Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


All the Pretty Horses

So, something else I read recently on my Ilona Andrews kick was “Magic Stars,” a recent novella featuring Derek and Julie. I like both characters and sure, whatever, I am willing to watch the two of them dance around each other with this I-don’t-care kind of attitude. Obviously the reader is in no doubt about a future romance between them, which is fine. Julie’s a little young but given her background, not *too* young.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point is: there’s a moment when Julie rides up on a Gypsy horse and Derek thinks disparaging thoughts about horses in general and Friesians and Gypsy horses in particular and I thought, Wait, what is a Gypsy horse anyway? and pulled out my phone to look up pictures.

Well, Gypsy horses sure are pretty. They are little bitty draft-type horses, some of them just about pony sized, but built hefty, with draft horse conformation, flowing manes and tails, and lots (lots) of feathering on their lower legs. I question the practicality of the feathering, and in fact a minute’s search on the internet reveals that taking care of the legs is indeed a little more complicated for a feathered horse than a non-feathered horse. I’m sure the upkeep must be SO annoying in muddy weather. Still, really pretty. And so many colors! Gyspy horses, also called Gypsy Vanner horses, are meant to be flashy, so in addition to the abundant furnishings, they are bred in all kinds of pinto patterns, plus all the dilute colors, including gray and palomino and also including the far more unusual and extremely handsome silver dilutes. I’m sure you all admire a pretty horse, so take a look at some Gypsy Vanners:

Here is a very flashy, handsome black tobiano Gypsy horse. Or probably a tobiano/sabino now that I look more closely.

Black Tobiano Gypsy

Here we have a pretty buckskin. I actually very much appreciate some of the less flashy horses and I like this one a lot. The furnishings don’t look so extreme, but are enough to add interest. I’d be delighted to ride such a handsome animal.

Gold buckskin Gypsy Vanner Horse stallion

Gold buckskin Gypsy Vanner Horse stallion

And one more: a black silver.

Black Silver

Okay, despite my liking for the buckskin above, I could easily be seduced into preferring this impressive color. This guy must really turn heads.

The silver gene is rare, but you find it in a handful of breeds, notably Rocky Mountain horses, Morgans, Icelandic horses, and evidently also these Gypsy Vanners. The dilute produces a range of effects, but it basically acts on black color, diluting black manes and tails to a much paler color – in this case practically pure white – and also generally diluting the black body color to a dark to medium chocolate shade. On a bay horse, silver dilutes the mane and tail and dilutes the black color on the legs, producing a red silver. On chestnut, the silver dilute is invisible, because there’s no black in the first place.

Aren’t these Gypsy horses lovely? I like the draft horse look, too.

Yes, yes, of course one should select a horse on the basis of structure and temperament first, pretty head second, and color last, but honestly, all these Gypsy horse pictures makes me wish I had time and space and time and money and no back trouble and time, so I could treat myself to a whole herd of beautiful horses.

But! Looking at many, many pictures of pretty horses, lots of them with pinto patterns, makes me want to indulge myself with a quick discourse on pinto patterns in horses. Since I’m sure you’re all also happy to look pretty horses, here goes:

Though many horse people still think of pintos as falling either into the Tobiano or the Overo pattern, this is misleading to the point of doing actual harm. There are actually four main pinto patterns in horses, all controlled by distinct genes that are unlinked to one another, and all dominant to the “wild type” of solid color. Incidentally, trivial white markings such as one white foot or a white snip on the nose are not generally anything to do with pinto genes; they are “extra” and outside this whole discussion.

It’s nice to be able to recognize the four different pinto patterns because a) you get to enjoy your knowledge of color genetics; and b) one of the pinto patterns is lethal in its homozygous form, so if you accidentally breed two of those pintos together, you have a 25% chance of getting a pure white foal that lacks a complete digestive system and starves to death in a couple of days. Speaking as someone who has had, on several occasions, one or more puppies die a few hours or weeks after birth, let me just say that this is liable to be a highly unpleasant event for all concerned and you should totally learn to look at pinto horses properly in order to avoid the possibility.

So, as a public service and also because color genetics is really neat, allow me to present a visual guide to the main pinto patterns:

1. The most common pinto pattern, tobiano. This is a bay tobiano Gypsy horse:

Bay tobiano gypsy

Basically a tobiano horse can be recognized because

a) it has white feet and legs.
b) it has no more white on the head than expected for a solid-colored horse.
c) the eyes are dark, not blue.
d) the markings have smooth, rounded edges and tend to be vertically oriented.
e) the white markings cross the topline in at least one place.

