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Chestnut (coat)

A chestnut horse, this copper-red shade is sometimes also called "Sorrel."

Chestnut is a hair coat color of horses consisting of a reddish-to-brown coat with a mane and tail the same or lighter in color than the coat. Genetically and visually, chestnut is characterized by the absolute absence of true black hairs. It is one of the most common horse coat colors, seen in almost every breed of horse.

Chestnut is a very common coat color but the wide range of shades can cause confusion. The lightest chestnuts may be mistaken for palominos, while the darkest shades can be so dark as to resemble a black coat. Chestnuts have dark brown eyes, black skin, and a coat that is entirely devoid of true black hair. Typical chestnuts are some shade of red or reddish brown. The mane, tail, and legs may be lighter or darker than the body coat, but are never truly black. They may have pink skin beneath any white markings under the areas of white hair, and if such white markings include one or both eyes, the eyes may be blue.

Chestnut is produced by a recessive gene. Unlike many coat colors, chestnut can be true-breeding; that is, the mating between two chestnuts will produce chestnut offspring every time. If any color other than chestnut occurs, one of the parents was not chestnut. Some breeds, such as the Budyonny, Suffolk Punch, and Haflinger are exclusively chestnut. Other breeds, such as the Belgian are predominantly chestnut. However, a chestnut horse need not have two chestnut parents. For example, Friesian horses have been selected for many years to be uniformly black, but on rare occasions chestnuts are born. The Ariegeois pony is another example.


Visual identification

File:Tori horse universal.jpg
The lower legs of this liver chestnut horse are distinctly red, even underneath the white markings.

Chestnuts can vary widely in shade and different terms are sometimes used to describe these shades, even though they are genetically indistinguishable. Collectively, these coat colors are usually called "red" by geneticists.

  • A basic chestnut or "red" horse has a solid copper-reddish coat, with a mane and tail that is close to the same shade as the body coat.
  • [[Sorrel (horse)|Sorrel] is a term used by American stock horse registries to describe red horses with manes and tails the same shade or lighter than the body coat color. In these registries, chestnut describes the darker shades of red-based coats.[1] Colloquially, in the American west, almost all copper-red chestnuts are called "sorrel." In other parts of the English-speaking world, some consider a "sorrel" to be a light chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail.
  • Liver chestnut or dark chestnut are not a separate genetic color, but a descriptive term. The genetic controls for the depth of shade are not presently understood. Liver chestnuts are a very dark-reddish brown. Liver chestnuts are included in the term "dark chestnut." The darkest chestnuts, particularly common in the Morgan horse, may be indistinguishable from true black without very careful inspection. Often confusingly called "black chestnuts," they may be identified by small amounts of reddish hair on the lower legs, mane and tail, or by DNA or pedigree testing. Recently, it has been suggested that the trait or traits that produce certain darker shades of chestnut and bay, referred to as "sooty" coloration follow a recessive mode of inheritance.[2]
File:Halflinger 3607.jpg
This light, flaxen, mealy chestnut Haflinger might be mistaken for a palomino
  • Flaxen chestnut and blond chestnut are terms that describe manes and/or tails significantly lighter than the body color. Sometimes this difference is only a shade or two, but other flaxen chestnuts have near-white or silverish manes and tails. Haflingers are exclusively of this shade. It is considered desirable in other breeds, though seldom true-breeding. Some flaxen chestnuts can be mistaken for palominos and have been registered in palomino color registries.
  • Pangare or mealy is thought to be controlled by a single gene, and produces distinct characteristics common to wild equids: pale hairs around the eyes and muzzle and a pale underside. Haflingers and Belgians are examples of mealy chestnuts. The flaxen characteristic is sometimes associated with pangare, but not always.
  • Light chestnut is a lighter body shade of chestnut without the influence of pangare. The mechanism for producing a light chestnut, whether genetic, nutritional, or otherwise, is not understood.

