Blue Roan Horse 101 – Everything You Need To Know

blue roan horse

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Red roan, blue roan, strawberry roan, honey roan… What are these colors in the horse world? What do they look like? Are they rare horse coat colors? If so, how do you breed one, and how much would it cost to buy one? If you’ve ever asked any of these questions, read on as I explore the world of the blue roan horse.

‘Blue roan’ is the traditional name given to black horses that carry what we call a ‘roan’ variant in their KIT gene. This gene is very important in the world of mammalian coat color. It is one of several that control the migration and development of embryonic cells that eventually turn into pigment-producing cells called ‘melanocytes’. The variant typically puts a dense sprinkling of white hairs throughout the horse’s base coat to create the characteristic ‘frosted’ look of a roan.

Blue Roan Horses pin
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Like all horses, roans are one of 3 base colors – red, bay, or black. They can also carry DNA variants for dilutions and coat patterns that further alter their appearance i.e. roan tobiano, silver roan, and so on.

What Do Blue Roans Look Like

A blue roan horse has a grey-blue body color with black legs, head, mane, and tail, hence the name ‘blue’. The ‘blue’ color comes from the dense sprinkling of white hairs through the undercoat hairs on their body, which lightens their black base color. The more white hairs they have, the lighter they are.

Blue roans also have black corn marks. Corn marks are old scars, and they are black because the hair that grows back in these spots usually doesn’t have an undercoat (so no white hairs).

Like other roan colors, blue roans are also much darker in winter as their long winter outer coat hairs hide the white hairs in their undercoat. However, if you part their coat, the white hairs are clearly visible underneath. When they shed the long coat hairs in spring, the undercoat becomes visible again, and behold, a roan horse…

Additionally, they have the characteristic inverted V on their front legs just above the knee.

Blue Roan Horse Colour Variations

Blue roans vary in color depending on the density of their white hairs. The more of these white hairs they have, the lighter they are. The hairs can be evenly spread across their torso, or be denser in some places than others, creating a more patchy appearance.

Although black horses don’t tend to have as many natural pigment variations as bays and chestnuts (or at least not that we can see) they do have some. Some black horses for example are hard to distinguish from dark bay (brown) horses.

However, as a general rule, dark bay horses have tan muzzles and are also often tan in the flank area as well. Black horses have black muzzles and although they may not always look black across their body, they won’t have that noticeable tan flank area.

blue roan horse in field

Black Pigment Variations

Some pigment variations in black horses are natural. Others are caused by nutrition (copper and zinc deficiencies affect pigment production with corresponding changes in pigment intensity), UV exposure, and environment. In a blue roan horse, they will also cause color variations.

Furthermore, dark bay roan horses may also be called ‘blue’ because of their dark coloring and black points. Genetically though they’re not ‘black’ so are more correctly called dark ‘bay roan’. Dark bay roans will have that characteristic tan muzzle mentioned above. Blue roans will not.

What Two Horses Make A Blue Roan Horse?

There are 3 rules when it comes to what two horses make a blue roan horse.

  • Rule 1: At least one parent, but preferably both, must be bay or black
  • Rule 2: BOTH parents must carry at least one copy of what we call ‘recessive agouti’ (a)
  • Rule 3: At least one parent must be roan.

Why?

A blue roan horse is black-based, so must inherit at least one copy of the ‘right’ DNA code at the gene that switches on black pigment production. In order to have any chance of that happening, at least ONE parent must carry it.

In addition, because black is recessive to bay when it comes to base colors, the horse must inherit 2 copies of the correct code at the gene that decides where black pigment goes on the body. That means BOTH parents must carry at least one copy of it.

Finally, for a horse to be roan, it needs at least one copy of the roan variant at its KIT gene. And it can only get that if at least ONE parent is also roan.

To explain further…

Explaining Black Horse Colour Genetics 101

Pigment cells (melanocytes) in horses, and mammals generally, manufacture 2 pigments – black and red. In horses, pigment production can be switched on or off to produce 3 base colors – bay, black, and red. The genes responsible for controlling this process are the MC1R or Extension gene and the ASIP or Agouti gene. Thus…

  • ‘E’ and ‘e’ are dominant and recessive variants (alleles) respectively of the Extension or MC1R gene
  • ‘A’ and ‘a’ are dominant and recessive variants (alleles) respectively of the Agouti or ASIP gene

What Those Letters Mean And Is The Case Significant?

  • Upper case letters in genetics denote a dominant variant, or allele, of a gene.
  • Lowercase letters denote a recessive variant, or allele, of a gene.
  • The ‘_’ denotes an unspecified variant, or allele, of a gene.
  • A dominant variant masks the recessive variant.
  • In order for a recessive trait to be visible on the outside of the organism, BOTH copies of the variant (alleles) at the gene that controls the trait must be recessive.
blue roan horse in head collar

Pigment Controlling Genes

Horse melanocytes produce red pigment by default and black pigment production must be switched ON. This is done by a signaling protein, produced by the MC1R gene.

