One of the commenters asked for images of the other side of this horse, which appeared in the original tobiano marking post. I was fortunate to get quite a few good images of him. (If only all the classes were held in this particular arena, which is situated just right relative to the morning sun!)


You can almost see the random roan patch on his left hip in the side shot, but it is more visible in this one taken from behind.

I liked the way his tail was variegated, so I got a number of shots of it. (Be warned, however, that because Paint Horses can use tail switches, colors on tails may not always be natural to that horse.)

This was a good shot for showing how the color on the head of a tobiano spreads downward towards the jaw, so that in individuals with more white, there is a narrow “V” at the throat where the color on the two sides merge. I am working on a post that goes into more detail about this, and about how color tends to travel on the faces of tobianos, since that is relevant to the discussion on tobiano face white.

I am also trying to pull together some pieces to expand on some of the unusual colors that have appeared in recent posts. I apologize that we have wandered off in several different directions, but threads tend to come back around eventually. Fortunately you are all pretty tolerant when we take the more erratic, meandering path!



My previous post about white on the faces of tobianos, made before I left for a trip to Boise, generated a lot of discussion both here and on the Equine Tapestry Facebook page. I thought it might be helpful to expand a little on the subject.

Before researchers had the ability to examine color mutations at the molecular level, what we had was analysis of phenotype (how the individual horse looked) and production records. In older articles on color genetics, those were the tools that were used. Analysis of phenotype is still very popular among people who discuss color on the internet, but the appearance of an individual horse – or even just that horse and his parents – only tells part of the story. Extended production records are needed to get a more complete picture. These can show patterns of inheritance across a broad portion of the population, and that can give clues about the nature of the colors and patterns involved.

Looking at these broad trends requires a lot of data, and one of the biggest limitations is that the kind of information needed is not always retained, or if it is, it is not always easy to access. When I wrote an article in 1997 speculating that some horses being identified as dominant white might actually be “maximum” sabinos, it was because I had noticed trends in the early Walking Horse stud books. Unlike many other books from that time, the entries there listed markings (and eye and point color) in detail. Perhaps even more important, at the time was doing the research behind the article, I lived a short distance from the registry where I was given access to records and archived materials. With extensive family records for hundreds of white-born Walking Horses, I was a lot more confident that what I was seeing was a form of sabino.

On one of my visits to the registry, I ran into a breeder doing research on what would eventually be known as the champagne dilution. In the course of explaining what I was there to find, I mentioned that the phenomenon of white foals did not seem to occur in Clydesdales, even though they were uniformly sabino and many of the patterns looked quite similar to those on Walking Horses. The breeder asked if I had Clydesdales, too. When I explained that I just had an aged Walking Horse and a small pony of unknown origins, she expressed confusion about why I had a set of Clydesdale stud books. The reason was that in the pre-internet era, stud books were one of the few ways to obtain information on whole families of horses. Each breed, and therefor each set of stud books, offered a different “control group” to study different patterns. If Clydesdales, for instance, could be assumed to have sabino but not to have frame, then all the patterns in the breed represented what was possible with sabino alone.* In Paints, where frame was common, the possibility that frame was influencing the pattern was always there so until tests were developed it could not be ruled out as causing white on any given horse.

These control groups were not perfect, since the records could contain errors or omissions, but it did make it possible to identify trends. It might not be possible to prove something, but it could suggest useful avenues for testing ideas.

So what does this have to do with white on the faces of tobianos? Well, the suspicion that some tobianos had face white unrelated to sabino, splash or frame came because it was happening in breeds that were my most reliable control groups for “pure tobiano” because the solid members rarely had white markings of any kind. These were Old World breeds with long-closed stud books, so frame was not likely to be present. Sabino (as we currently understand it) did not appear to be present, and my hope for proof that splash was involved was coming up empty. Why then did so many tobianos have white faces? Why were quite a few quite oddly marked on the face, or blue-eyed? Was it not a coincidence that so many homozygous tobianos – in all breeds – had white faces?

