BLUE ROAN HORSE
THE CAPTIVATING BLUE ROAN HORSE
Enchanting at sight, a roan horse has been admired by equine enthusiasts for centuries. Defined by their remarkable coats, this stallion truly makes a statement with its presence. A roan horse is highly regarded for its rare color genetics and stunning beauty.
WHAT IS ROAN HORSE?
The term roan describes the color pattern of a horse’s coat. True roan horses have an even mixture of white and colored hairs. The color pattern of the white hairs mixed with the base color creates a striking coat color. The roan colors exhibited allude to a silver-tone but may differ depending on the base color, such as black or red. More importantly, roan is a dominant gene that must be inherited, attributing to its rarity. Essentially, a roan stallion can be born in any color. The gene exists in various breeds of horses, but primarily found in many European and North American ones. The blue roan is the most sought after of the roans because it’s such a rare horse color.
The word roan is typically used in combination with the base coat color to describe the shade of the roan horse, such as a bay roan or a red roan. Roan coats are categorized into three main colors; blue, bay, and red. A blue roan horse has a black base color, a bay roan horse has a bay base color, and a red roan horse has a sorrel or chestnut base color. A red roan used to include both chestnut and bay coat colors, however, in 1999 the American Paint Horse Association separated red roans and bay roans. In 2003, they followed suit again with the term “strawberry roan.” A strawberry roan, now labeled a red roan, is the pinkish color of a light chestnut or sorrel roan. While less common, the term lilac roan may be applied to a dark chestnut, and honey roan to palominos or the lightest sorrels.
Some roan horses have more white hair than others, and even individual horses may look lighter or darker based on the season. In the winter, the horse’s coat will appear darker because the colored hairs grow longer and thicker than the white hairs. In the summer, the horse will appear lighter because the thick, colored hairs shed, and the white hairs become more visible. It’s easier to see roan on a darker coat color because the white hairs are more pronounced. Light colors like palomino make the roaning difficult to see.
The roan gene is a dominant gene, so it must be inherited from at least one parent. The roan gene affects the coat color on the horse’s body only, whereas the head, mane, lower legs, and tail remain solid colored. Sometimes a roan will have a concentration of white hairs above the eyes, making the horse appear to have white eyebrows. On occasion, the roaning can show up only over the croup and hip area (this is referred to as “minimal expression”). True roans are born a solid color and won’t appear roan until the foal coat sheds. When a roan horse incurs damage to the skin (and hair), the regrowth hair heals fully colored, without any white. These damaged spots are commonly referred to as “corn marks” or “corn spots.” Roan coats are also known for dappling. Dappling in a roan is the opposite of traditional dappling in a horse coat, where the dappling rings are lighter circles of hair.
THE ROAN GENE
To go more into detail, the roan is a simple dominant trait symbolized by the Rn allele. The color pattern of roaning, caused by the roan gene, (R), cannot appear in a foal of two non-roan parents, even if they have roan ancestors. The three primary base colors include red (chestnut “e” gene), black (“E” gene), and bay (Black “E” gene) +Agouti (“A”gene) which when paired with the roan gene result in the red or strawberry, blue, and bay roans, respectively.
The roan pattern is dominantly inherited and cannot skip generations, therefore, two non-roan parents cannot produce a roan foal. If roaning has shown to skip generations, typically one of the parents is discovered to be slightly roaned. Moreover, a roan foal can be born from two seemingly non-roan parents if the coat is “masked” by extensive white markings or gray. In some cases, the supposedly roan foal is not true roan at all, but rabicano, sabino, or influenced by some other genetic factor.
The University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s genetics services developed a DNA test that uses genetic markers to indirectly determine the number of Rn or rn alleles a horse has. The mutation responsible for a true roan has not yet been precisely identified but assigned to equine chromosome 3 (ECA3) in the KIT sequence. The roan zygosity test is reliable for the American Quarter Horse Stallion and the American Paint Horse. Until a direct test is developed, the roan zygosity test may enable breeders to produce true roans more reliably.
Homozygous Roan horses have the genotype Rn/Rn and produce 100% roan offspring. Homozygous roans and heterozygous roans (Rn/rn) are identical in appearance. A 1979 study of American-bred Belgian draft horses found fewer roan offspring from roan-to-roan matings than expected. Researchers concluded that homozygous roans had a higher chance of being born dead. Despite the popular belief in the “lethal roan,” genetic science could not prove this, and the theory has since been debunked by the existence of such roan horses.
