Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Horse of a Different Color

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Readers of traditional westerns and western romance tend to expect certain kinds of characters in stories. After strong men and feisty women, far and away the next most expected character is a horse. That’s how western movies came by the somewhat pejorative monikers “oater” and “horse opera.”

From left: a gray, a chestnut, and a bay roan (Click all photos to enlarge.)
I can’t speak for other western romance authors, but when I put a horse in a story, it can’t be just any old horse. The horse must fit the story and the human character with whom it pals around. All sorts of traits (including breed, size, and temperament) play into the decision, but one of the most obvious is coat color.

The color of a fictional horse says quite a bit about its rider. If a human character doesn’t want to stand out in a crowd, he or she most likely will ride a chestnut or sorrel, the two most common colors. Bays are another good choice for “don’t look at me” characters. Conversely, “flashy” horses—those with lots of white, like Appaloosas, palominos, and paints—send the subconscious message the character wants to be seen.

Duns and buckskins lend an aura of toughness to their riders, male or female. Don’t ask me why, but I’m sure there’s some complicated psychological explanation somewhere. And then there are the uncommon colors that make human characters seem rebellious: grullas and roans.

Because it sometimes can be difficult to visualize horse colors—and because everyone who reads western romance likes to look at pictures of pretty horses, right?—I thought I’d provide some helpful visuals.

Without further ado…

Chestnuts are red horses. Period. The shade can vary along a continuum from light to dark. Although manes and tails may be a lighter shade, they usually are the same color as the horse’s body. Liver chestnuts are so dark they seem almost brown. White blazes and stockings are optional. In Prodigal Gun, hero Mason Caine rides only “plain” chestnuts—ones with small or no white markings—because he wants to fade into the scenery.

Sorrels are red, too, but the line between sorrel and chestnut can be vague. Sorrel is a light, bright red—sometimes described as “copper penny red.” Some folks call sorrels a subset of chestnut; others say sorrel is distinct from chestnut because true sorrels have flaxen manes and tails. I’m staying out of that argument. Brit Moonchaser, the antihero in my forthcoming novel Ghosts in the Shadows, rides a sorrel gelding with a flaxen mane and tail—mostly because I like the color.

mahogany bay
blood bays
Bay horses range from a light reddish-brown to a dark, almost black, red. All bay horses have black manes, tails, and lower legs (called “points”). The darkest are called mahogany bay. One of the most striking bays, I think, is blood bay—a deep, bright red. “Flashy” blood bays are particularly attractive. A dangerous, flashy blood bay stallion plays a significant role in Ghosts in the Shadows.

buckskin mare and foal
buckskin quarter horse
Buckskins are tan or golden horses with dark
manes, legs, and tails. The tips of their ears also sport dark hair. White stockings and blazes are not uncommon. Cole McCord, the Texas Ranger in Prodigal Gun, rides a buckskin gelding. Cole is a by-the-book, no-nonsense lawman.

three-week-old red dun
dark dun
Duns often are confused with buckskins. Their coats run the same color spectrum, and both have dark points. The difference is this: Duns bear “primitive markings”; buckskins don’t. Primitive markings include a darker line down the center of the back from withers to tail, a dark splash across the shoulders, zebra stripes on the legs, and rings on the forehead (called “cobwebbing”). Many of the markings may be virtually invisible, but the line down the back is a dead giveaway and it’s always present. Often, duns’ tails will bear a dark stripe, as well. Whit McCandless, the rancher with an inflexibility problem in the short story “Peaches,” rides a lineback dun.

grulla miniature horse
See the stripe down his back?
Grullas or grullos (grew-ya; grew-yo) are essentially blue duns, a color combination that occurs when the dun coat color gene crosses the black coat color gene. Grullas/grullos (either is correct), sometimes called “mouse duns,” also bear primitive markings. The color is striking, if uncommon. Quinn Barclay, the hero in the short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas,” rides a grulla gelding with a drinking problem.

strawberry roan
bay roan
Roans come in red, bay, and blue. They look
“mottled” because white hair mixes with the horse’s base color evenly across most of the body. Roans’ heads and lower legs are the solid base color. Blue roans have black heads, manes, and tails. Bay roans have black manes, tails, and legs. Red roans—sometimes called strawberry roans—have chestnut heads, manes, tails, and legs. Latimer, a gunman who wants everyone to know who he is, rides a strawberry roan gelding in Prodigal Gun.

