Sorrel Horse: Color Genetics, Breeds and Shades of Chestnut


What is a Sorrel Horse

Determining the accurate term for a horse’s coat color solely based on appearance can be quite the challenge. Horse jargon can be a bit confusing to say the least, especially when it comes to all the different colors. So, what is a sorrel horse?

Sorrel horses are equines that have a reddish coat color with no black pigmentation. It is one of the most widely occurring coat colors in horses. Some breed registries and regions set sorrel apart from chestnut by defining the former as a light, coppery shade, and the latter as a browner shade of red. The term “sorrel” is commonly used for horses in the western part of the United States.

Sorrel Horse Color Genetics

There are three basic horse coat colors: bay, black, and chestnut. These colors are determined by the interaction that occurs between two genes: Agouti Signaling Protein (ASIP) and Melanocortin 1 Receptor (MC1R). MC1R, which is also known as the extension or red factor locus, is in charge of the production of red and black pigment.

There are three different versions of the MC1R gene that are recognized at the molecular level: E, e, and ea. The e and eaare recessive to E, and occur due to mutations that are a result of the loss of function in MC1R. In homozygous individuals (ea/eaor e/e), only red pigment is present.

ASIP, sometimes referred to as Agouti, controls the occurrence of black pigment. The dominant allele (A of the ASIP gene restricts the production of this pigment to specific parts of the horse (lower legs, mane, ear rims, and tail), while the recessive form (a) distributes black pigment evenly over the horse’s body.

The gene that gives sorrel horses their red shade is the red factor recessive gene. The effects of a recessive gene are not observable due to the occurrence of a more dominant gene, which becomes the observed trait. Therefore, for an equine to have a red coat, it needs to have two red genes. This means that two red equines will have red offspring.

The occurrence of any other color would mask the red, and the more dominant color gene would be seen instead. If an equine has black hair on its body, then an allele of the E gene is present in the animal. Alternatively, the presence of the e allele results in black pigment in the horse’s skin but not its hair, making the hair have a red appearance.

Horse Breeds That Can Have Sorrel Coat Color

Belgian Horse

Belgian Horse

As the name suggests, this is a horse breed that is native to Belgium. The most commonly occurring colors in Belgian horses are chestnut/sorrel, bay, and black. However, it is not uncommon to find other shades such as sorrel mixed with white, as well as gray, dun, and red roan, and they can also feature black points.

Early Belgian horses were mostly bay, although roan and chestnut/sorrel could also occur. However, in the 1920s, breeders in the United States began to actively breed roan and sorrel colors, and by the 1930s, the preference for these two shades became evident.

Today, the most desirable color for Belgian horses in the US is the sorrel or chestnut color, with a white tail and mane, four white socks, and a prominent white stripe on the face that is known as a blaze. The least commonly occurring colors you are likely to find include bay roan, blue roan, strawberry roan, and dapple gray.

Racking Horse

This is a horse breed that is derived from the Tennessee Walking Horse and has origins in Alabama, United States. Racking horses are renowned for their graceful build that is characterized by a long sloping neck, croup and shoulders, smooth well-boned legs, and full flanks. This horse breed is also known for its finely textured hair and a tail that will be naturally raised.

The personality of the Racking horse is described as calm, laidback, and affectionate, though, as with any other breed of horse, this may vary from one individual to another.

The racking horse comes in a wide variety of common horse colors. The breed registry accepts all solid equine colors – bay, black, spotted, brown, chestnut, yellow, gray, and sorrel – as well as roan. It is also common to find Racking horses in colors that are a result of dilution genes such as champagne, dun, and cream. Other possible colors in this horse breed include palomino, buckskin, and cremello, as well as spotted varieties.

Bavarian Warmblood

Bavarian Warmblood

The Bavarian Warmblood is a horse breed that originates from South Germany. They are descended from an ancient breed of horse known as the Rottaler. Rottalers were used for activities such as plowing, riding, and carriage driving, but when breeding purposes turned to competitive riding in 1963, they were renamed Bavarian Warmbloods.

Bavarians share quite a few similarities with other German warmbloods in terms of conformation, type, movement, interior qualities, and jumping abilities. Correct movement constitutes three rhythmic gaits characterized by a long stride, sustained energy, elasticity, and natural self-carriage.

This horse breed’s appearance is characterized by sloping shoulders, strong hindquarters, a short, strong, and straight back, fairly long neck, high-set tail, and long, powerful legs. The Bavarian Warmblood is renowned for its good trainability, stamina, and strong athletic abilities.

The Bavarian Warmblood horses typically have coats that can be of any solid color, including sorrel, black, and bay. Individuals that have coats featuring white patterns are not desirable.

Chincoteague Pony

Chincoteague Pony

This is a feral breed of horse that is native to Assateague Island, a barrier island of Maryland and Virginia. The Chincoteague pony is independent by nature, but once successfully domesticated, they are easy to maintain, friendly, and can even become family pets.

Chincoteague ponies have a distinct small and stocky appearance, with short, slender legs. The head of this horse breed is small and slightly concave the shoulders well-angled, the chest broad, the ribs well-sprung, and the back short with broad loins.

Chincoteague ponies showcase a wide variety of equine colors, including gray, dun, brown, bay, and cremello. The most commonly occurring patterns are pinto, overo (solid color with white splashes), and tobiano (a white base with colored irregular patches. Other colors include solid sorrel with flaxen tail and mane, solid chestnut with flaxen tail and mane, palomino to dark bay on a white base, solid black, and strawberry roan on white.

