) mutations tended to fall into three basic categories, at least in terms of appearance: white, sabino, and white markings. At the moment, there is only one mutation in that last category, known as W20. The paper that documented the pattern, published just last year, had this to say about it:

We previously discovered a missense variant… but did not immediately recognize its functional role… With sequence and phenotype data of more than 200 horses, we now realized that this variant actually appears to have a subtle effect on pigmentation and consequently termed it W20. This variant is common and segregates in many horse breeds.

The paper goes on to explain that of the 145 horses tested, 52 had the W20 allele. According to the supplementary material, the breeds where it was found included:

German Riding Pony
German Warmblood
Gypsy Horse
Old Tori
Quarter Horse
Paint Horse
Paso Peruano
South German Draft
Welsh Pony

That is an impressively broad range of breeds. Along with the Thoroughbred and warmblood breeds, there is a mountain and moorland pony (Welsh), a number of drafts including one of the older ones (Noriker), a colonial Spanish breed (Paso Peruano), and even the Marwari. Taking that into account, and then looking at the known examples of W20, it is tempting to wonder if this might in fact be the mutation most often responsible for the common “flashy white” type of sabino. Those are the sabinos with blazes, stockings and perhaps some white on the belly. It is also the type of pattern thought to amplify the white in other patterns, producing what is sometimes called “sabino boost”.


When the Sabino1 test became available, there was some disappointment that most horses thought of as sabino tested negative. Unlike the Splashed White patterns, which have one common and widespread mutation (SW1), there has not yet been a widespread testable form of sabino patterning. Looking at the list of breeds above, it does seem that if W20 is not the “flashy white” sabino gene, it is at least one of them. If that is the case, garden variety sabinos like the Shire at the top of this post, or the Paint Horse above and Arabian below, might carry it.


There are still a lot of questions about W20. The original paper describes horses with the mutation as having “extended white markings”. From photographs of the known individuals with the mutation, it appears that homozygous W20 horses are more likely to have belly spots, but perhaps not much more than that. That does fit with what is known about breeding programs that center around horses with flashy white markings, and the relative rarity of loudly marked individuals in those lines. It is also clear that W20 interacts with at least one other White-spotting pattern (W5) to produce an all-white horse. What is not known is what it does with other patterns, both other White-spotting variants and unrelated white patterns. If the mutation is present in the Clydesdale, for instance, then what makes white-born foals so rare there? Does it play a role in horses with more extensive patterning or roaning? What is the maximum (and minimum) expression for W20, both when heterozygous and when homozygous?

Shew of Gold GF (W5) with her white foal Supernatural (W5 and W20)

These kinds of questions are important. For breeders, a better understanding of the way these patterns interact would make it easier to produce the “blaze and white socks” image that many find appealing, without getting excessive white on the body. Likewise a breeder of pintos might need to know how to ensure that enough white fell on the body to obtain regular papers.

That is why I am encouraging anyone interested in pinto patterning to participate in the W20 Project. The project is to raise funds as well as collect samples for a more comprehensive study of the W20 mutation. To participate, owners pay $38 – a fee lower than most commercial tests – and submit 2 samples (30 hairs each) for each horse they want tested. Participants will also need to send three pictures (both sides and a head shot showing any markings) and a copy of the horse’s pedigree. Horses with white patterning as well as those without are wanted. Results will be available in June of this year. More information, including information on where to send samples, can be found by clicking the link below, which takes you to the W20 Project page. There is, however, only a brief window for getting involved as all funds and samples must be submitted by April 15, 2014.

Instructions for Participating in the W20 Study

[Thank you, Jackie, for letting me know that the lovely heavy horse at the top of the post was actually a Shire, and not a Clydesdale!]

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“W” is for White-spotting


The last few posts have focused a fair bit on the two KIT colors that, by long tradition, have their own names: tobiano and (dark-headed) roan. At the moment it is hard to imagine any problems with the terminology used for tobiano. The fact that it involves the same gene as sabino and dominant white has implications for breeders who are dealing with lines or breeds where those colors occur, but in most cases the fact that the horses are tobiano is still pretty obvious. The situation with true dark-headed roan is likewise pretty clear, at least visually. (The more confusing situation with roan genetics is a post for another day.)