THE ROAN MIMICS
There’s a variety of other horse coats that appear similar to a roan horse, but it’s important to not interchange them. Gray is one of the most common horse colors and is found in almost all breeds. A gray foal may be born any color, even roan. Distinctively, a gray coat lightens with age, whereas a roan coat does not. Mature grays may lose their original coat color to have a white coat, while the color of the skin and eyes is unchanged. The first white hairs are usually seen around the eyes and muzzle. As a gray may go from entirely colored to entirely white over the course of its life, the process of “graying out” can, at times, closely resemble roan. Blue roans can look very similar to a young gray horse or a blue dun.
Blue dun or grullo coloring is created by the dun gene. Unlike blue roans, blue duns are solid colored and have a black coat. The color genetics of the dun gene affect the black horse by having low amounts of pigment in each hair. Therefore, these blue dun horses appear to have a blueish coat rather than a black one.
Rabicano and sabino colorings are two different genes that appear roan like because they also produce white hairs in the coat. Rabicanos have dense areas of white hair around the base of the tail and the flank. Rabicano roaning frequently forms rings of white hair around the base of the tail, called a “coon tail.” Sabino coat color patterns may also look like roaning, but sabinos usually have unevenly distributed white hairs on the lower legs, face, and midline. Sabino white patches will look heavily roaned, but the roaning is uneven.
ROAN IN HORSE BREEDS
There are many breeds that produce roan coats including European draft horses, British ponies, and North American breeds such as the Paint Horse, the Quarter Horse Stallion, Mustang, and Tennessee Walking Horse. The Hokkaido Pony of Japan may also be roan. There are some horse breeds that never produce a true roaning, including the Arabian Horse, the Suffolk Punch, and the Haflinger. To offer some perspective, 12 percent of the horses registered with AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) in 2017 were roans.
FAMOUS ROAN STALLIONS
Some famous roan horses include red roan stallion Red Man, born in 1935, and blue roan stallion Blue Valentine, born in 1957, who gained fame on the rodeo circuit. Zippos Mr. Good Bar, a famous red roan, was an American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame inductee for 2019. He was known for his show career and as a top sire. The famous blue roan stallion named Royal Blue Boon, born in 1980 was the first in a line of world-class cutting horses.
THE BLUE ROAN HORSE
A blue roan horse is arguably the most attractive of the roans. It’s difficult to breed a blue roan because the genetic makeup must be precise, consequently making them the most valuable and rarest of the roans. A blue roan will be born with a solid black foal coat,
Blue roans are always roan at birth, though they can appear to be born solid black and then shed their baby coat to reveal their roan color.
A true blue roan will have a genetically black body, black legs, and a roaned black coat. The body includes the barrel, hip, head, and neck. The legs, mane, and tail are not included. Because a true blue roan is an even mixture of white and black, the equine appears a striking indigo color with tones of silver. They truly are a sight to see.
Because blue roans are so rare, people have the tendency to mislabel them. The term blue roan is often loosely applied to any roan horse with a dark underlying coat suggesting a blueish shade. Gray horses are commonly mistaken as blue roan horses to the untrained eye. Dark bay roans might give the impression of a blue roan as well. The easiest way to determine the difference between a gray and blue roan horse is to look at the head. A roan’s head will be darker than its body, whereas a gray head will be lighter than its body. Blue roans also do not include patterns of varnish, rabicano, or sabino.
Blue Roan Horses are common in North American breeds such as Paint horses, Paso Finos, the Quarter Horse, Standardbred, Mustang, and Tennessee Walking horse. The Nokota Horse, a feral and semi-feral breed native to North Dakota, often comes with a blue roan coat. So often, in fact, that the color has become a symbol of the breed.
ROANS IN HISTORY
The roan horse has been revered throughout history. The steed has been associated with royalty and has played a historical role in William Shakespeare’s famous plays. King Richard III of England was portrayed riding the famous stallion named Roan Barbary in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. Over the years, many literary scholars have claimed Shakespeare was partial to roan horses, as he mentioned many roan equines in his writings. There is a classic line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV play that states, “That roan shall be my throne.”
With their uniqueness, rarity, and beauty, roan stallions are truly one of a kind. The blue roan is undoubtedly the most stunning color of all the roans. The genetic makeup of a true roan equine plays a critical role in their authenticity. It’s important to understand the distinctions of a roan horse to fully comprehend its innate magnificence.