Paint and pinto horses are marked with large
splotches of white and any other color. (In the Old West, the terms paint and pinto were interchangeable. Nowadays there are technical differences between the two having to do with bloodlines.) Paints come in three varieties—Tobiano, Overo, and Tovero—but unless an author is writing a contemporary story set among the horsey set, nobody cares. Jessie, the heroine in Prodigal Gun, is rebellious from the word go. Her horse, Caliente, is a black-and-white paint mare.

Tennessee Walking Horse
palomino mare; chestnut foal
Palominos can range in color from almost white to
deep chocolate, but the vast majority have coats “within three shades of a newly minted gold coin.” All have white or flaxen manes and tails. Everyone remembers Trigger, right?

Appaloosa hoof
varnish roan Appaloosa
Appaloosas are easy to spot. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) The
breed is said to have originated among the Nez Perce Indians, who bred them for their spotted coats. Appies can be almost any base color and come in several patterns, but perhaps the best known are leopards (spots evenly distributed over a light-colored horse) and blankets (commonly a splash of white with spots across the rump of a darker base coat, although there are other blanket patterns). Many have striped hooves. Varnish roan is an exceptionally striking and uncommon version of the leopard pattern and is distinguished from other roans by the appearance of dark spots over prominent bones (hips, knees, facial bones, etc.). I haven’t found a character in need of an Appaloosa yet, but I’m sure I will.

What’s your favorite horse color? One of these? Something else? Let us know in the comments. On Saturday morning I’ll draw the name of one commenter, and that person will receive an e-copy of his or her choice from among the stories mentioned above.


  1. Color doesn't matter to me, but gender does. Thank you for having your western men ride geldings, and not stallions. ;-)

  2. Such a helpful post, Kathleen. I am so glad to have the information. I just changed the color of my WIP hero's horse after seeing your illustration. I was off on a couple of types. Thanks!

  3. By the way, Kathleen, don't include me in the drawing as I already have each of your stories and your book. Enjoyed each of them.

  4. Peggy, THANK YOU for chiming in about geldings. I'm always amused when authors sit their heroes, and sometimes heroines, on stallions. Such a bad idea. :-D Mares aren't a particularly appealing idea either, for temperament and reproduction reasons, but I've been known to mount characters on a mare. **looking sheepish**

  5. Hi, Robert! Thank you for the compliment and for stopping by. Got you in the drawing! :-)

  6. Caroline, I'm curious: What color was the hero's horse to begin with, and what did you change the critter's color too? What made you change your mind?

    Thanks for your kind words about my stories. That's very flattering, coming from you. :-)

  7. "To," not "too." GAH! I haven't had enough coffee.

  8. My favorite are grullo. I do like others as well. One being Tri-colored (Black, red, white) blood red Dun paints (more color than white, and they don't necessarily need to be a Dun :-)

  9. Nice, racing3barrels02! It's amazing how many color variations horses display, isn't it? And that doesn't even begin to address breeds. Navigating THAT pile just makes my head hurt.

    Are you a barrel racer? More power to you! Barrel racing and cutting-horse competitions are two of my favorite rodeo events. The teamwork between horse and rider can be spectacular.

    Thanks for stopping by! You're in the drawing. :-)

  10. I was actually thinking of doing my next blog post on geldings vs stallions. I just had a long discussion in my fan group about this. It's a huge pet peeve of mine. That said, I am guilty of using mares, too, for a couple of my heroes ;-)

  11. My personal favorite color is black, but I was told by a horseman that it's best for longevity if they have white stockings. I have not tested that out as the horses I've had most experience with were appaloosas-- which had a variety of temperaments making it hard to say they are stable or not. They are prone to the same cancer problems though of all white horses.

    I had a hero who rode a stallion. He liked the difficulty and constant challenge-- it matched his own temperament. It's not as though stallions weren't are aren't still ridden, but they take more skill especially around other horses. A lot of ranchers prefer all geldings for cattle horses with no mares sprinkled in-- or all mares, I suppose.

    Anyway, very informative and beautiful post. The writer that blew me away the most with his horses was Louis L'Amour where he would refer to them by a name I'd never heard and have to look it up.

