|The kind of beautiful palomino colouring that a little girl dreams about... (pic linked from Keystone Center)|
|Similar colouring to a horse I actually had: dirt plus chestnut (pic linked from Moon Dance Ranch Co.)|
This article describes the how the chestnut, bay or brown, and black coat colours are controlled by two genes. To all the chestnut, bay and brown horses that I've loved - this is for you. Diablo, you gorgeous chunky flea-bitten grey, you'll have your own article coming shortly.
The important things to remember when discussing genes are:
- Your horse has two copies of each gene*, one inherited from either parent;
- There are many different versions of each gene in the horse population, some of which can produce identical or nearly identical appearance and biological function, while other versions can produce a different coat colour or cause disease; and
- Each physical characteristic of your horse, including coat colour, results from the combined effects of the two copies of each gene, AND the interactions between a large number of different genes.
Well, I hope you said that! Clever clogs, I'd be thinking, because you'd be picking up an important point: there are a bunch of other genes where some uncommon versions of those genes can interact with black, bay or brown, and chestnut to make beautiful and unusual coat colours seen in horses that I've admired but never owned. But for most horses, the gene versions they've inherited are common ones that allow the basic black, bay or brown, and chestnut coat colours to shine through.
|Another coat colouring that is definitely more glamorous than dirt plus chestnut (pic linked from Life in Melbourne)|
Now, onwards to the gene that governs black vs. chestnut, and the other gene that restricts black to the points (you know, the legs, mane, tail, and ear edges).
The gene that governs black vs. chestnut is referred to as MC1R. This snappy little acronym is short for the melanocortin-1 receptor. Most versions of this gene allow the horse to produce black pigment that colours their hair (eumelanin, if you want to be technical). However, other versions of MC1R, which share a key mutation, cause a failure in the biological process that produces the black colour, leaving the horse with red pigment (pheomelanin) instead.
Your horse has two copies of this gene, one inherited from each parent. If your horse is chestnut, both of its parents passed on versions of the MC1R gene that make the red pigment.
|Yup - dam and sire passed on versions of the MC1R that only produce red pigment. This horse is chestnut. (This horse is called Admiral, his picture is linked from Sporthorsedata.com).|
If your horse has any black hairs (including the mane and tail), then at least one of its parents passed on a version of MC1R that allows it to produce the black pigment. But, just to be tricky, it's impossible to tell just from looking whether your horse has inherited one vs. two black versions of the MC1R gene. Even when just one copy of the black version of the MC1R gene is present, it can do a very efficient job of making black pigment.
|This horse (his name is Airport) can produce black pigment. Check out his main, tail, and legs. Feel free to argue about whether he's brown or bay. (Pic also linked from Sporthorsedata.com).|
Basically, what most versions of the ASIP gene do is turn down or turn off black versions of the MC1R gene, resulting in red pigment being produced instead of black. But, these versions of the ASIP gene aren't active everywhere: cells producing pigment for hair on the legs, ear margins, mane and tail continue to be able to produce black pigment.
Some versions of the ASIP gene don't work properly, which means that they can't turn off black versions of the MC1R gene. If your horse inherits these versions of the ASIP gene from both parents, and it is not a chestnut, it will be black. Mmmm, black.
|Black is definitely a glamorous coat colour in my book. I've never owned a black horse. (Pic linked from Splendidwallpaper.com)|
But if your horse is chestnut, the versions of the ASIP gene it inherited from its dam and sire won't change its colour - there is no black pigment production to turn down or turn off. That said, chestnuts dams and sires still pass on one of the versions of ASIP that they have themselves, which may affect the colour of their offspring.
Practical Horse Genetics can carry out genetic testing for chestnut, black and bay/brown.
* Except for genes on the X and Y chromosomes in male horses, where there may be only one copy.