Unfortunately for those of us who live in the United States, it is harder to gather information directly because most of our breeds have markings of some kind, and sabinos of all types are extremely common. The horses in this post, and the horse in the previous post, are all American Paint Horses. Finding a Paint Horse that looks “pure for tobiano” is difficult, and even then it is quite possible that he carries the gene (or genes) for ordinary markings. Those are currently believed to be caused by a recessive mutation to the KIT gene.

That means that this guy, who appears to have only tobiano and no significant white on the face, might carry that mutation and produce offspring that have white on the face.

What was intriguing was not just that white faces seemed to appear on these tobiano ponies, but that an increase in white on the face of the tobianos did not seem to translate into an increase of white on the non-tobianos. That is what might be expected if the tobianos had a separate mutation creating white markings, either the previously proposed KIT mutation or something new. Were they separate but linked? Or was it simply a part of the pattern itself? Was it both, and if so which forms were caused by each?

Or was I misreading the situation based on limited data? What role was selection, both by breeders and by owners, playing in this?

That is why I found the situation with the Polish Hucul so interesting. Because there are conflicting interests, and because patterns can often create strong opinions on the part of breeders, it is hard to know how to weigh claims that the presence of markings on the tobianos threatens the unmarked nature of the solid population. But the question about whether white on the face might be intrinsic to the pattern is a valid one, as is the question about whether or not an existing KIT mutation (like tobiano) predisposes the resulting foals to new (de novo) KIT mutations that add further white. These questions also tie into the larger questions about the nature of white markings and their relationship to the different white patterns.

* Sabino is now understood as a category of patterns, rather than the one pattern it was believed to be then.

I intended to post another example of reverse dapple roaning, but an interesting development in an obscure pony breed – and an unrelated discussion on an online forum – convinced me it was probably time to air this topic.

For some time I have flirted with an idea that is quite simply heretical in horse color circles. Something so far out there, that only the most uniformed horseman might entertain such a notion. But evidence is evidence. If the evidence does not fit universally held beliefs, then it is time to examine those beliefs even if it does give some people heartburn.

So what is so beyond the pale in the horse color world? What have some researchers noticed, but feared to mention?

The tobiano pattern is sometimes associated with white markings on the face. 

There. I have said it. I have noticed it for some time, as have others that were looking at some of the same breeds, or closely related breeds.

This was not something I was looking to find. What I was looking for was clues that some of the old Nordic or Celtic pony breeds still had splashed white. Most of these are breeds that either did not originally have “ordinary” markings, or where white markings – but not pinto patterns – were systematically bred out of the population. Quite a few of those breeds have classic splashed white (SW1), so it was reasonable to suspect that the horses with white on the face were heterozygotes (Sw1/n). Furthermore, it seemed likely that such a pattern could “hide” in the tobiano populations of the breeds where that was allowed, since few people minded if there were markings on a horse that already had a pinto pattern. The problem was that the expected SW1/SW1 homozygotes – the splashes with the classic pattern – never seemed to materialize. What’s more, when these ponies were crossed on solid mates, the face markings rarely appeared unless the tobiano pattern was also there. Even more tantalizing to someone looking for splash, these same ponies threw occasional blue eyes as well as the face white and the tobiano pattern. (I guess that counts as my second heresy in one post…)

I should clarify that I was looking at pretty unusual breeds. In the United States, it is quite difficult to find a popular breed without white markings of some kind. Most New World breeds not only have white markings, but many have what could be called sabino markings. In these breeds, like the Paint Horse pictured at the top, it is quite reasonable to assume that sabino (or splash or frame) are involved when a tobiano has a lot of white on the face. The question really is whether it is possible to get white on the face of a tobiano without these, or without the basic genes for white markings.

And now that question is being asked quite openly in a controversy surrounding the ancient Hucul Pony.

The Hucul is a primitive pony breed from the Carpathian Mountains. Most are dun, but tobiano is also a traditional color within the breed. Earlier this year, the parent stud book in Poland proposed separating out the tobiano Hucul population into a separate stud book. The reason? Because the tobiano ponies often have white on the face. It was feared that with the growing popularity of the tobiano pattern, the solids were in danger of having markings.

[Polish and Hungarian officials] claimed that piebald Huzuls transmit markings in a greater extent and these markings were undesired. Both recommend that piebald stallions may not cover plain mares. It is proposed to administrate piebald Huzul horses in a separate studbook.