The problematic terminology, at least at the moment, centers around the sabinos and the dominant whites. It appears likely that most, if not all, future discoveries are going to be given consecutive numbers in the W-series. Because that is true, it is helpful to keep in mind that the W in the name means “white-spotting” and not “white”. Related to that, the tendency to refer to all the patterns in the series as “dominant white” is probably not helpful, because while KIT mutations are expected to be dominant (that seems to be consistent across a range of species), many are not dominantly white. In fact, some are not white at all. Like the older category of overo, the white-spotting category may not really tell breeders what they need to know about a color; it is not specific enough.

From a practical standpoint, there are really three different categories that these white-spotted horses fall into. The first are the truly white – or at least nearly-white – horses. The horse above, White Prince, is an example of this type of pattern. In fact, his particular mutation (W2) is one that produces all-white horses consistently. There are others that produce a bit of color (usually on the ears or topline, often in the form of dark ticks or spots), but the overall impression is still that the horse is pretty white. A good example of a family with this near-white expression is that of the Arabian, R Khasper (W3).

The second category are the obvious pintos. These are the horses that are clearly broken-colored, with extensive white on the body. The average horseman, even one pretty familiar with color, would not call these horses white. Instead, they are most often called sabinos. The Thoroughbred family of Puchilingui (W5) and the Arabian families of Rhocky Rhoad (W15) and Fantasia Vu (W19) fall into this category.

Sato, Thoroughbred stallion with the W5 mutation

And finally there are the horses that would be thought of as having white markings. Not only are horses like this not obviously white, but many would not recognize this as a pinto pattern. The recently-discovered W20 mutation falls into this category.

Mona-Lisa GF, German Warmblood mare heterozygous for W20

I say these are practical distinctions, rather than genetic distinctions, because most often breeders have a preference for one of these three phenotypes. Breeders of white horses, for instance, have struggled with the tendency their lines have for producing what they thought of as pintos. Meanwhile many breeders of pintos often want to avoid a horse like White Prince, which many colored horse registries view as “solid”. And patterns that produce flashy white markings, but that do not consistently produce white on the body, can be problematic in both solid and pinto breeds. That is why it is not necessarily helpful to categorize all the W mutations as “white”, nor for that matter to call anything that puts white on the horse “white patterning” – even if it is genetically accurate to do so.

The challenge, however, if that while those really are the categories that interest breeders, the genes themselves do not all fit neatly into just one of them. The relationship between the three basic phenotypes can only be called complex. In fact, there are intermediate colors that make the borders between the categories pretty fuzzy. Patterns like this one, for instance, sit somewhere between the white (and near-white) horses and the sabino patterns. For most horsemen, this is still very much a pinto pattern even though from a visual standpoint it is quite different from the pattern Sato has. Some of the draft and pony breeds, either by informal tradition or by actual rules, penalize horses with white on the body, but this kind of pattern might fly under the radar as “roan”. (If you nudge the contrast down a bit, that is even more likely to be true, and many individuals have less contrast than this particular horse.) Paint Horse breeders, meanwhile, would not only consider this a pinto pattern, but they would think of it as a fairly loud and obvious one. There are different traditions (and incentives) that play into how these pattern varieties are perceived.

A Thoroughbred from the Airdrie Apache line, which is widely rumored to have a mutation that has (to date at least) evaded detection

Here again are the images that given an idea of the range that white-spotting (W) can take: white, sabino-roan, sabino, and white markings. As pointed out, it can be difficult to draw a hard line between these four categories because one tends to blend into the next. But what makes the situation difficult to simplify is that there are different combinations that can produce the same color. Horses that look the same can be the product of a different genetic “recipe”.

(Click to enlarge this graphic)

To illustrate this, let’s take a hypothetical all-white horse of unknown parentage. There are a number of ways, within the known mutations, to get that color. However, if she was then bred to an unmarked, solid stallion, the expected outcomes would be very different depending on why she was white. Here are some of the “recipe” options for her color and what they might mean for the resulting foals:

  1. She could be homozygous for Sabino1. In that case, she would produce 100% sabinos but no whites. Most would probably run towards the roany end of sabino expression.
  2. She could be heterozygous for a Dominant White variant that was inclined to be more truly white. She would then produce 50% white or near-white, and 50% solid.
  3. She could be heterozygous for a Dominant White variant that tended to “leak” color a bit more. She would be expected to produce 50% white, near-white, and sabino (probably more to the sabino roan end), and 50% solid
  4. She could be a compound heterozygote for two white-spotting genes. She would be expected to produce one of those patterns 50% of the time, and the other 50% of the time, but no whites like herself. If the other white-spotting pattern was something like W20, half the offspring might have white markings, but might not be readily identifiable as pinto-patterned.
  5. She might have a combination of patterns unrelated to the KIT gene which, when combined, give an all-white foal. In this scenario, she might produce quite a range of patterns either singly or in combination.