  12. Peggy, please do write about geldings vs. stallions in your next post! It's a pet peeve of mine, too. I've had a few..."interesting" discussions with other authors, and I end up having to bite my tongue until it's bloody. Maybe they'll listen to YOU. :-D

  13. I am soooo guilty. I've used stallions--probably because I've read quite a few western romances in which the hero rode one--but no more. I swear off stallions, period.
    Can I just say "horse"? Or call on one of you experts? Don't answer that. I just will, now that I know your names.
    I love those photos. A horse is such a beautiful animal.

  14. Rain, there's an old, old poem about stockings:

    One white foot, buy a horse.
    Two white feet, try a horse.
    Three white feet, be on the sly.
    Four white feet, pass him by.

    I don't know anyone who's taken that advice seriously, but it had to come from somewhere for some reason.

    I hear what you're saying about temperaments varying from horse to horse -- just like they do in people. Though geldings generally are tractable, even they can be mean.

    Many years ago, I worked at a boarding stable to help pay my way through college. One of the horses stabled there was a beautiful blood bay gelding who was dangerous with a capital D. His owner was the only person who could go anywhere near him without risk of being bitten or stomped, and he wasn't all that safe around her. He threw her with regularity. She broke her back in a fall twice, but she kept that horse because she loved him. Go figure.

    Thanks for stopping by! :-)

  15. Celia, horses are beautiful, intelligent creatures with so much personality. They also can be sneaky. I remember one mare who used to step on my foot, on purpose, every chance she got and then look at me with a snicker in her eyes. She also was famous for trying to wipe riders off on trees.

    She was a sweet thing, though. Red was incredibly careful when she took food from people's hands, and she'd hang her head over anybody's shoulder if they stood still long enough. Of course, then she'd step on their foot. :-\

    You're not -- by a fur piece -- the only WHR author who's stuck her hero on a stallion. I didn't realize there were so many well-behaved stallions in the Old West. :-D

  16. One of the famous characters in the West, who is thought of as a hero or villain, depending on the viewpoint, George Custer, famously rode stallions into battle. There is an amusing story about the temperament of a stallion in the story of one of his horses Don Juan, which pretty much shows the difficulty of riding them if the rider doesn't know what they are doing-- and even if he/she does. Working cattle, it'd be almost unheard of unless the rancher wanted to also breed horses. My husband worked on a ranch when he was going to college where they had an Arabian stallion that never failed to try and bite him if he went hear. They were breeding him and he was ridden regularly by the lady owning the operation-- that didn't mean he was an easy animal to be around :)

  17. Yikes, Rain! Biting horses are not my idea of a good time.

    Somehow, it doesn't surprise me Custer rode stallions. Regardless where one falls on the Custer admire/despise continuum, I don't think many would dispute the man had "control issues." ;-)

  18. if you read the story, you will see the horse had his issues too ;). Stallion are ridden today for the same reason he probably chose to-- stamina and spirit. But if a writer has one in the story, they should show the personality of the horse. In my story with a stallion, the horse was called Satan and he had the temperament of a stallion.

    There are a lot of things that I read in stories regarding horses that sometimes I have to put aside what I know to just enjoy it. I agree with what you said earlier-- show the personality of the horse if it's a character in the story. I have one book where the hero deliberately does not name the horse he rides. He considers it just a tool to get him where he wants. It's part of his personality at that point in his life-- and it was a gelding ;).

  19. Great photos and clear descriptions, Kathleen! I fess up that I'm guilty of one stallion rider (blame Walter Farley!), but I did try to make it clear he wasn't a walk (or ride) in the park. LOL Thanks for the terrific info!

  20. I love this post, Kathleen. Okay, I'm guilty of always putting my characters on mares. Since I'm not a horse person, I thought I was being a good dooby doing this, since, yes, I've put my hero on a stallion way back when.

    So, let me ask. Usually, there are ONLY mares when I use them. Can I get away with this? In my latest wip, h/h both ride female horses, but they do spend some time at Camp Bowie. Would these females agitate the regiment's horses? I'm thinking, yes **smacks forehead**

  21. Great post, Tex. I've always been partial to Buckskins myself. I think a lot of my heroes end up on those.

    The gelding/stallion thing is kind of a pet peeve, but at the same time I've been guilty of using a stallion, but that's when they'll be used as sires.