There has been an outcry among breeders of tobiano Hucul Ponies that this fear is baseless because the leg markings on a tobiano are part of the pattern, which is permitted. The face markings, it has been noted, do not seem to pass along to the solids. This has lead to a discussion about the connection between face markings (and blue eyes) and the tobiano pattern. Some of the excerpts from this discussion are interesting:

This is from the paper “Odmiany a srokatosc” (Markings and Piebald) by Anna Stachurska. The emphasis is mine.

Piebald Huzuls have the Tobiano gene, plain coloured Huzuls have not, even if they have piebald parents. Piebald Huzuls may have more markings because the Tobiano gene is located near one important gene for markings and the properties of genes in neighbourhood usually show up together. But this does not matter as piebald Huzuls have white spots anyway. In plain coloured Huzuls, even if they have piebald parents, an absent Tobiano gen cannot influence the appearence of a gene for markings. This means that plain coloured Huzuls with piebald parents need not to have more markings than Huzuls at all.

In clarifying her paper, she also writes this.

I would not write that tobianos have non-piebald head. In American publications tobianos are described as “conservatively” marked on the head or “with minimal extent of markings” on the head. However, in Poland tobiano halfbred horses (e.g. Wielkopolski, Małopolski) have rather big markings on the head, even with a glass-eye, though the markings are not bigger than “normal” (usual).

There has been some research on the subject of markings in recent years, notably one of the Franches-Montagne. From these discussions, it appears that there is more research being done. It is certainly too early at this point to say why tobianos in otherwise solid, unmarked breeds have a higher incidence of white on the face, but it does look like the subject has attracted some attention. Resolving the conflict between the different Hucul stud books may help provide some incentive to research this situation in more detail.

(Huzul group picture from Wikimedia Commons.)

In the previous post, I talked about the two things that cause horses to have small dark spots on a white background. The first was the leopard pattern (Leopard Complex + Pattern1) and the second was the homozygous tobiano pattern. In this post, I want to talk about how dark spots on a white background are different in dogs.

Dalmatian dogs look like leopard appaloosas. It’s the same white background and the same small, round spots of color.  But Dalmatians are genetically very different from leopards. In fact, they have a lot more in common with the homozygous tobianos. That’s because they are “pinto” dogs. They just happen to be missing (or at least mostly missing) their dark patches. In fact, if you can imagine someone starting out with a classic tobiano horse – dark head, large round areas of color on the body – you have a good idea of what the basic piebald pattern is in dogs. In fact, in some countries the name for tobiano and the name for this pattern in dogs is the same: plating. Plattenscheck, platenbont – plate pinto. It makes sense, since tobianos have large “plates” of color on a white background. These dogs do, too. Or at least they started out that way. Here is a popular sire of English Setters from a little over a century ago.

His pattern is very reminiscent of tobiano. But breeders did not care for the patches, so they began breeding away from them.

In dogs, this kind of pattern is often called “extreme piebald”. It is still a “pinto” dog, but it doesn’t have a lot of color left, even on the face. English Setter breeders were not alone in this preference. The Dalmatian breeders were selecting for the same thing. They did not want patches, or even dark ears. They wanted all-over round spots.

Those round spots, which are visible in all three of these English Setters, look a lot like cat tracks to someone familiar with tobiano. What makes them different is that they aren’t actually part of the plating pattern. They are a separate thing entirely. For English Setters and some of the other sporting breeds, that’s the “Belton” pattern. The more technical names for it – ticking and roaning – are unfortunately for us horse people, already taken by very different patterns. So for now we’ll just use Belton to avoid making this any more confusing.

Belton adds dark spots of color to the areas the piebald pattern leaves white. What dog breeders have done is manipulate the scale and spacing of those spots of color. All three dogs at the top of this post have what are believed to be variations on this kind of patterning. The English Setter to the left is of course the original Belton pattern. The Dalmatian in the middle is likewise has a Belton-type pattern, but he also has some kind of modifier that has made the spots larger, rounder and more distinct. (Some of the distinctive nature of his spots are, of course, because he is a sleek-coated dog compared to the setter.)  The Australian Cattle Dog at the end has a Belton-type pattern that was modified to the other end of the spectrum, with spots that have gotten smaller, less round and less distinct. In some breeds, this is what is called Roan. There is some debate about whether Roan and Ticking in dogs are truly separate, or just variations on the same gene. I am not aware of any papers yet published with molecular studies, but it does seem that roan dogs, when outcrossed to non-roan breeds, end up with offspring that look a lot like the Belton setters. Certainly whether these are separate, similar genes or the same gene with layers of modifiers, the end result is that dogs have independent factors that will “recolor” the area that a piebald gene left white.