That means that without knowing what a white horse carries, you might have a horse that never produced its color, or sometimes did. Likewise it might never produce a truly solid horse, or it might sometimes do so. In the case of the fifth option, there could be entirely unexpected outcomes. It is not surprising then that white breeding programs established in Europe during the Baroque era typically ended in failure! Without a way to tell visually identical colors apart, the results would have seemed very unpredictable.

For many, it probably still seems this way. The fact is that what is true for one particular white-spotting mutation might not be true for the others. Each mutation requires its own explanation. With twenty different named white-spotting mutations, and many many more believed to exist, it is not surprising that many find that prospect discouraging. Because this is an area of ongoing research, it seems the most pragmatic approach is to not expect a perfect system for categorizing and naming these colors – at least not yet, when the picture is still incomplete.

In the next post, I want to focus on the effort to fund a study of the newest of the white-spotting mutations, W20. That study has the potential for expanding our understanding of these types of patterns, so I want to give it the attention it deserves.

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Names, categories and descriptive terms



I believe that often a seemingly illogical system makes sense when its history is considered. Because revelations are often gradual, systems build on what came before. In this way you often end up with something that is less ideal than what could have been devised had a more accurate picture been known from the start. I believe that knowing this is essential to understanding where things stand today with the terminology for pinto patterns.

When I first took an interest in horse color, most American horsemen accepted that there were two kinds of pinto patterns: tobiano and overo. Those were the terms used by the American Paint Horse Association, which was the largest registry for pinto-patterned horses. If you read enough horse magazines, eventually you would run across a list of rules for determining whether or not a horse was a tobiano or an overo. Did the white cross the topline? Tobiano. Was one or more legs dark? Overo. Did the horse not follow either set of rules? Then he was a combination of the two – a tovero. The rules were useful if you had a typical tobiano or a pure frame overo like the one pictured above.

They were slightly less useful for minimal tobianos like this one.


But the real limitation came when dealing with any of the other pinto patterns. Splashed white, for instance, actually followed the tobiano rules more closely than those for overo. The truth was that the rules for “overo” could be more accurately said to be the rules for frame overo. The rules described that very specific pattern, but in actual practice the term overo was being used to mean anything not tobiano.

In the 1970s and early-1980s, a number of writers began to include additional pinto categories. Among these were splashed white (which had been described in still earlier literature) and sabino. In the United States, Paint Horses with these patterns were registered as overos, so the convention became that, aside from tobiano, the “new” patterns were different forms found under the general category of overo. Thus there was a frame overo, sabino overo, and splashed white overo. Later, when it was identified and named, there was manchado overo. This convention can be a source of frustration for breeders in other countries where overo has been used pretty exclusively for frame overo. (The fact that frame overo is one of the better-known lethal genes probably adds to the desire not to see the same word tacked on to the back of other pattern names.) It makes more sense if it is understood that this was a way of integrating new information into a widespread, existing naming system. It was easier to tell the many breeders of Paint Horses that they needed to be more specific about which type of overo they had, rather than tell them that they had been wrong for calling all those non-tobiano horses overo in the first place.

Categories of Patterns

That process has repeated itself a few times in the years since. We start out with patterns that have names, and then find out we have unwittingly placed genetically different things together under one name. So the name becomes a category, rather than one specific pattern. This has meant it was necessary to search for a way to distinguish between the patterns within the new category. With the advent of genetic tests, the most common approach has been to number the different variations. So when it became clear that Splashed White was a category of patterns, and not one specific pattern, the variations were given numbers in the order in which they were discovered: Splashed White-1, Splashed White-2, and so on through to (at the time of this writing) Splashed White-5.

Although the speed of new discoveries made it difficult for many to adjust, the system has worked reasonably well, with one big exception. That exception is Sabino.

