Colour and Markings

Compiled by Janet Lane © with updates on previous iterations over the (now many) years. Image: Mare Pearl.

A Basic Guide by Janet Lane

This remains a basic guide, observing Walers and researching Australian horses of the past.

Proper genetic terms for all these colours and markings are easily found now (a basic online example is here.)

The first Colours and Markings guide for Walers, once done for Classifiers, was written before the internet; even when the internet started it was some years before scholarly articles appeared on diverse subjects. Now we know the genetics behind colours and marking. This remains a basic guide, observing Walers and researching Australian horses of the past. Proper genetic terms for all these colours and markings are easily found now.

It is recommended Walers not be albino, perlino and cremello, nor the frame pattern (overo). The frame pattern and these three colours haven’t yet been seen with Walers. The frame pattern has been seen on some horses from Clayton Station, as with all these, from recent American genetics (Paint) which are not in Waler ancestry. An imported Paint stallion is the place to look for the source of these markings. No Waler has been seen in present times or past photos, with frame markings (which are a mutation bred for by the ignorant), they simply are not in the breed, nor have been, nor ever should be.

Albino – unlike other animal species, albino horses are not true albinos – as the eyes are not red or pink – they’re blue. However, they lack pigment everywhere else. The horse is totally white: mane, tail, body, legs, hooves; the skin is pink, eyes are blue.

Cremello – often born white but darken a little as they mature. They have a white mane and tail, and a cream body. The mane and tail may be the same colour as the body (cream). Hooves are white. Skin is pink. The eyes are blue or hazel (light brown). Imagine an extremely pale palomino.

Perlino – often born white but darken with maturity. They have a white, cream or pale gold body. The mane and tail and points are darker than the body coat. The points, mane and tail are not black or dark – but cream, pale gold or light tan colour. The skin is pink, or light tan. Hooves are white. The eyes are blue or hazel. Imagine an extremely pale dun.

Markings may occur in cremellos and perlinos – star, socks etc, even the same as a skewbald but with the coloured patches very pale, almost indiscernible.

The simple genetic explanation is that one dilute colour gene lightens a colour. Presuming, for the sake of brevity, the dilute genes are dominant. A bay bred to a horse with a dilute gene, will have a dun; a chestnut bred to a lighter colour will have a palomino. (The old way of getting a palomino was to cross a chestnut to a grey and hope the dilutes became dominant in the foal, it often worked). If two dilute colour genes are bred together it’s called a “double dilute”. The resulting colour is two shades lighter, not one. Hence albino, cremello or perlino. It’s ok to call these colours double dilutes. Double diluting is something we strongly discourage – breeding two pale coloured horses together.

If these colours occur with dark eyes (brown, black) and dark skin (brown, dark grey, black), the horse would probably be acceptable for registration, an acceptable variation with dark pigment still factored in.

These colours are to be left out of the breed because albinos often have blood clotting, crypt-lethal, eye, and hearing problems. Cremellos, perlinos and albinos may also carry lethal white gene – often linked to double dilutes – this gene is not always carried by double dilutes, to be fair, and can now be tested for, however we don’t take the risk. Many people like to breed for pretty colours – but this can radically change a breed if registering is not stringent to keep colours not traditionally in the breed, either completely out, or at a minimum – register geldings only.

As they’re also prone to sunburn, sheath infection and cancer, these colours are not desired nor a breed characteristic for Walers which have evolved with safe colours and markings. They should happily live on the range without eye-protecting sun-visors, nose-covers, body-covering summer rugs and zinc cream. If a Waler is born any of these three colours, it may be a jolly fine horse, but should not be registered.

The frame pattern is also a threat – many carry lethal white genes. Can be tested for but these markings and loud splash are simply not traditional Australian patterns, it was a mutation bred to be dominant in the USA by breeders whose mantra is “colour sells” with no regard for horse welfare. To many horse people these markings are an absolute abomination.  Anyway, let’s get onto the real thing…

Some horses change with time and the owner should advise the Studbook Keeper when this happens. A black horse may go iron grey; a chestnut may go grey, a pale dun may go deep yellow dun etc. It can take four or five summers till young horses colour out. If you’re unsure about a colour, just describe it as best as you can. Photos help tell the story.