It didn’t seem that horses had that, at least not until recently.

In 2009 a French sport horse, Vision Morinda was foaled.

Clicking on the image above will take you to the website for her breeder, and her page which has many high-quality photos of her at all ages.

At first glance, it is tempting to assume that Vision Morinda is a tobiano with very loud cat tracking. The problem is that she cannot be homozygous. Her dam is brown. (Note that the mare she is pictured with is a surrogate. Her dam, Scarlett Fontanel, is pictured here.) But perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that her spotting seems to have intensified as she matured. That’s something that is typical of the Belton patterns. As most people are aware thanks to the Disney movie, Dalmatian puppies are born white and develop their spots later. That’s true of the English Setters and the Australian Cattle Dogs. Here is my friend Mary’s (extremely cute) Cattle Dog mix, Volt, as a puppy. (Thank you, Mary, for letting me share your photos!)

As you can see, he looks like a white dog with black patches. He is an extreme piebald. That’s why he has white ears. Well, mostly white ears. He was already starting to show some spotting there. His back and sides, however, looked white. But here is Volt today, as a grown dog.

As you can see, he developed his ticking – the Belton-type pattern – over time.

In a less dramatic fashion, Vision Morinda seems to have spotting that intensified as she matured. (Her breeders even comment on her page about the surprise of getting an English Setter color on their horse.) The spotting on her is also different, visually, from a typical tobiano with cat tracks. The pattern is evenly distributed. The spacing does change somewhat (notably across her shoulder) but it still is pretty consistent across the white areas, rather than clustering into spots or patches. It looks like the ticking you would see on a dog, not a horse.

This raises the question of whether there is some factor in horses that can add ticking – a Belton pattern, so to speak. I have a few more horses to share, all with odd spotting patterns. None are quite like Vision, but all have unexplained dark spots inside white patterns or markings. They all come from my “weird stuff” files. That’s where I put things that don’t make sense, or just seem “off” in some fashion. Sometimes enough of them accumulate – like the odd late greys from a few months ago – that it seems like there might be some thread connecting them all. I am not sure these horses really have a common thread, because they do have some visual differences, but I’m going to start posting them just to see if more turn up. That’s what happened with those greys (I have more that I need to post in the future, by the way!) so maybe sharing them will bring others out of the woodwork!

(Images at the top of the post are courtesy of Wikipedia. Images of historical English Setters come from The Pointer and Setter in America, published in 1911, and Country Life, Volume 22, 1907.)

Images of leopard appaloosas with Dalmatian dogs are always eye-catching. Certainly they can look quite closely matched, like this Polish Malopolski and his buddy. Even so, the patterns in the two species are very different in terms of what is really happening to the pigment on the animal. That’s probably off in the weeds for most owners and breeders, but for artists the distinction is actually pretty important.

This touches on one of the reasons why artists who develop an interest in horse color often have such a different perspective. Usually the kind of information a breeder needs is predictive. That is, they need to know what might likely result from crossing this to that, or what they might need to cross if this particular end result is what was wanted. What artists need to know isn’t about prediction nearly so much as it is about possibilities. Not so much what might happen, but what could happen – even far-out-there, not-very-likely, could happen. That’s because artists often want to add something for interest or for composition. For those producing realistic art, that has to be done within the constraints of what is possible. It doesn’t necessarily have to be likely, but it does have to be possible. This unique perspective became apparent to me a number of years ago when I gave my first presentation on horse color. In the question and answer period afterwards, someone in the audience asked if a horse could be both dappled and fleabitten at the same time. It was clear that was not the sort of question my fellow presenter, Dr. Sponenberg, often heard. But it is precisely the kind of question that equine artists ask all the time. Scientists might not notice this kind of detail on an individual horse, but for someone who paints horses, this kind of information – does this happen with this? – has a lot of practical value.

