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White Horses

White horses are born white and stay white throughout their lives. White horses may have brown, blue, or hazel eyes. "True white" horses, especially those that carry one of the dominant white (W) genes, are rare. Most horses that are commonly referred to as "white" are actually "gray" horses whose hair coats are completely white and may be born of any color and gradually "gray" as time goes on and take on a white appearance.

True White Horses

White horses have unpigmented skin and a white hair coat. Many white horses have dark eyes, though some have blue eyes. In contrast to gray horses which are born with pigmented skin they keep for life and pigmented hair that lightens to white with age, truly white horses are born with white hair and mostly pink, unpigmented skin. Some white horses are born with partial pigmentation in their skin and hair, which may or may not be retained as they mature, but when a white horse lightens, both skin and hair lose pigmentation. In contrast, grays retain skin pigment and only the hair becomes white.

White colorings, whether white markings, white patterns or dominant white are collectively known as depigmentation phenotypes, and are all caused by areas of skin that lack pigment cells (melanocytes). Depigmentation phenotypes have various genetic causes, and those that have been studied usually map to the EDNRB and KIT genes. However, much about the genetics behind various all-white depigmentation phenotypes are still unknoen.

Dominant white

Dominant white is best known for producing pink-skinned all-white horses with brown eyes, though some dominant white horses have residual pigment along the topline. Dominant white has been studied in Thoroughbreds, Arabian horses, the American White horse, the Camarillo White horse, and several other breeds. There are 27 identified variants of dominant white as of 2017, plus sabino 1, each corresponding to a spontaneously-white foundation animal and a mutation on the KIT gene. Researchers have suggested that at least some forms of dominant white result in nonviable embryos in the homozygous state, though others are known to be viable as homozygotes. While homologous mutations in mice are often linked to anemia and sterility, no such effects have been observed in dominant white horses. Dominant white horses typically have white noses that can be subject to sunburn.


Sabino-white horses are pink-skinned with all-white or nearly-white coats and dark eyes. They are homozygous for the dominant SB1 allele at the Sabino 1 locus, which has been mapped to KIT. Without a DNA test, Sabino-white horses are indistinguishable from dominant white horses. The Sabino1 allele, and the associated spotting pattern, is found in Miniature horses, American Quarter Horses, American Paint Horses, Tennessee Walkers, Missouri Fox Trotters, Mustangs, Shetland Ponies, and Aztecas. Sabino 1 has not been found in the Arabian horse, Clydesdale, Thoroughbred, Standardbred horse, or Shire horse. The Sabino 1 allele is not linked to any health defects, though sabino-whites may need some protection from sunburn. Horses with only one copy of the Sabino1 gene usually have dramatic spotting, including two or more white legs, often with white running up the front of the leg, extensive white on the face, spotting on the midsection, and jagged or roaned margins to the pattern.

White born leopards

The leopard complex, related to the Leopard (LP) gene, characterizes the Appaloosa and Knabstrupper breeds with their spotted coats. Leopard is genetically quite distinct from all other white and white-spotting patterns. The fewspot leopard pattern, however, can resemble white. Two factors influence the eventual appearance of a leopard complex coat: whether one copy (heterozygous LP/lp) or two copies (homozygous LP/LP) Leopard alleles are present, and the degree of dense white patterning present at birth. If a foal is homozygous for the LP allele and has extensive dense white patterning, they will appear nearly white at birth, and may continue to lighten with age. In other parts of the world, these horses are called "white born." "White born" foals are less common among Appaloosa horses than Knabstruppers or Norikers, as the extensive dense white patterning is favored for producing dramatic full leopards. Homozygous leopards have the LP/LP genotype, and may be varnish roan, fewspot leopard, or snowcap patterned. Homozygous leopards are substantially more prone to congenital stationary night blindness. Congenital stationary night blindness is present at birth and is characterized by impaired vision in dark conditions.

Lethal white syndrome

Lethal white syndrome is a genetic disorder linked to the Frame overo (O) gene and most closely studied in the American Paint Horse. Affected foals are carried to term and at birth appear normal, though they have pink-skinned all-white or nearly-white coats and blue eyes. However, the colon of these foals cannot function due to the absence of nerve cells, and the condition cannot be treated. Foals with Lethal White Syndrome invariably die of colic within 72 hours, and are usually humanely euthanized. Carriers of the gene, who are healthy and normal, can be identified by a DNA test. While carriers often exhibit the "frame overo" pattern, this is not a dispositive trait and testing is necessary, as the pattern can appear in a minimal form as normal white markings or be masked by other white spotting genes.