It’s important to say with Walers if taffy is present in mane and/or tail, usually at the top of the tail, as this indicates Pistol ancestry.  White hairs in the coat, either sprinkled or in small clusters, around the rump and or flanks area are called Pistol marks. These also inherited from Pistol, the son of Carbine. Pistol in the “history” section. These silver hairs in the flanks trace further back to his ancestors Birdcatcher and Sir Hercules as discussed further on, but as we know we got them immediately from Pistol, they are so named.

White flashes of hair about the top of the tail are Silver Guard Hairs, also called a silver tuft, these may indicate old genes from the Timor and British native ponies as this is an ancient gene going back to the original wild pony breeds. The Thoroughbred inheritance from Sir Hercules to Birdcatcher, to Stockwell and Carbine lines, have given us this silver tuft of Guard hair also – many, many of these went to stations.

Patches and Stripes. Describe any patches on the body, either black, dark brown or white. There are all sorts of patches horses get, rarely, including a “shadow” which is a broad, downward pointing arrowhead from the wither, like a big version of the donkey’s “holy cross”. Technically, a patch is a larger than a spot (cannot be covered by the hand). Walers have many wonderful old colour and markings genes, so occasional spots, such as a dark spot on a bay, are seen. Occasional patches too. All part of their heritage.

Dorsal stripes should be noted, and importantly, how bright they are – many are faint.  Sometimes, with bright (clearly defined) dorsal stripes, there are Tiger stripes – small black lines running at right angles off the dorsal stripe.

Zebra stripes on legs, withers, shoulders or elsewhere should be noted. Rarely, zebra stripes may be on the rump and body – black stripes on brown or bay (Pinjee from Todd River Downs has these on his withers and legs).

Brindle is a rare, striped body colour, note it down, with horses it takes the form of white stripes on a brown or bay.

Roadster Patches: There’s an old Thoroughbred gene that throws a white splash underthe belly. It is believed to be inherited from the Norfolk Roadster as identical splashes are sometimes seen on Hackneys. Norfolks were in the dam side of many early Thoroughbreds. The Shales line are Norfolk bred on the dam side, from the horse Old Shales by Blaze by Flying Childers by the Darley, all English native mares on the dam sides, of trotting blood. This horse founded Thoroughbred and Hackney lines and was called a Norfolk Roadster. Some old Thoroughbred lines carried the white belly patch gene, it may be from Shales or similar blood where the same stallion/mare threw both hackneys/roadsters and racehorses. Phoenomenon (yes that’s the spelling) was also a Norfolk Roadster registered in the Thoroughbred studbook, as was Bellfounder. It is not that uncommon in founding TB’s, for other breeds to be registered. Galloways and Hobies also got into the TB studbook, a horse only had to show – or throw – speed at the gallop. All this blood was very close up, often direct, when Walers were being developed.  It may have been from the Dongola horse originally (several went to the UK and Ireland in the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s. Who knows.

One wonders, with the predominance of Carbine blood in our Walers and this marking, if that line carries it. In some Hackneys the white belly patch/patches also ran up between the thighs (unseen until tail is moved), either as a patch or white hairs like roaning; but this being undesirable is now a rare marking perhaps bred out, with that breed. It was seen in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century on some Hackneys. I am not aware of white between the thighs with TB’s but it may well occur as TB records don’t usually go into detail on markings. These markings are common with Walers from certain stations (Central Australia/Northern Territory/South Australia).

It is possible also, these markings come from Clydesdale heritage, being seen in that breed also but with the big difference the white runs up between the front legs. In my observation the Walers with these markings show anything but Clyde ancestry (usually clean legged, straight action, light to medium build, etc). The white markings are at the back of the belly and up between back legs. Norfolk and TB seem the most likely heritage. Anyway, of interest and to be noted.