So why do artists need to understand the process behind appaloosa patterns? Spotting is a useful tool, because it breaks up positive and negative space. It makes the horse more visually interesting. If you are particularly clever, it can be used to draw the eye in a way that works with the composition, or to hide flaws. But spotting doesn’t just happen anywhere. It follows rules, and those rules depend with what is happening with the pigment. Understanding the underlying mechanism makes it far less likely that you’ll add some interesting detail that isn’t realistic. When dealing with rare combinations of colors and patterns, it might be difficult to find a reference image to consult. Knowing the process can tell you if there is a reason to bother looking in the first place, because it tells you what is possible. (And when you wing it without a reference, the knowledge will make for more reliable guesses.)

“Trouble”, sculpted by Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig and glazed by Lesli Kathman.
In the collection of Melissa Gaulding.

This is a ceramic collectible with the kind of spotting (often called cat tracking) seen in homozygous tobianos. It’s a really popular effect. In my normal job (the one I have when I am not trying to get a horse color book to press), I have produced quite a number of these. The problem comes when this gets confused with leopard spotting, and most especially what happens when leopard patterns are combined with the tobiano pattern. That brings us back to the image at the beginning of the post. These three images – the leopard, the Dalmatian, and my ceramic foal –  represent three very different scenarios in terms of the underlying process. I want to take each, one at a time, and explain how they are different despite looking so similar.

This is the typical nose-to-toes kind of leopard. Most people would think of this as a white horse with black spots that have been superimposed on top. That’s not really accurate. From a genetic standpoint, this kind of horse is a two-step process. First she has inherited a gene that progressively adds white hairs to the coat. Those hairs, over time, are going to produce the fairly distinctive pattern known as varnish roan. If the pony in my illustration just had that first gene, she would look like a black version of this pony.

That first gene, known as Leopard Complex, sets things up for leopard but it doesn’t make leopard patterns itself.

That happens when the horse inherits a separate patterning gene in addition to Leopard Complex. In this case, that patterning gene is called Pattern1. What Pattern1 does is take the white from Leopard Complex and amplifies and organizes it. So while our horse looks like she is white with spots, it is perhaps more helpful to think of her as a horse that was roan, but Pattern1 has now taken that mixture of white and dark hair  and reorganized it. Underneath the white hair, what that horse may look like is closer to this.

This is what the underlying skin looks like. She probably does have some truly white skin in the area where a blanket pattern would go. Pattern1 does amplify the white, after all. But under it all she isn’t really a white horse, at least not in the sense that most people would think of as true white. She is more like a roan horse that has been modified a bit. That’s why even nose-to-toes leopards have faces that are shaded much more like a grey than a cremello, because for the most part the face has dark skin, not pink skin. And that is why a pintaloosa looks like this:

The true white areas of the tobiano pattern cover over the appaloosa pattern. The spots from the leopard pattern don’t spread over onto the tobiano pattern because the process with Pattern1 isn’t “add dark spots to the white”, it is “organize the roan into spots.” So the spots don’t happen where the tobiano pattern already took all the roan away. Without the color there in the first place, Pattern1 has nothing to work with.

Of course, if we moved our tobiano pattern out a bit, encompassing more of the dark skin and butting it up close to the “blanket” skin, we could probably get something that looked a bit like the leopard spots migrated over some of the tobiano.

Even so, the spotting is still concentrated in such a way that shows it is an appaloosa pattern with a tobiano pattern layered over the top of it. The spots on the flanks might look like they are in the tobiano white, but really they are just in an area that was already white from the action of the Pattern1 gene. The action is still the same. The tobiano is there adding true, pink-skinned white on the horse, and underneath it Leopard Complex and Pattern1 are just doing their thing.

Even with the tobiano bumping up to the pink-skinned areas of the leopard pattern, it still looks different from the kind of spotting that comes from a horse having two copies of the tobiano gene.

