When I was seven my parents almost bought me a pony named Captain Crunch.
I loved him, not only because I was a kid and because I loved the cereal but also because he was a strawberry roan. And wouldn’t I look cute on a strawberry roan? In the end, however, I fell deeper in love with Pentwyn, who was the best pony ever, though a bay.
Anyway, ever since casting my young eyes upon Captain Crunch I’ve had a soft spot for roans, which is how we ended up here—the next instalment on the endlessly interesting top of horse colors.
It’s believed the word roan stems from the color red. I know what you are thinking, but bear with me here while I explain.
There is no definitive answer as to where the word comes from, but the thought is that it comes to us via French by way of a Germanic source.
You see it’s suspected that the word roan comes from the French word roan, which like the word croissant, transcends language barriers. But unlike a croissant, roan means “reddish brown,” which might well come from the Gothic rauðs meaning “red.”
The word has been used in reference to horses since the 1500s. Back then it typically pertained to a chestnut or bay horse having an even mixture of white hairs interspersed with their base coat giving them that roany color we all love.
I thought there were three roan colors, but I have just discovered a fourth. There are bay roans with a bay base, red roans with a chestnut base, blue roans with a black base and brown roans with a seal brown base.
Roan facts I’ve learned, courtesy of to the American Roan Horse Association website:
- The term strawberry roan is a thing of the past. As are the less common terms lilac and honey roan.
- It never occurred to me that cats, alpacas, Guinea pigs, regular pigs, antelopes, cattle, sheep, goats and dogs can be roans.
- Any breed of horse can be a roan, even Arabians and Thoroughbreds.
- Any color of a horse can be a roan as well, though it can be difficult to notice a light palomino roan.
- Palominos, duns and buckskins fit under the red roan banner
- Unlike greys, roans do not lighten as they age, though they may darken.
- If a roan’s skin is damaged in some way, say a cut or a brand, the hair will grow back in their solid base color. These solid color patches are known as “corn spots” or “corn marks.”
- When a roan horse is dappled the dapples are lighter than the base coat, and when a non-roan is dappled the dapples are darker.
- Blue roans are the rarest of the lot.
- Agouti. This is a new word for me, and it pertains to fur where each hair has alternate dark and light bands. Mice often have this coloring, however, in horses the agouti gene dictates where the black coloring will appear. A dominant agouti gene will give a horse black points, but the body will likely be brown. Essentially, a bay horse. This gets much more confusing so I will just leave it here.
- There is a sub-section of roans.
A true roan carries the ‘R’ gene, while rabicano and sabino roans do not. Instead, they each have their own gene that causes their own type of roaning.
A true roan has white hairs distributed evenly throughout the coat except for the points, which include the lower legs, head, mane and tail. Rabicanos, on the other hand, tend to have isolated roany patches or ticking around the flanks and stifles. This sub-section also has white at the base of their tail, often in the fashion of a skunk or a raccoon.
The word rabicano comes from the Spanish rabo meaning “tail” and cana meaning “white hair.” Hence, the name.
The coloring in these horses is down to genetics, but the rabicano genetics remain a bit of a mystery and researchers are curious enough to try to get to the bottom of it. But until then we will just have to enjoy the wonder that is the rabicano.
Another great name for the color of a horse, only this time I was unable to find the etymology of the word. A sabino outside of the horse world is a type of tree such as a bald cypress or magnolia splendens, which I realize isn’t remotely helpful. I hate being outdone by a word.
Sabinos have an irregular and unpredictable coat pattern with the white patches generally stemming from the lower legs, face and midline. Roaning tends to occur in the rough edges where the white coat meets the dark.
Some sabinos have so much roaning that they are mistaken for a true roan while others have minimal roany patches. Some sabinos have a modest amount of white, while others are almost entirely white. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to these guys other than having white on their faces and lower legs. Sabinos do love their chrome.
This is far more confusing than I had dreamt. I could go on for ages here about genes, phenotypes, alleles and DNA but I think it best to leave it to the experts.
So, for now, that is all I have to say about roans, though I’m sure I’ve only just scratched the wither on this topic.