These splashes are called “sabino” markings, and geneticists interested in sabino have seen this marking many times in Thoroughbreds, not only on undercarriage – it is a genetic pattern that sabino in fact starts underneath the horse – where we are seeing them. Frankly it would not surprise me Barb blood is again the background responsible as roans were seen in Barbs in times past, and sabino is a modified roan gene. Hence Dongola (they and the Barb shared a lot of ancestry). Otherwise even further back it could trace to the original heavy horse of Europe which was a very finely roaned colour that looked dun (like the present Belgium draught colour). Who knows!  It may even have come from the Galloway, the Bald Galloway is in Eclipse’s pedigree and our Walers have a strong line-bred heritage for Eclipse.

The interesting thing is that we get Walers with white under the belly, patches of white from the naval area and back; and between the back legs either as white patches or heavy roaning. I believe the immediate background of this is the Norfolk Roadster – the common link to Thoroughbreds and Hackneys, and close up in these breeds, often pure, when Walers were being developed. Both these breeds have identical markings – there must be a common factor and the Roadster seems to be it. We may yet discover more about the origins of this marking, it could even be from Barb that was in both Norfolk and TB lines, or earlier, from British chariot ponies. Other Roadster patches are isolated white spots or patches on the legs, usually the foreleg, and usually above the knee. Unusual and also seen in Hackneys. Morgan horses, also descended from Norfolk Roadsters, also throw Roadster Patches consistently (a term I coined for convenience, but anyone can use it).

Roadster patches seems a good description for now, for white patches under the belly, and/or between the back legs, and isolated white on the legs. A horse may have the lot or any one of these markings. It is clearly a Waler marking, seen on several Walers, an old fashioned and interesting marking pattern that further points to old genes at work that have not been bred out or modified by modern breeds or inbreeding. Most breeds would have “got rid” of unusual markings. We on the contrary, accept them, as especially for now, they are an important genetic arrow to heritage.

Spot and/or spotting – Dark Spots and Birdcatcher Spots (white spots)

Another old Thoroughbred gene throws a black patch (like a large spot), generally on the rump. It looks black but up close is usually just dark brown, hence being called Dark Spots. We probably have a little of the old European spotted horse coming out as a spot or spots, with greys becoming apparent when the coat fades, leaving a black spot. The Waler gelding Brumby, grey gone white, from South Australia had a spot the size of a jamjar lid on his rump and two or three smaller spots on his body. I have a bay Waler mare (Merriac Poppy) with an identical dark spot on her rump the size of a cup.

The European spotted horse gene was linked to chestnut and grey if from Scandanavia, but as these spotted horses (Knabstrups) were developed later, I would say our spots came from earlier breeds; namely Barb, Thoroughbred and Asian Pony (descendants thereof). It may have been a rare recessive made dominant by selective breeding, or some geneticists think it may be some form of wild colour pattern for camouflage. Spotted Neopolitan Barbs were popular in Europe during the Middle Ages and were sent around all the Royal households, spreading the spotting gene far and wide. There were spotted ponies running wild in England for centuries.

We also see small white spots on Walers, generally on the withers, back, loins, rump. The spotting gene throws either white or dark spots. It is easy to imagine a horse in dappled shade being even more hidden with spots on it’s coat; likewise, against a stony desert background. In World War One the Australians quickly realised that if they were out in the desert and an enemy plane flew over, they were completely hidden if they remained motionless – horses too. Despite being out in the open desert. Movement was what gave you away. So, it is easy to see how wild patterns for camouflage could have also caused spots, patches and dapples. I would go with this theory from observation of our horses, phenotyped for survival, and with their genetic inheritance of spots – phenotyping obviously kept the spotting gene for safety reasons.