This is a (presumably) homozygous tobiano with cat tracks. Whereas Leopard Complex is a roaning process that Pattern1 takes and organizes into the leopard pattern, this type of spotting is more like a not-entirely-successful attempt to add some more color to a horse that already has large patches of color. Unlike the existing spots, which are large and opaque, these new spots are small and vary in opacity. Some just come through in specks.

Cat tracking tends to cluster around the existing spots to some extent, almost as if these new spots want to occupy the same general area as the existing spots. This is quite different from the spotting on a leopard, which tends to be dispersed across the body.

The exception is the hooves. Tobianos with cat tracks often have a concentration of spots around the coronary band, often turning the hoof completely dark or nearly so.

There are spots on the legs, but typically they are not as numerous as the ones around the feet. The same is true for the face. This is the face that goes with these feet. He does have a few spots in his blaze, but they are not extensive.

So how is this different from the Dalmatian? Well he really is a white animal with colored spots added on top. In dogs, the gene for this is usually called Ticking, but since ticking means something different in horses, I am going to use the older English term for the pattern, which is belton. This post has run really long, so I’ll split that over into a second part. And why delve into the belton pattern in dogs? Because lately there has been a handful of horses that have turned up that just might have that kind of spotting. At the very least there are horses with dark spots inside their white markings that are not tobiano cat tracking and not leopard patterning. More on those will appear in the next post!

This horse has one copy of the frame mutation. Horses with two copies of the mutation are not viable.

In the previous post I talked about how the physical location of a mutation can limit the possible pattern combination. There is another potential limitation, which is viability of the organism.

Those of us that like horse colors, particularly the white patterns, are accustomed to thinking of colors as something that is added to what would otherwise be a horse of ordinary coloring. So the horse above has white markings on his body in addition to his chestnut coloring. That is certainly how a lot of artists would approach painting such a horse.

But from a genetic standpoint, that’s not what has happened. Generally speaking, white patterns result when one of the genes involved in pigmentation is impaired. Something prevents the normal function of the gene, and as a result pigment is not distributed in the normal fashion.  That is what we see most clearly, because changes to coloration are really obvious. But those same genes do not just regulate color, and those other functions may be effected as well. Hampering coloration is largely cosmetic, but altering the function of the gene can have more serious implications.

That’s why horses with two copies of the frame mutation are not viable. With just one impaired gene, the horse is not completely pigmented (ie., it has white patches) but is still functional. The horse still has one non-mutated copy of EDNRB, the gene involved with the frame pattern. It can “pick up the slack” for the necessary functions that gene performs. When the horse inherits two copies of the mutation, there is no backup and the gene cannot perform its function in the development of the embryo. In this particular case, no pigmentation occurs, which is why the resulting foals are white, but more importantly the colon is incomplete which means the foal cannot survive.

Lethal White Syndrome is probably one of the best known problems with color because it involves the heartbreak of a live birth of a foal that must be humanely euthanized. Other colors, most notably the various forms of Dominant White, are also thought to be lethal when homozygous. Like the frame mutation, two copies impair the function of the gene to the point that the embryo is no longer viable. The difference between Dominant White and Frame Overo is that the embryo is lost early enough that no foal is born. This may explain why programs centered around breeding white-born horses in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were often plagued by infertility issues.

At one time, roan was also thought to be a homozygous lethal. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)


In the past, before tests were available, lethal conditions like this were determined by analyzing production numbers. If the ratio of mutated to non-mutated offspring was off, and if true-breeding individuals could not be found, the trait was suspected of being lethal when homozygous. That was why roan was assumed to be a homozygous lethal for so long. Initial studies of production records showed that the ratios of mutated offspring were like those of a homozygous lethal, rather than a simple dominant. Proven homozygous roan stallions have since been identified, so it is clear that two roan genes are not always lethal, at the very least.

So what does this have to do with the KIT mutations? In the comments section, there was speculation of the last post about whether or not mutations could crossover, resulting in a single gene with two separate mutations, rather than two separate genes with one mutation on each. Not asked, but an equally valid question, is whether or not a gene that already contained a known mutation could mutate again. If either were to happen, the next question would be could the situation result in a viable embryo? Would the added layer of impairment change the coloring, or would it damage or even destroy the organism? Have we not yet seen a horse with three KIT mutations (one on one gene, two on the other) because the statistical chances are infinitesimally small, or because the function of some gene is too compromised to result in a viable embryo?