Chestnut mimics

File:Pernod Al Ariba 0046b.jpg
Bay horses have a red body but black "points"
  • Bay horses also have reddish coats, but they have a black mane, tail, legs and other "points." The presence of true black points, even if obscured by white markings, means that a horse is not chestnut.
  • Seal brown and/or dark bay horses are not chestnut. Those unfamiliar with horse coat color terminology often call most horses "brown," including chestnuts. Brown, which may be difficult to distinguish visually from dark bay, is always accompanied by black points. Liver chestnuts, in particular, are mistakenly called brown or "seal brown."
  • Silver bay horses typically have chocolate- to red-brown bodies with silvered mane, tail, and legs. The flat reddish-brown color and lack of easily-identified black points can confuse even knowledgeable horse persons. Silver dapple horses usually hint at black or dark gray pigment at the roots of the mane and tail, and where their silver points end on the legs. Silvers look a bit "off"-chestnut. To further confuse matters, some flaxen chestnuts have silverish streaks in their manes and tails. However, genetic testing can clarify matters.
  • Palominos are genetically distinct from chestnuts, having their coats modified by a single copy of the incomplete dominant cream gene. Palominos can be distinguished from chestnuts by the lack of true red tones in the coat; even the palest chestnuts have slight red tints to their hair rather than gold. Furthermore, unless they have blue eyes linked to white markings, the eyes of chestnuts are usually dark brown, while those of a palomino are sometimes slightly lighter.[3] Some color breed registries that promote palomino coloring have accepted flaxen chestnuts because registration is based on a physical description rather than a genetic identity.
  • Red duns are a pale, dusty tan shade that resembles the light undercoat color of a body-clipped chestnut. Red duns can be distinguished from light chestnuts by the presence of a bold, dark dorsal stripe in dark red, a red mane, tail and legs, plus the presence of other primitive markings.

Related coat colors

A red dun has a tan body and dark red points.

Chestnut is considered a "base color" in the discussion of equine coat color genetics. Many more unusual colors are described in terms of their relationship to chestnut:

  • Red duns are chestnuts with the dun gene (one or two copies).
  • Gold champagnes are chestnuts with the champagne gene (one or two copies).
  • Red or strawberry roans are chestnuts with the classic roan gene (one or two copies).

Combinations such as chestnut with multiple dilution genes do not always have consistent names. Dunalinos are chestnuts with both the dun gene and heterozygous for the cream gene.

Inheritance and expression

File:Avenger - Westphalian horse.jpg
A chestnut horse with white markings.

Red color is determined by the equine melanocortin-1-receptor (MC1R) gene. It is positioned on chromosome 3 (ECA3) at the Extension locus. The functional protein, which is encoded by the wild type, dominant E allele, is part of the pathway that allows melanocytes to produce black pigment. The MC1R protein lies within the cell membrane, and is signalled by melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) released by the pituitary gland.[4] Normally, MC1R is briefly or locally antagonized by agouti signalling peptide, permitting red pigment to be formed. This results in alternating bands or localized regions of black-rich or red-rich pigmentation, as seen in bay horses.

A missense mutation in the code for MC1R results in a protein that cannot bind to MSH.[5] This mutation is called the e allele. So long as one functional gene copy is present, the protein is formed normally and black pigment is produced normally. However, when only mutant copies of the gene are available, only non-functional MC1R proteins are produced. As a result, no black pigment is deposited into the hair and the entire coat is red, yielding a chestnut or red-based coat color.

The recessive nature of the red-coated trait in horses is caused by the ability of a single copy of the functional E allele to compensate for the non-functional e allele; bay and black horses may "carry" this silent e.

See also


  1. "General Glossary". American Quarter Horse Association. http://www.aqha.com/association/registration/generalglossary.html. Retrieved 2008-06-16. 
  2. Henner, J; PA Poncet, L Aebi, C Hagger, G Stranzinger, S Rieder (August 2002). "Horse breeding: genetic tests for the coat colors chestnut, bay and black. Results from a preliminary study in the Swiss Freiberger horse breed". Schweizer Archiv für Tierheilkunde 144 (8): 405–412. "The statistical analysis of 1369 offspring from five stallions indicate, that darker shades of basic color phenotypes (dark chestnut, dark bay) follow a recessive mode of inheritance in the Franches-Montagnes horse breed.". 
  3. Locke, MM; LS Ruth, LV Millon, MCT Penedo, JC Murray, AT Bowling (2001). "The cream dilution gene, responsible for the palomino and buckskin coat colors, mapes to horse chromosome 21". Animal Genetics 32 (6): 340–343. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2052.2001.00806.x. PMID 11736803. ""The eyes and skin of palominos and buckskins are often slightly lighter than their non-dilute equivalents."". 
  4. Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man, OMIM (TM). Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. MIM Number: 155555: 15 Feb. 2008: [1]
  5. Marklund, L.; M. Johansson Moller, K. Sandberg, L. Andersson (1996). "A missense mutation in the gene for melanocyte-stimulating hormone receptor (MC1R) is associated with the chestnut coat color in horses". Mammalian Genome 7 (12): 895–899. doi:10.1007/s003359900264. PMID 8995760. 

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