Mongolian ponies in old miniature paintings are sometimes spotted (like an Appy), as are some Chinese ponies in old art, as pretty colours and markings were collected by some, and were gifted to Royals and VIPs for trade influence. Also early Akhal-Tekes from Turkestan had many spotted horses. Spotted ponies and horses were known throughout the development of many European breeds. There are Flemish pictures of the 15th century of spotted horses, and later in France at the time of Louis XIV spotted horses were popular. A 1727 picture of the stud of Lipizza shows spotted horses. Occasionally, modern Andalusians throw spotted horses. Spotted Barbs from Morocco were imported into Europe very early on and up to the nineteenth century. There are still spotted ponies in England. The sturdy mountain work horse of Austria, the Noriker, developed a spotted, often leopard, line – still going -from the Renaissance, when Barbs and Neapolitan horses were brought into Austria.

White spots may be small, bright spots, round or irregular; or the snowflake pattern (more hazy, like roaning and ticking over an area). Black spots may be singular (of varying size); or several spots either differing in size or the same; or on a white patch. Describe the site and size of these markings. They may look like Appaloosa spots but should not be from this source; known on Walers well before any importation of Appies. Do of course beware of Appaloosa blood which is not permitted except of course for Part Breds. There’s a photo of army horses at Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles, 1915, that clearly shows a horse with white patches, with black spots on them. The spotting gene has many variations, this is one example. To be realistic, Appaloosas themselves got their spotting genes from the same sources – European horses, and possibly Chinese ponies from explorers’ wrecks. Nonetheless, the modern Appy is, like other modern breeds, nothing to do with Walers, nor have they ever been. No aspersion on Appys at all – simply, their genetic inheritance is not in the Waler. The stage of rat tail etc seen in Appies was also a sad time for that breed and not a trait one would wish on any breed.

Small white spots on horses with Thoroughbred ancestry are called Birdcatcher Spots. It is a good description, from the Irish horse Birdcatcher. We have this heritage in Walers. Birdcatcher threw the spotting gene to his descendant Bend Or, who passed a spot and/or spots on strongly. Bend Or threw dark spots, whereas Birdcatcher had white spots – which does bear out the theory of the spotting gene throwing either colour spots, despite other differences. Tetrach was famous for his big white spots on grey. There are umpteen TBs with Birdcartcher heritage in our early days that went to stations.

These small white spots on the horse may be present at birth and never change, or may appear and disappear any time over the horse’s life. A fascinating spotting gene. We have seen many Walers with Birdcatcher Spots.

Birdcatcher is one of the very few horses whose markings are described by Weatherby’s in the Thoroughbred studbook, as his markings were so distinctive. He was a chestnut with a blaze (true blaze – on front of nose only), white half stocking on the near hind and distinctive small white spots called “the famous Birdcatcher ticks” and, with “a tuft of silver hair base of the tail and silver hairs scattered in the flank. Owners, not being familiar with them may think they are “maybe rain-scald marks” or “maybe saddle sore marks” “Maybe injuries” etc. The first time one sees a Waler with Birdcatcher spots, Pistol marks, Roadster marks, one is at a loss – are they adventitious or, worse, an aberration showing wrong genes? Once one realises they are a breed feature, it becomes reassuring to see them!!!

No doubt the reason many markings have been ignored is not only ignorance, but the fact racehorses are bred purely for speed – markings are hardly to be remarked upon. Yet, they can help enormously with genetics – tracing ancestry.

Birdcatcher foaled 1833 in Ireland, was by the Irish horse Sir Hercules, and out of Guiccioli. Sir Hercules himself is one of a very few described by Weatherby with markings, foaled in 1826 he was “noted for the silver tuft at the top of the tail and silver scattered in the flanks” and Weatherby goes so far as to say he very likely passed on the white spots to Birdcatcher. Birdcatcher also, was a good racehorse and better sire, being leading sire of England for two years. One of his most famous descendants was Stockwell, who features heavily in the pedigrees of horses on the stations we’ve got Walers from – he’s on Carbine’s dam side. He’s also in the sire and dam line of many TB’s standing in South Australia in the 1870’s – when Walers were first commercially bred there in large numbers. In Stockwell’s pedigree is also a mare named Silvertail. Our Walers would have some line-bred dominants to Stockwell from the stallions used on the stations. There was an Australian Stockwell in the late 1800’s – he too traces to Sir Hercules. So it’s easy to see how we have Birdcatcher spots on Walers.