Horses that appear white, but are not

True white horses have unpigmented pink skin and unpigmented white hair, though eye color varies. The lack of pigment in the skin and hair is caused by the absence of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. Some coat colors are characterized by light or white-like coats and even pinkish skin, however these white-like coats are not lacking melanocytes. Instead, white-like coat colors result from various changes in the ways melanocytes produce pigment.


Gray horses have the most common "white-like" coat color. However, the most noticeable difference between a gray horse whose hair coat is completely white and a white horse is skin color: most gray horses have black skin and dark eyes, white horses have light, unpigmented skin. The gray gene does not affect skin or eye color, so grays typically have dark skin and eyes, as opposed to the unpigmented pink skin of true white horses. The skin and eyes may be other colors if influenced by other factors such as white markings, certain white spotting patterns or dilution genes. Gray foals may be born any color, but the colored hairs of their coat become progressively silvered as they age, eventually giving mature gray horses a white or nearly-white hair coat. Gray is controlled by a single dominant allele of a gene that regulates specific kinds of stem cells. Gray horses are at an increased risk for melanoma; 70-80% of gray horses over the age of 15 have a melanoma tumor.

Diluted coat colors

True white hair is rooted in unpigmented skin that lacks melanocytes. In contrast, diluted coat colors have melanocytes, but vary due to the concentration or chemical structure of the pigments made by these pigment-producing cells, not the absence of the cells themselves. There are at least five known types of pigment dilution in horses, three which, as described below, can act to produce off-white phenotypes. Horses with strongly diluted coat colors usually have pale blue eyes, cream-colored coats, and rosy-pink skin. White markings are usually visible upon closer inspection.

  • The Cream gene produces two types of diluted color. Cremellos, perlinos, and smoky creams have rosy-pink skin, pale blue eyes, and cream-colored coats that can appear almost white. These coat colors, collectively called "double dilutes" or "blue-eyed creams", result when a horse is homozygous for the cream gene. When heterozygous, the cream gene is also responsible for palomino and buckskin. A few Palominos have a very light hair coat is occasionally mistaken for either cremello or white. White markings and patterns are visible against the slightly-pigmented coat and skin. The cream gene is not known to be associated with any health problems.
  • Pearl-Cream pseudo-double dilute occurs when a horse has one cream gene and one pearl gene. These two distinct dilution factors interact to produce a cremello-like coat. Pearl-creams have pale but pigmented skin and blue-green eyes, and are distinctly pale cream-colored. To date, the Pearl gene has been found in Quarter Horses, Paint horses, and some Iberian horses. Pearl is not known to be associated with any health problems.
  • Champagne-Cream pseudo-double dilute occurs when a horse has one cream gene and one champagne gene. Champagne and cream are another pair of unrelated dilution factors that interact to produce a cremello-like coat. Champagne-creams have freckled, pinkish skin, pale eyes, and pale coats. These colors were formerly referred to as "ivory champagnes". Champagne is found in North American breeds such as the American Cream Draft, Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, American Quarter Horse, and Miniature horse. It is not known to be associated with any health problems.


Although white horses are sometimes called "albino" there are no reported cases of a true "albino" horse. There are also references in literature calling white horses "albino". Dominant white in horses is caused by the absence of pigment cells (melanocytes), whereas albino animals have a normal distribution of melanocytes. In other animals, patches of unpigmented skin, hair, or eyes due to the lack of pigment cells (melanocytes) are called piebaldism, not albinism nor partial albinism.

All so-called "albino" horses have pigmented eyes, generally brown or blue. In contrast, many albino mammals, such as mice or rabbits, typically have a white hair coat, unpigmented skin and reddish eyes. The definition of "albinism" varies depending on whether humans, other mammals, or other vertebrates are being discussed.

Despite this, some registries still refer to "albino" horses. For example, the Paso Fino Horse Association registers cremellos and other cream colors as "albino." Until 1999, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) described perlino or cremello horses as "albino" in rule 227(j). The AQHA later replaced the word "albino" with "cremello or perlino," and in 2002 the rule was removed entirely. Among Connemara pony breeders, homozygous creams are called "blue-eyed creams" or sometimes "pseudo-albino".

Famous white horses

Many famous horses, past and present, were alleged to be "white" by observers, but were actually grays with hair coats turned fully white. Likewise, most white horses used in movies are actually grays, in part because they are easier to find.

However, there are a few truly white horses who were used in film. One of the best-known examples was "Silver," ridden by the Lone Ranger, a role actually played by two different white horses. At least one horse who played "Topper," ridden by Hopalong Cassidy, was also white. Another famous white horse is Yukichan, a Japanese Thoroughbred racehorse who won the Kanto Oaks at Kawasaki Racecourse.


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