The magical shades of Arabian horses

The magical shades of Arabian horses

Arabian horses come in a wide range of magical color variations. Along with characteristics like the dished nose, large eyes, speed, hardiness, and stamina— coat color has an important historical importance for Arabian horse breeders and enthusiasts.

Read on to find out all about the wonderful history of Arabian coat color.

Arabian color

Arabian color comes in a variety of shades and nuances.

Registered horses can be black, bay, chestnut or gray but never dun, buckskin or palomino since the breed contains no dilute genes. White markings on the legs and face and roan-like white “ticking” patterns are also permitted.

Sometimes dark bay and chestnut Arabian horses are so dark that they appear black, while light chestnuts with flaxen manes and tails appear to be golden palomino. Pale greys look white (until you look at the horses dark skin pigment) and horses with rabicano patterns on the midsection and flanks, can easily be mistaken for red roans.

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Ancient Islam: a brief history of horse color trends

It is widely believed that Arabian horses are among the oldest breeds in the world, with some enthusiasts even claiming that they date back to King Solomon’s reign. And Arabian color has been written about for thousands of years.

In the North African manuscript Kitab Al-Ihtifal Fi Istifa’ Ma Lil-Khayl (Treaty of celebration of the achievements of the horse) by Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Juzayy al-Kalbi, the author makes reference to the importance breeders placed on the color of their horses.

Meanwhile, books written in 860 by Takhi Hizamal-Furusiyah wa al-Khayl and Abu Bakr ibn el-bedr al Baytar (1309-1340) also noted the importance of Arabian color.

After the Hijra (AD 622), Arabian horses spread across the Middle East and North Africa, and by the year 711, they were found in Spain as well as in the Iberian Peninsula.

In the middle ages, Arabian horses spread throughout the world thanks to the Ottoman Empire. It was common during this period for Arabian horses to be sold, traded, or given as diplomatic gifts to foreign heads of state.

A horse with white markings could either be considered lucky or unlucky. Stockings or white socks on diagonal or lateral hooves were undesirable, but if only one or both front or hind hooves were white, the horse was not afflicted.

A star was regarded as a lucky marking, as was an indent on the neck, sometimes called the ‘prophet’s thumb’.

Black Horses  

Black horses were known as el Dum, and were considered mounts worthy of a king or prince. However they were known for having bad tempers, especially if they were ‘without moon and stars’ and had no white markings on them.  

Bedouins observed that black horses were not ideal for warfare because they ‘feared stony ground and suffered excessively from the heat’. 

As a result, warriors were specifically warned not to ride black horses to battle, ‘for when the sun shines hot and water is short, he will not be able to endure and will leave his rider in the power of the enemy’.  

Bay Horses  

Bay Arabian horses were historically considered ‘the pearl of all horses’, being the hardiest and calmest of all Arabians.  

In ‘Remarks on Horsemanship’, Emir Abd-el-Kader remarked  ‘if a man tells you his horse jumped down a precipice without injury, then ask if he was a bay and if he answers yes – believe him’.  

A Bedouin story recalls how Allah created the Arabian horse from the south wind by saying, “I want to make a creature out of you.” Then from material condensed from the wind, he made a kamayt-colored (bay) horse and said: “I call you Horse; I make you Arabian, and I give you the color of the ant; I have hung happiness from the forelock which hangs between your eyes; you shall be the Lord of the other animals. Men shall follow you wherever you go; you shall be as good for flight as for pursuit; you shall fly without wings; riches shall be on your back and fortune shall come through your meditation.”  

The body of a bay horse can range from dark mahogany to sandy, yellow – but it will always retain the primitive wild gene pattern that causes its mane, tail, and legs to be black. 

Dark bays/browns can be so dark they are often mistaken as black, while liver chestnuts can be so dark, they appear bay. And while very dark bay horses often have red hair around the muzzle and eyes, a liver chestnut never has black points. 

Gray Horses  

To be fit for a prince, a gray horse must be ‘like a silk flag without bare patches, and with a black ring about his eye’.   

However, pale horses were said to be unsuitable for warfare because they suffered from the heat and could warn the enemy of an ambush due to their brightness and visibility from afar.   

Gray horses were most popular for battle if they were steel gray and dappled ‘like the shade of the wild pigeon – like the stones of the river’, with a lighter coloured head.  

Most valued on the battlefield was the ‘bloody-shouldered’ gray Arabian. 

These horses were considered especially loyal to their masters. The bloody shouldered pattern leaves pigment only around a horse’s shoulders which looks like it has been sprayed with blood (hence the name). 

According to Bedouin legend, a warrior once rode his gray mare into battle and was killed. His horse carried his body for three long days and returned it to his family’s tent. When the body was lifted from the mare’s back, her shoulder was stained red with the warrior’s blood. According to legend, the stain never faded and the mare’s foals were born with bloody shoulders as well.

The genetic mutation that causes graying has been linked with an unusually high risk of dermal melanoma. It is thought that horses with two copies of the dominant form of the mutation (GG) are at greater risk than those with only one dominant form (Gg).  

Chestnut Horses  

Chestnuts were considered the fastest of all color combinations in Arabian horses. Mohammed is quoted as saying, …’when Arabian horses gather and run together, the chestnut will be the leader.’  

General E Daumas (1850), in his book ‘Horses of the Sahara’, remarked that ‘the swiftest, best horses were always chestnuts; and were the winners of all races.’  

Chestnut was a color the Prophet loved: ‘ and when a chestnut horse flew under the sun, he was the wind incarnate.’

Rabicano Horses 

While physically, an Arabian horse’s coat can appear roan (and breeders will often refer to their horses as being roan) genetically, roan is not a base color, but instead a modifier caused by a mutation of the RnRn gene. White ticking is the usual pattern commonly described as roan.  

Rabicano patterning covers specific parts of the body with a light dusting of white hairs that are evenly mixed within the base coat. The white ticking can almost appear striped over the base of the tall and can occur on any base color. This color pattern does not change with age and is often uneven or more obvious on areas such as the flanks or around the tail dock.  

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Whole Genome Tests can determine Arabian coat color

Although many genes influence coat color in horses, just three genes create the recognised colors of purebred Arabian horses.  

By testing for coat color heritability, horse breeders can build on their knowledge of genetics and apply it to breeding selections, horse care and management.  

Genetic testing is a powerful tool for Arabian breeders looking to guarantee their foals are born a specific color.    

Find out exactly which genes your stallion or mare carries that can modify coat-color through dilution, redistribution, or the absence of pigments before this breeding season begins by booking a genetic test for your Arabian Horse.

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