Many other early Thoroughbreds had spots too. When Walers were created all this blood was immediately close, so has stayed true as more recent blood almost never came in – you could say our horses are at least 200 years old, genetically in a time zone of the past.

In Volume One of the General Stud Book (Thoroughbreds) published in 1791, there are fourteen horses named “Spot”. One entry made mention the filly was so named for a large spot on it’s side. It’s presumed the others were named for the same reason. This was before the rule that horses could not have the same name. As well, there were 94 horses in Vol 1 with “Spot” in their name, such as “Old Spot”, etc – over a fifth of the entries!  Greys were also seen with distinct white spots on the back, loins and rump. There is quite distinctly the gene for a spot and/or spots in the Thoroughbred ancestry handed to Walers. Hyperion (in Cordillo Downs blood) had three black spots on his near-side rump. He traces to Eclipse, and back to a mare named Old Spot Mare.

Almost all early grey Percherons, had white spots on the back, loins and rump also. The early Cleveland Bays were known for their bay colour – and their dorsal stripe, zebra stripes on legs and withers and spots on the body. These became unfashionable and were bred out in the early nineteenth century. Many of these “Chapmans” mares were used in the eighteenth century (when many were spotted) as founding mares of the Thoroughbred.

I’ve seen many references to black spots on Thoroughbreds being traced to Bend Or, but obviously he got them from his ancestors. The fascinating thing about Bend Or is that his dam is still in dispute over a century after his birth, many articles have been written on this – officially it’s Rouge Rose but according to others ( from a stablehand on his stud) it was Clemence (grand-dam of Carbine)! Tracing spots through Bend Or then becomes conjecture on the dam side, although indisputably he got them through the male line, and one would speculate – from whichever mare was his dam – spots being common then. Very likely a double whammy of spotting genes that made a dominant. Dark spots or spot on the horse have also been called “beauty spots”!  

So we can see how the gene for a spots or spots has been passed on to Walers, from many sources but chiefly through the Thoroughbred.

Bloody Marking This is a marking that either runs from the wither down the shoulder, (like a downward running patch), or down the side, or down the flank or hindquarter. It’s a rusty chestnut colour; and seen on greys.

Very rarely, a horse has two, or even three of these patches – shoulder, side, hindquarter. One grey parent, according to modern genetics (which don’t always apply to Walers!), is needed to throw this pattern.

It’s seen on modern Thoroughbreds (rarely) and (also rarely) on Arabs. There is an Arab legend that a faithful mare carried her dead master home, so she and her foals were thus marked by Allah for good service.

There is also a Native American legend about a brave who marked his noble war-horse’s shoulder with his bloody hand after battle, to show those when he got home they had been victorious.

Older than either of these, Chinese art shows Mongolian ponies with this marking, ponies “that looked as if they sweated blood” were popular in China, there were many thousands of this colour at some stages, bred in Tian Shan, the “Heavenly Mountains” and popular in Tajikistan. European art shows this marking on horses in paintings from the Renaissance on. It is seen also today, and in the past, on Spanish descended Mustangs in America.

The fact it’s referred to as a “bloody” marking and that it “bleeds” (spreads, and has ticking like spots off it) are all descriptive – the mark looks like a bloodstain. Importantly, the marking has obviously been around a long time and on different continents, with different heritage. My guess is that’s it’s Mongolian (bearing in mind the Imperial Horse Pastures – millions of acres – of the Chinese Royals were in Mongolia, accessed through Kalgun). and Barb in origin, their influence was great on all European breeds and hence, the New World.

