Coloured horses and ponies tend to get a strong reaction wherever they go. Some people love their unusual and eye-catching markings. Other people find them brash and prefer whole-coloured horses. Even those who dislike their markings have to acknowledge that the strong Cob influence means that many of them make excellent riding and driving horses.
Prehistoric cave paintings depict spotted horses but for many years scientists put this down to artistic licence as DNA extracted from fossilized horse bones indicated that the animals had whole coat colours. Finally, however, scientists discovered that spotted horses really did exist in prehistoric times and could have been hunted or ridden (or both). It’s unclear whether horses with broken coats (coats with patchy patterns) also existed then or emerged as a result of cross-breeding but references to them appear fairly early in history.
Since then coloured horses have found themselves in varying degrees of favour at different points in time. They have been in favour as quirky carriage horses and as circus ponies. They have also appeared regularly in films and TV programmes, particularly westerns where they were often used to depict Native American mounts. Possibly the most famous example of this was in the Lone Ranger. Tonto's horse was actually originally a grey but was changed to a coloured horse to differentiate it more clearly from the Lone Ranger's Silver, which had to be grey.
In the UK, coloured horses are most strongly associated with the sturdy and versatile Gypsy Cobs, which pulled the traditional gypsy caravans. Although theoretically these Cobs could be of any colour, the coloured Cobs were particularly sought after and breeding for coloured coats (as well as other desirable traits) became standard practice.
In the UK the Coloured Horse and Pony Society (CHAPS) was founded in 1983. Their definition of coloured essentially means horses with broken coats; it excludes many horses who would meet a lay-person's definition of coloured. Some of these horses, such as Appaloosas have their own breed societies.
The defining feature of a Coloured horse is its coat pattern. In the UK, CHAPS recognizes two main coat types: tobiano and overo. Tobiano horses have a white-based coat with dark-coloured markings and overo have a non-white-based coat with white markings. In both cases the secondary colour has to be present above the stifle, which means that black points and white socks or stockings are ignored. Likewise white markings on the face are discounted. The degree of marking varies hugely. Some horses are mostly whole-coloured with only small patches of the secondary colour; others have a roughly equal balance of colours although they may be in distinct patches across the body and face. Manes and tails may be whole coloured or bi-coloured.
For practical purposes, coloured horses are generally advertised as one of three types. Piebald horses are black and white in patches. Skewbald horses are any other colour and white in patches. Blagdons have a base colour other than white (which may be roan) and are covered in white spots and splashes. They are almost like inverted leopard-spot Appaloosas, although the patterning is often more random than on the Appaloosas.
While the only qualification to be a Coloured horse (or pony) is to have the right coat pattern, there is a strong prevalence of Cobs amongst the type. This is likely to be due to the huge influence of the Gypsy Cob. Those looking for a lighter animal are likely to struggle to find one which is coloured and may have to be prepared to pay a higher price for it than for a coloured Cob.
The high influence of Cob-type horses among the Coloured-horse type means that on the whole Coloured horses tend to be calm, friendly and intelligent. Many of them make excellent horses for novice riders and will do what they can to look after them. Notwithstanding this they are far from boring and will generally enjoy being given the opportunity to show what they can do, which is a great deal. Cobs can move impressively quickly for horses of their build, they have great stamina and are also powerful jumpers.
As most Coloured horses are Cobs they tend to be healthy and sturdy animals. It is, however, still best if the horse’s pedigree can be verified so that its family can be checked for health issues. This is particularly true if there are indications that the horse is the result of a Cob being cross-bred with more refined saddle horses and/or Appaloosas in which case it may be a carrier of, if not affected by, genetic disorders. There is only one major genetic disorder which is known to affect coloured horses and that is (Overo) Lethal White Syndrome. Both parents must have the faulty gene in order for their foal to develop this disorder, which results in their progeny being born pure white and with a malfunctioning colon, which causes them to die shortly after birth (often in the first few days). There is a high-prevalence of asymptomatic carriers amongst coloured horses, which is why all coloured broodmares must be tested for OLWS before breeding (and ideally stallions as well).
Caring for a Coloured
Common sense is the golden rule here. Horses of Cob type are generally very easy to keep. If, however, more refined blood is added, then the resulting offspring tend to be less hardy. The very traditional Coloured horse, the Gypsy Cob, can live outdoors all year round, although even they will need attention to ensure that they stay healthy and happy. They should be checked on daily for any signs of ill-health or injuries picked up in the field and will need regular foot-care and worming. In the colder months, they may need extra help in the form of food and rugs. In summer they may need taken off grass periodically to prevent them becoming overweight and to avoid triggering laminitis. As horses become lighter-built and their coats become finer they will need more protection from cold weather and stabling becomes essential.
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