    In my new release the hero rides a gelding so brown he's almost black. I referred to him as "the black" a couple times and one of the editors questioned if that would actually be used. I was like "well I use it." I asked my dad and he said "um, yeah." I guess it just depends on where you come from.

  22. Lorrie, Walter Farley did western authors no favors with THE BLACK STALLION. :-D Great book, though.

    I think there are instances where authors can get away with mounting characters on stallions -- if, like you said, they make it clear the horse is not an easy critter to handle. There are sweet-tempered stallions...until an enticing mare walks by in a short skirt. Males are the same in any species. ;-)

  23. Kristy, it's not so much that the mares would rile the (presumably) geldings at the fort, but that the mares themselves might behave badly during the long days of summer.

    Mares don't go through estrus in the winter, but as the days become longer (usually sometime in April), they begin a 21-day cycle that continues until they're bred or the days start getting shorter again. Some behave just like normal while they're in season, but others can be absolute basket cases. They bite. They kick. They fight the saddle. They whinny 24/7 and develop all sorts of other behaviors that can make you pretend you don't know that horse.

    Of course, you're writing fiction, so you get to make the behavior rules. :-)

  24. Kathleen,
    Thanks for the info. I think I'll switch to geldings. :-)

  25. Rustler, why am I not surprised you're partial to buckskins? ;-)

    That's weird about your editor questioning the term "the black" for a horse that looks black (even if he's really a super-dark brown). If a horse looks black, for all intents and purposes he might as well BE black -- unless he or she is going to be bred. There IS a difference in color genetics, even if there seems to be no difference to the naked eye.

    Does your story make a big to-do about the horse being called "the black" when he's genetically "the brown"?

  26. All horses are beautiful, aren't they, Mary? Thanks for stopping by! I've got you in the drawing. :-)

  27. Yeah, I couldn't figure it out either and it was just kind of tossed out there. Something like "he reined in the black" or something like that. I guess that's why I didn't give it a second thought. It's like when I went out to the ranch and said "oh, so and so is taking the black out." She also questioned the hero calling his son "the boy." As in "I'll go get the boy, you saddle up."

    I guess we Wyomingites toss out a lot of phrases no one else understands. :) But since this story takes place in Wyoming, I kept it all and Cheryl didn't question any of it, so she must have grown up crazy like me. :) No big deal.

  28. Rustler, nobody grew up crazy like you. Nobody. Thank goodness. ;-)

    Sounds like your other editor may not be overly acquainted with the way folks talk in the South, West, and otherwise out is the sticks. My grandfather called my dad -- his only son -- "boy" and referred to him as "the boy" until the day Grandpa died. Daddy was about 50 at the time. :-D

  29. Here's what I know about horse colors--zero. Well, okay, pinto with the spots and Lippezons are white. (I know I spelled that wrong). I write about Andalusians often in my paranormal stories because they were war horses, but I always make them white. Banjo rides a pinto. I think of pintos as Native American horses. Harmonica Joe rode a Morgan. I figured, coming from a plantation in Virginia, he would have a treasured, expensive horse. Okay, so that's everything I know.
    Thank you for all this very helpful information, Kathleen. I took notes--I really did.

    BTW, I saw the conversation with you and Kirsten about calling grown men "boy" by their fathers. It was common in my tribe, too--and my tribe originated in Pennsylvania. My grandfather McNeal called my dad his boy until he died. My parents also called my sister and I "the girls" all their lives. Neither of the terms were considered offensive, but rather, terms of endearment. Just sayin'...

    Loved your informative blog, Kathleen. It was a genuine horse class. Loved it!

  30. Kathleen,

    Thanks for an interesting post. What I don't know about horses would fill a book. LOL. You've given me insight in helping me pick a horse for the hero in my WIP.

  31. Sarah, you DO know something about horses! Paints often were ridden by American Indians because of their flashy colors. Morgans are beautiful and sturdy. The Union cavalry rode them during the Civil War.

    My parents called my sister and I "you girls" and "the girls" and "my girls" all their lives, too. "You girls" usually was part of a sentence like "You girls behave!" I never did figure that out. We were little angels. ;-)

  32. Alisa, I'm always glad to be of service, ma'am. I can't wait to see your WIP in print. What are you doing commenting on blogs? Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, woman! :-)


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