2. The second most common pinto pattern is sabino. Sabino horses can be minimally marked, producing flashy horses that don’t immediately look pinto. People deliberately breed to get minimally marked sabinos — solid horses with lots of “chrome” — in Clydesdales and other breeds. Often a little belly spot will give a minimally marked sabino away, as here:

black sabino gypsy

A sabino typically can be recognized because:
a) it has white feet and legs, often with narrow extensions of white extending up from the white stockings.
b) it has a broad white blaze.
c) the white markings often spatter across the body, especially the belly or neck, with heavily “roaned” edges.
d) the white almost never crosses the topline of the horse.
d) the eyes can be brown or blue.

Here is a more extensively marked sabino Gypsy horse:

Sabino gypsy

You can also get extreme sabino, which visually intergrades into dominant white. Lots of variation in the sabino pattern. Me, I mostly prefer the minimal sabino types of markings.

3. The third pinto pattern, not as common, is called “splashed white.” I think it really should be called “dipped white.” Visualize yourself picking up a sleeping horse with a pair of tongs and dipping it into a vat of white paint. Its head is hanging (that’s why it has to be asleep). This results in:

a) white feet and legs, often white all the way up to the belly.
b) a lot of white patches with clean edges, mostly on the belly and perhaps up the barrel of the horse, but almost never crossing the topline.
c) a very white head, often white all the way up to the ears, with a clean edge between the white and colored portions.
d) typically, blue eyes.

Here is an extreme splashed white horse (not a gypsy, but really *obviously* splashed white):

Splashed White

The horse above is completely unmistakable, but a splashed white horse can have much less white on it. Here is a splashed white palomino Icelandic horse:

Splashed white palomino Icelandic

And in fact, if you have a basically solid-colored horse with blue eyes, you might wonder whether it is actually a minimally marked splashed white horse, because blue eyes are so typical with this color.

4. And finally, most important to recognize, the frame pinto or frame overo. This pattern is not all that rare, and this is the one that is lethal in the homozygous form, so if you have a frame pinto, you can assume it is heterozygous. Breeding it to another frame is not a good idea, although breeding it to any other kind of pinto is fine. Frames basically have a dark “frame” around a white “center,” so they look like this:


Frames are expected to have:

a) a solid colored topline, dark legs, dark butt.
b) white patches, generally with jagged edges, on the neck and barrel.
c) often a good bit of white on the head.
d) eyes can be brown or blue.

And of course a minimally marked frame pinto might not be this obvious. But this is the basic image you want in your mind when looking at pintos.

Now, the thing to remember about *all* these pinto patterns is that each is controlled by an independent gene, so there’s nothing to stop you from stacking up one pinto pattern on top of another until you come out with a horse that has a whole lot of white on it, but you’re not sure what kind of white. If you’ve resisted the urge to call all non-tobiano horses “overo”, and thus developed your eye for these four different pinto patterns, then you may be able to make a good guess about combo patterns.

For example, I think this horse is probably both tobiano and frame.

Tobiano Frame (2)

The markings are smooth-edged like a tobiano. The white crosses the topline up on the neck, a typical place to find white on a minimally marked tobiano. White legs are typical of a tobiano but not a frame, so a combination of both would explain the white front legs and dark back legs. If this was my horse and I wanted to breed it, I would steer clear of anything that might be a frame pinto.

This horse might also be both tobiano and frame:

Tobiano Frame

This horse has more jagged edges to its markings, more characteristic of frame than tobiano. It might be sabino plus frame. But either way, it sure looks like frame might be involved.

If you stack up enough different pinto patterns on one horse, you can get a very white animal — a medicine hat, like this:

Medicine Hat

I think it’s safest to assume that a medicine hat horse is a frame plus other patterns unless you are dead sure it is not carrying the frame allele. Which actually, these days, you can check for via a genetic test. But if you are thinking of breeding a medicine hat, then you would want to either do the test or bred it to a very obviously non-frame horse or a solid-colored horse, definitely not anything that could be another frame.

If you happen to write a fantasy novel in which horse breeding is important . . . as in Elizabeth Bear’s RANGE OF GHOSTS, say . . . then it might add an extra bit of authenticity to understand pinto patterns.