I have wanted to bring up a more technical aspect of horse color for a while, but have struggled with the best way to present the information. Part of the problem is that the way we talk about horse color is misleading. For this to make any sense, I will have to clarify some terms.

We often talk about horse colors as if they are genes. We say, then, that a horse like the one pictured above has one copy of the “sabino gene” and one copy of the “tobiano gene”. It is true that the “torn tissue” look to his pattern is very typical of what a horse looks like when it has both Sabino1 and Tobiano. He is a Spotted Saddler, so he would likely test positive for each color. Saying he has the Sabino1 gene and the Tobiano gene is a simple way to get that idea across.

The trouble is that there is not a specific Sabino1 gene. There isn’t a Tobiano gene. Sabino1 and Tobiano are mutations of an existing gene. When we say that a horse has the “tobiano gene” or the “not-tobiano gene”, what we really mean is that the gene that was there from the start is either mutated (tobiano) or not mutated (non-tobiano). This makes sense when you think about it. Why would an organism carry around a gene that is essentially the absence of a trait?

This might seem like semantics, except that some of what we think of as separate colors occur on the same actual gene. They are different mutations, but they share a location. In the case of Sabino1, the mutation occurred on a gene known as KIT. Other mutations found on or very close to KIT are tobiano, true roan and dominant white. This might not seem important until you remember that an animal has two copies of any given gene, one from each parent. It can only give one to any individual offspring. If a horse only has two KIT genes, then it can only carry two mutations – one on each copy of the gene. That means you only have two slots to fill with KIT mutations. A horse could be homozygous for tobiano, but then he could not also carry Sabino1. His two KIT slots are already filled.

This probably makes more sense when it is understood that most color mutations are one-time events that happened a very long time ago. Sabino1 has been documented in Siberia in the early Bronze Age, so it is at least that old. Horses like the one pictured here descend in an unbroken line from whatever early ancestor carried that first Sabino1 mutation. One of his KIT genes is that same gene with that same mutation. His other KIT gene comes from the whatever horse carried the first tobiano mutation. That pattern has been found in Eastern Europe later in the  Bronze Age, so like Sabino1 it is really old. Were he not a gelding, he could in turn pass on one of those – either tobiano or sabino1 – to his offspring. One, but not both.

This has implications for artists like myself because we tend to mix-and-match the details of different patterns to get certain visual effects. What we have to be careful about is whether or not the limitations of gene locations make something impossible. If a horse can only carry two KIT mutations, and true roan and tobiano prove to be on KIT or linked to KIT, then is a homozygous tobiano roan possible? Is a roan tobiano with cat track markings – a trait closely associated with homozygosity in tobianos – accurate? And what about the other colors and patterns that have not been mapped to a specific location? What conflicts will become apparent when more mutations have known locations? We know, for instance, that the leopard complex gene (varnish roan) is not located on KIT, but what about the patterning genes that work with leopard complex to make the more vivid appaloosa patterns? It is often assumed that all combinations are possible, though they might be so rare that actual living animals cannot be found with them. That is probably a mistaken assumption, with some combinations not possible because of location conflicts.

This also has implications for people who study horse color. Homozygous tobianos are an interesting example because they obviously have two KIT-related mutations. Still a high percentage of homozygous tobianos have face markings. The commonly accepted wisdom is that tobiano by itself will not place white on the face, yet KIT is often assumed to be involved in ordinary face markings as well as the sabino patterns. Does the fact that many homozygous tobianos have broad blazes suggest that some sabino patterns are not, in fact, located on KIT? Or does it suggest that in its homozygous state, tobiano does start to place white on the face?

It is also important to breeders, who may find that attractive combinations do not necessarily breed true. Many Paint Horse breeders have already noted this situation with roan tobianos. Roan has not yet been definitively mapped, and it is thought to be close to KIT rather than on KIT. Still genes that sit close to one another tend to travel as a package, and that is definitely the case with roan and KIT. Roan tobianos typically have a roan parent and a tobiano parent, and they usually pass along either roan or tobiano to their foals, but not both.

Gene location is pretty technical stuff, but the information has a lot of practical uses.

Next Page »