Tennessee Walking Horse

The Tennessee Walking Horse is renowned for its distinctive gait, which makes it comfortable to ride even for riders that have back issues and other similar problems. This breed is perhaps best known for its running walk gait, which is extra smooth and follows a footfall pattern that is similar to the flat walk, but significantly faster. While the Tennessee Walking Horse has a natural walk, canter, and running walk, it can also learn to perform other gaits such as the fox-trot, rack, and stepping-pace.

This breed of horse comes in a varying range of coat colors, and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibits’ Association recognizes almost any equine coat color into its registry. Some of the most widely occurring coat colors include bay, sorrel, black, white, chestnut, palomino, roan, and dun. A variety of coat patterns can also be seen in Tennessee Walking Horses, with Sabino, Tobiano, Overo, and Tovero being the most common.

Sella Italiano

This is a breed of horse that was developed to create a horse that has the strength of an English Thoroughbred and the reliability of Italian horse breeds. It was created as a result of blending the remnant indigenous Italian breeds of Persano, Maremmano, and Salernitano with Thoroughbreds, Arabo Sardo, Purosangue Orientale, and Arabians. Before these horses are registered, they are required to conform to a confirmed origin, ensuring that they have draft breed up until the third generation.

Defining physical traits of the Sella Italiano include well-defined bodies with slim but muscular structures and delicate-looking frames, a small head, narrow chest, thin feet, and dense tail hair. The most prevalent coat colors for the Sella Italiano are sorrel, bay, and black.

This horse breed is commonly used for jumping, eventing, and dressage. The Sella Italiano has gained popularity as a show horse and sports horse as it is easily trainable, eager to please, intelligent, docile, adaptable, and docile.

Mountain Pleasure Horse

The Mountain Pleasure Horse is a breed of American horse that originates from the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. This breed of horse is characterized by a straight profile, with a medium arched neck, well-proportioned head, sturdy, well-formed legs, sloping shoulders, and a deep and broad chest. The breed is calm, gentle, adaptable, sensible, and intelligent. Because of its willingness to learn, this breed of horse is also highly trainable.

The intermediate speed gait of the Mountain Pleasure Horse is a four-beat lateral gait that is characterized by a moderate forward speed and extension that doesn’t come with an exaggerated knee and knock action. The racking gait of this breed is smooth, which makes it ideal for pleasure riding, trail riding, and jumping.

Almost any solid color is acceptable in this breed of horse, with the most commonly occurring shades including bay, sorrel, black, roan, palomino, gray cremello, and roan.

What is the Difference Between a Chestnut and a Sorrel Horse?

A sorrel horse is considered to be a true red – the red can be of any shade, whether it’s dark or light. A chestnut, on the other hand, often takes a darker brownish-red appearance, or can even appear wine-colored.

Most sorrel horses have a consistent color throughout their body, tail, and mane, with no other markings (apart from occasional white on legs or face). However, a sorrel horse can have a flaxen/blonde colored tail and mane, but if there are any black markings on its body, the horse would then be considered a chestnut.

It is important to note that a sorrel horse and a chestnut horse have the same genetic makeup. The gene that gives these horses their red color is recessive, which means that the horse must possess two red genes to take on a red appearance.

What is a Chestnut Horse Called?

Chestnut coloring can be seen in horse breeds such as Haflinger and Suffolk Punch, which are entirely chestnut. Other breeds, including the Budyonny and Belgian, are predominantly chestnut. Chestnut shades are also common in these breeds:  Thoroughbred, Dutch Warmblood, American Saddlebred, Kentucky Mountain Horse, Arabian, Morgan, Missouri Foxtrotter, etc.

What Does a Chestnut-Colored Horse Look Like?

Chestnut is another shade that is often considered a variant of red. A chestnut horse has a darker appearance than a sorrel and includes equines that have a brown tint. The tail and mane can be the same shade as the body, or flaxen as in a sorrel horse.

Can a Chestnut Horse Have a Black Mane and Tail?

A red horse that has a tail and mane that is so dark that it appears black is still considered a chestnut. It is worth noting, though, that chestnuts don’t possess the genetic properties to sport black tails or manes; the appearance of this coloring is only as a result of very heavy coloring that may cause the tail or mane to take on a black appearance when placed against another color on the horse’s body.

Shades of Chestnut

Chestnut horses come in a variety of shades, which include:

  • A basic chestnut

This describes any horse with a solid copper-reddish coat and a tail and mane that is of the same or similar shade.

  • Liver chestnut/dark chestnut
dark chestnut

Liver chestnuts are horses that have a particularly dark-reddish brown appearance. Often wrongly called black chestnuts, they can be distinguished by small amounts of reddish hair on the mane, lower legs, and tail, or by pedigree or DNA testing.

  • Sorrel

This is a “true” red horse. The red can be of any shade, as long as it is consistent throughout the horse’s body, tail, and mane.

  • Flaxen/blond chestnut
blond chestnut

This is a chestnut that has a tail or mane that is significantly lighter than the rest of the body. Sometimes the color difference is only a shade or two, although it is not uncommon to find flaxen chestnuts that have almost-white or silverfish tails and manes.

  • Pangare or mealy

These chestnut horses are characterized by pale hairs around the muzzle and eyes, as well as a pale underside.

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