These are also the two founding breeds of the Arab where the marking is also seen. Barbs and Mongolians would have been the source of the Chinese and European markings in the old paintings and books, and of the American horses and mustangs through their founding Spanish blood – being predominantly Barb. Looking in the “history” section you will see how much the breeds travelled in and out of England over the centuries. The Italians and French liked unusual colours and traded horses to England, and the trade from northern Africa was immense. The marking itself, is possibly a sabino pattern with a modifier on grey. It occurs in some breeds and lines more than others. The web site “Cool and Unusual Thoroughbreds” shows TB’s with this colour as well as spotted, striped, sabino (roan patches and white splashed) etc.

Apparently this red/orange colour patch has a pigment modifer. It has the opposite effect to the grey pigment. The pigment in grey body coats fades, but the chestnut pigment in the patch spreads, so over time the patch increases in size. Hence it “bleeding” in legends.

It is from the Thoroughbred we get this marking gene, and the Cape Horse (which has Java Pony, Arab and Barb blood and has chestnuts, greys and roans – the colour carriers); and very possibly also through the Percheron.

The grey Artillery Waler stallion Billjim who seemed Percheron-Thoroughbred in ancestry, threw this marking consistently, and had it himself.

As most Percherons are grey, the carrier for this marking, one wonders if it was a marking with them in the old days too, particularly as in the past Percherons had a considerable influx of eastern blood, one big lot in the eighth century AD, another lot during the Crusades, and another lot in the early nineteenth century, when after Napoleon’s reign Percherons had got down to very few in number. The government put two Arab (or Barb – they were from northern Africa, but the term Arab was more fashionable at the time) stallions, Godolphin and Gallipoly, on the Le Pin Percheron stud, in Le Perche, to help build up numbers and also to breed much needed cavalry mounts.

Like many breed societies, unusual markings are not always recorded so one cannot be sure if the bloody marking was seen in Percherons, but I would think it has occurred. So very possibly a gene for bloody marking came in here but I can find no reference to Percherons with this marking, except for the very honest (as usual with South African breed sites which are strictly monitored by their Agriculture Department!) South African Percheron Association which has a very good history of the breed and says occasional Spots and Patches appear. Percherons were also popular in England although the Association for them did not start up until the early twentieth century. The possible influence of reported chestnut Percherons is also being investigated.

When you also see how much Carbine blood is on the stations we get Walers from, through Pistol and others, a line-bred selection – dominants for Carbine heritage – there is another gene in this line for Bloody markings. Carbine was very line bred himself to Eclipse and Herod. Most interestingly, his dam Mersey is out of Clemence by Newminster – this is the Dr Syntax line which traces right back to the first recorded horse in the line, a founding stallion in Vol. I of the studbook – a horse named Bloody Buttocks. So a linebred gene to Bloody Buttocks is in our horses, making it very likely the marking for which that horse was so obviously named, will occur in our horses. Billjim may very likely have got a double whammy of genes for this old marking, making a dominant. Bloody Buttocks is not a charming name, but there is a Waler tradition of plain, no-nonsense names (Bill the Bastard and Dumbell for example!) so it seems perfectly in keeping with an ancestor – indeed, thank goodness this horse was named for his marking or we’d still be wondering exactly where we got it from. It is yet another old-fashioned marking which clearly and delightfully points to the old genes in our Walers.

Scars and brands are identifying marks, make a note of them.

State if you find a Prophet’s Thumbmark, an obvious indentation as if someone pushed their thumb firmly into clay. Usually found on the neck, sometimes the shoulder. It is genetic; according to legend these were the favoured ones of Allah (he marked them) being more obedient and loyal. Comes from Barb blood, and Arab blood. We got many small Arab -, almost all pony sized – from India in colonial days. Many went into the TB here.

Dapples are a sign of good health and generally more apparent in the summer coat. It is a coat pattern best known with greys – with other colours it’s usually just taken as a sign of health – but there’s a gene at work, so note if you see dapples. There’s a coat pattern for dapples, also in some chestnuts and some palominos, so a genetic factor nothing to do with health. Note dapples. Of interest, the hair in dapples varies in length, with rings of shorter hairs.

Posted by Janet Lane

Rare breeds advocate, and Waler researcher and owner/advocate since the 1980s.