Plus, it’s such a good excuse to look at lots of pictures of pretty horses …

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6 Comments All the Pretty Horses

  1. Kristina

    Ooh, pretty! And interesting, too. I kept comparing it with what I know from the dog breed I know best. There’s a dilution gene in Collies, which works on the base color of either sable or tricolor to create sable merles or blue merles. And apparently just as with frame pintos, it’s best not to breed two merles to create a “double dilute” or homozygous merle. Fortunately, blue merles are usually easy to spot, although I’ve seen a few “cryptic blues.” Sable merles, though, can be a lot harder to identify past puppyhood. And this is all independent of the gene that results in white Collies (which intriguingly can have heads and body spots of either sable merle or blue merle). From what I understand, early breeders weren’t aware of the different modes of inheritance, and there was a lot of prejudice against the genuine white Collies for many years, because people often confused them with double dilutes. Sorry if I bored you with all this! ;)

  2. Hanneke

    Very interesting! And lovely horses, though because of the draft-shape and being meant to pull old gypsy vans, I think some of them might be hard to sit at a trot, like the big working drafthorses. Though maybe that’s been bred out, if they’ve been bred as riding horses long enough.
    Those feathers might not be too bad if you live on dry steppes or near-desert, like Judith Tarr over at Book View Cafe. Though the heavy draft horses that were bred to pull a plough through clay in wet and muddy countries have feathers too (Percherons, Clydesdales, Zeeuwse trekpaarden) – I can’t remember any of those without feathers.

  3. Rachel

    Hanneke, you may be right about Gypsy horses having a rough trot! I didn’t think of that. Though I bet you would also be right about the current breeding being aimed at producing a pleasant riding horse. I would sure look for that as well as flashy markings if I were buying a Gypsy Vanner.

    Apparently Gypsy Vanners and maybe some other feathered horses can have a real problem with a condition called “scratches.” I would definitely commit to keeping a very careful eye on the legs of my horse if I got a Gypsy or other feathered horse, especially since we have very wet, muddy springs.

    Not that I will ever own a horse. At this point in my life, it’s clear I’m sticking to dogs.

    Kristina, yes, merle works the same way, and just as you can get cryptic frame pintos, you can certainly get cryptic merle collies and thus risk the eye and ear defects and general bad stuff associated with homozygous merle. I guess if you really scrutinize the puppies . . . and check out the pedigrees . . . it ought to be mostly possible to sort out the merles and avoid crossing two of them together.

    Dachshunds have the same issue, only they call merle “dapple.” I really am an advocate for standardized terminology so as to reduce misunderstandings about what is safe to breed to what.

    Did you know the harlequin color in Great Danes is a modified merle, even more complicated to work with because the Harlequin gene that modifies the merle gene is also a lethal? All harlequin Danes are heterozygous for both the H gene and the M gene.

    I wasn’t aware that you could get very white collies that weren’t homozygous merle until I read your comment. Now that I’ve looked at pictures, I think what you have in collies is the extended white allele at the spotting locus.

    As you may know, in dogs, unlike horses, all the spotting alleles are collected at just one genetic locus and solid is dominant to all three spotting alleles. Your general flashy white markings on a collie, like the white on a Bernese Mountain Dog, clearly come from the “Irish white” allele, which is recessive to solid but dominant to the other white alleles of the gene. Next in line is the “pinto” or piebald” allele, which gives us the type of spotting we see in Cavaliers but which I don’t think you see in collies? Or at least not very often? Then the last allele in the spotting series is the “extended white” allele, which restricts color to the head and the root of the tail, with maybe minimal body spots. That is exactly what your very white collies look like, although of course the allele is a lot more common in Clumber spaniels and some of the other generally white breeds.

    We get Irish white markings in Cavaliers (not showable), but I think that is probably a minimal expression of the pinto allele. We also get the extended white pattern in Cavaliers, but again I think that is an extreme expression of the pinto allele — so my suspicion is the only white spotting allele we actually have is the pinto one. Although if it were up to me, we would allow all spotting patterns in the show ring, because honestly, nothing’s cuter than a tricolor cavalier with Irish white markings.

  4. Kristina

    As you can imagine, I have a soft spot for tricolors with Irish white markings myself. ;)

    Yes, the extended white allele sounds exactly like what we have in Collies. Dogs who are heterozygous for it are what we call “white factored,” and often show that they carry it with a more extreme version of the typical Collie markings: wide face blazes, full white collars, a white stripe up the stifle, and sometimes white spots on the body. Piebalds do occur but are not bred for; I suspect most of them end up in pet homes. Overall, the non-white factored dogs are very much in the majority.

  5. Kristina

    Although you’ve got me wondering now if our “piebalds” might actually be a variation on the extended white allele in the same way that you suspect that your Cavaliers might just be showing different expressions of the pinto allele….

  6. Rachel

    I think that’s pretty likely just on Occam’s razor grounds, but it can be hard to tell.

    I’m afraid I was brainwashed by Lassie and still prefer a full-coated dark sable with non-extreme white markings…

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