However, another protein, produced by the ASIP gene, stops the MC1R protein by blocking it but only on the body of the horse. When the melanocytes on the body don’t get the signal to switch on black pigment production, they produce red pigment instead.

Conversely, the melanocytes on the points do get the signal and start producing black pigment. The result is a red body with black legs, mane, and tail, or a bay horse.

So how do we get black and chestnut horses?

Ancestrally, all horses were bay (and dun but that’s a story for another day). That means the original, or DOMINANT, DNA coding at the equine MC1R and ASIP genes is designed to produce proteins that do their jobs as above. These versions of DNA code are denoted as ‘E’ and ‘A’ respectively.

At some point in the domestic horse’s evolution, 2 individuals were born with slightly different DNA codes in one copy of these genes. In each instance, the change resulted in a gene that produced a non-functional protein.

In the case of the MC1R gene, it produced a protein that couldn’t switch on black pigment production (e). Whereas, in the ASIP gene, it produced a protein that couldn’t disable black pigment production (a).

In both cases, these new variants of DNA code were recessive to the original coding (hence the lowercase letters) so wouldn’t have affected the appearance of the individuals carrying them (because they would also have been carrying an original version of the gene as well).

However, over time, as those individuals bred on, they produced offspring that also carried the variant. Those offspring in turn produced offspring that carried it, and so on.

Eventually, two carriers interbred, and each passed on their copy of the new variant to the offspring. The visible effect was immediate.

The horse that inherited 2 copies of the MC1R ‘e’ variant was red all over because it couldn’t switch black pigment production on. The horse with 2 copies of the ASIP ‘a’ variant was black all over because it couldn’t disable black pigment production.

wild horses

What does this have to do with blue roans?

As a blue roan is genetically a black-based horse, their base color genetic makeup is ‘E_aa’. As per the explanation above, the ‘E’ means they can produce black pigment.

The ‘aa’ means they can’t disable black pigment production so are uniformly black across their entire body. These variants must be inherited from the parents.

But…there are plenty of ‘ifs’ involved:

Inheriting Extension

If one parent is ‘EE’ all offspring will be bay or black-based. If both parents are ‘Ee’, you have 75% chance of bay or black, and 25% chance of chestnut. And, if one parent is ‘Ee’ and the other ‘ee’, the odds drop to 50% bay or black and 50% chestnut.

Rule of thumb – use 1 x ‘EE’ or 2 x ‘Ee’ for the best odds of a bay or black foal.

Inheriting Agouti

That’s only half the equation though! If a horse can manufacture black coat pigment, that just means it will be either bay-based or black-based. But we need it to be black-based, or ‘aa’, in order to be a blue roan, and this is where ‘a’ comes into play.

As mentioned above – to produce a black-based foal, both parents must carry at least one copy of ‘a’.

Where ‘E’ controls whether or not a horse can produce black pigment, ‘A’ controls where that black pigment goes on the body (by disabling ‘E’). As a black horse has uniform black pigment over its entire body, it must be ‘aa’ at its Agouti gene.

So… assuming you have the ‘E’ part sorted…here’s what you need to know about ‘A’!

If both parents are ‘aa’, all offspring will be ‘aa’. If both parents are ‘Aa’, you have 75% chance of bay and 25% chance of black. And, if one parent is ‘Aa’ and the other is ‘aa’, it’s 50% chance of bay and 50% chance of black.

Rule of thumb – use 2 x ‘aa’ or ‘Aa’ x ‘aa’ for the best odds of a black foal.

And then of course there’s RN to factor in.

Inheriting Roan

Roan (RN) is inherited in exactly the same way as ‘E’ and ‘A’. If one parent is ‘RNRN’ all offspring will be ‘RN_’. If both parents are ‘RNrn’, you have 75% chance of a roan foal and 25% for a non-roan foal. And, if one parent is ‘RNrn’ and the other ‘rnrn’, the odds drop to 50% Roan and 50% non-roan.

Rule of thumb – use 1 x ‘RNRN’ or 2 x ‘RNrn’ for the best odds of a roan foal.

This brings us to the value of DNA testing…

Are Blue Roan Horses Rare?

Roan is rare in some breeds (Thoroughbreds), and relatively common in others (Quarter horses). Black is also the least common of the 3 base colors – many so-called ‘black horses’ are in fact dark brown.

That makes blue roan horses the least common of the 3 base-colored roans. However, they’re not particularly rare per se. Certainly, there are other rarer horse colors out there.

mare with foal

How Expensive Is A Blue Roan?

A blue roan should only be as expensive as its value as a horse. In other words, if it is poor quality, its price should reflect that, regardless of color.