I have written before about my own involvement in researching sabino patterns. In the 1990s, an article I wrote speculating that many white-born horses were in fact “maximum” sabinos was widely circulated on the internet. While I came to that conclusion primarily using research on the Tennessee Walking Horse, I really was just rediscovering what the Dutch researcher J. K. Wiersema already knew in the 1960s. The pattern we both were studying is now known as Sabino-1. With that specific pattern, heterozygous Sabino-1 horses have flashy white markings with roaning, and homozygous Sabino-1 horses are white. We both also observed, however, that there seemed to be other kinds of sabinos that did not look quite like this. What’s more, those patterns did not seem to have a connection to white horses. We both also noted that there were white-born horses that did not quite fit the profile. In hindsight, it is clear that this should have been a big clue that too many different patterns were being lumped into this one category.

This problem is quiet obvious if you group images of horses with patterns that have been called sabino in the past. Here is a slide I used in a recent presentation that makes this point in a very visual way. All the horses in this image have patterns that would, at one time, have been referred to as sabino.


Given the broad range of white patterning in that image, it would not be surprising that many began to consider sabino a pattern category. Within that category, or group, one might expect to find quite a lot of separate patterns. And that was what many expected, after the first sabino pattern (Sabino-1) was identified. The assumption was that researchers had found the first of what was likely quite a large number of them. Certainly it was clear that what was arguably the most common form of sabino – what many breeders refer to as “flashy white” – was not the one that had been identified. Although Sabino-1 was later found to be quite an ancient pattern, in modern times it is found in a rather limited range of breeds. It was expected that some of the more common types of sabinos would soon follow.

Horses like this one, with flashy white stockings, a blaze, and maybe a bit of white on the belly or girth, have long been thought of as the most common form of sabino

That expectation did not come to pass. The next set of patterns that were formally identified were classified as Dominant Whites and given the names White-1 through White-4. Each of these particular mutations resulted in horses that were, in terms of phenotype, either completely white or nearly all-white. Because the idea that white-born horses were “maximum sabinos” had gained a lot of traction in the years prior, there were some that felt those first four patterns should have been part of the sabino category, picking up the numerical sequence at Sabino-2. The truth was that those first patterns did fit the original definition of Dominant White in that they produced their own color 50% of the time, and the mutations appeared to be homozygous lethal. The fact that some of the individuals with those mutations were not entirely white would not have actually come as a complete surprise to earlier authors who wrote about Dominant White. Almost every account of the color mentioned the tendency to throw “pied” foals along with white ones. It did make sense to classify those mutations as White rather than Sabino.

When more patterns were added to the White category, the difficulty with the terminology increased. That was especially true with some of the later patterns that looked far more like what had traditionally been called Sabino. Some breeders working with the bloodlines where the more patchy expression was common referred to their horses as Sabinos in advertising. This stallion, Sato, from the Puchilingui line (W-5) of Thoroughbreds, is a good example.


For someone interested in producing pinto-patterned sport horses, advertising a horse as Sabino makes good sense, because most pinto breeders do not actually want a white horse. Indeed, some registries for colored horses will not issue regular papers for white horses; they are considered “solids”. Did breeders know that a horse like Sato was technically White? Yes. And the line did produce all-white horses on occasion. But most were loudly patterned in a way that would, at least at one time, be called Sabino.

Officially, however, these horses were White, popularly known as Dominant White. For the sixteen patterns of this type that were discovered after those initial four, each was named as part of the W series of mutations. It was assumed that any other mutations found in that same region were likely to continue in this fashion, while nothing else would be added to the Sabino series. In this way, Sabino could be said to have gone from a named pattern, to a category of patterns, to an informal term used to describe a specific pattern on a specific horse (much like the way roaning is used). Put another way, sabino became the official name for one specific pattern (Sabino-1), and an unofficial descriptive term for some individual horses with patterns of some other official name.

That was roughly where things have stood until very recently, as reflected in the chart below.


That seemed to be the system that would continue, until researchers got to W-20. That is where the naming system became a bit harder to explain, because there have been unexpected twists in the most recent discoveries. Because things get a bit more complicated from here, I am going to break this across to a second post. This one has already run quite long (even for a blog that routinely breaks the “keep it brief” rule of blogging!) and there is a lot to digest. I also want to pull the next part out because a study is currently being organized that touches on these new developments, and I want to give that the space it deserves. With luck, I will get the next part out in a more timely manner than this one!

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