Many of the more expensive blue roans you see advertised are expensive for reasons other than their color. They usually come from good performance lines or are well-performed and well-trained individuals. Or they’re rare in their breed. You’re paying for that, not necessarily their color.

Of course, some sellers will ask more for a horse because it’s a blue roan, and some people will pay more for a horse because it’s a blue roan.

Blue Roan Horse Breeds

Blue roan is a colored coat pattern, not a breed. Therefore, there is no such thing as a ‘blue roan horse breed’ as such. The color and coat pattern are however fairly common in a number of breeds, including:

  • Quarter horses
  • Welsh ponies
  • Peruvian Paso
  • Australian Stock horses
  • Australian ponies
  • Australian brumbies
  • Brabant (Belgian Draft) horses
  • Percherons
  • Bretons
  • American mustangs
  • Nakota horses
  • Standardbreds
  • Paso Fino
  • Missouri Fox Trotters
  • Tennessee Walking Horses
  • Miniatures
  • Dales ponies
  • Gypsy Cobs
  • Connemaras
  • Shetland ponies
  • New Forest ponies

Blue Roan Quarter Horse

The Quarter Horse evolved from a mix of European draft breeds, Welsh cobs, Spanish baroque horses, and of course the English thoroughbred. They were purpose-bred horses, developed specifically for ranch work and working on the wide-open plains of North America.

Roan was a common color in some of these foundation breeds, notably Percherons, Brabants, and Welsh Cobs, and it’s from these sources that the color exists in the breed today.

blue roan quarter horse

The Famous Hancock Blue Roan Quarter Horses

Many of today’s blue roan Quarter Horses come from the famous Hancock Ranch in the US or trace directly back to a Hancock roan. The ranch produced a number of outstanding lines of roan quarter horses, some of which were homozygous, and many of which are blue roans.

One of their most famous stallions, Blue Valentine, was a blue roan son of another famous roan Quarter Horse, the bay roan stallion Red River. Red River in turn was by Hancock Ranch’s foundation sire, Joe Hancock (not roan) out of a Burnett Ranch roan mare.

Other noted blue roan Quarter Horse sires from the Hancock Ranch include Blue Apache Hancock and Wrangler Joe Hancock, both of whom produced 100% roan offspring.

Peptosboonsmal And His Blue Roan Offspring

Another line of well-known blue roan Quarter Horses descends from the famous chestnut roan stallion Peptoboonsmal  His roan line comes down through his dam line and is unrelated to the Hancock roans.

Do Blue Roan Horses Have A Particular Personality

As blue roans are a color plus a pattern, not a breed, they don’t have any particular personality attributable to their color. Indeed, color and coat pattern rarely DIRECTLY affect the personality of horses, despite everything you’ve heard and read about ‘chestnut mares’!

When or if personality traits are attributed to certain colors, they are most likely due to pleiotropy. ‘Pleiotropic’ refers to genes or DNA that affect more than one characteristic in an organism.

For example, homozygous Lp horses may be more difficult to handle and train in certain types of light and may be apprehensive or spooky in dim light, and at night. This is because they have a condition called Congenital Stationery Night Blindness (CSNB) courtesy of a mutation in a gene called TRPM1.

TRPM1 is involved in the development of the communication system between the brain and light-sensitive structures in the eyes. So horses with this condition can be nervous and spooky because they can’t see properly in dim light. The fact that the mutation also affects their coat pigment is a secondary characteristic that has no effect on their personality.

Conversely, color pigment could arguably affect personality in double creams (cremello, perlino, smoky cream), and in composite dilutes with similarly reduced dark eye pigment. Because the lack of dark pigment in their eyes often makes them light sensitive, horses in these colors may be more sensitive to being handled in bright light.  And also when moving between shaded/unshaded areas.

Coat patterns like splashed white (caused by variants of the MITF and PAX3 genes) can also produce deafness if pigment cells in the auditory canal are affected. That may produce horses with certain personality traits associated with their deafness.

pony running

Famous Blue Roan Horses

Blue Valentine was a blue roan Quarter Horse stallion, born in 1957, who became famous for his feats on the rodeo circuit.

Royal Blue Boon, another famous blue roan Quarter Horse stallion, was born in 1980 and founded a line of exceptionally good roan cutting horses.

Hancocks Blue Boy (1986) was a descendent of Blue Valentine, and quite possibly homozygous for roan as all his recorded offspring (~180 in total) were blue or bay roans. Like his famous forebear, he was a good roping and barrel racing horse and today his offspring and grand offspring are highly sought after for roping and ranch work.

Final Thoughts

A blue roan horse is rather striking with its blue-grey body and black head and points. They occur in a number of European and North American breeds, notably the Quarter Horse, Welsh, and certain European draft breeds.

The easiest way to get one is to buy one, but you shouldn’t expect to pay much more than you would for any other color horse with the pedigree, training, and experience you’re looking for, in your breed of choice.

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