Chestnut Horse Facts: 11 Fun Facts You Didn’t Know!

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Read This Before Buying a Chestnut Horse

Most everyone has heard of chestnut horses; if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen one. Chestnut is one of the most common colors a horse can be and is recognized by the reddish tinge that it gives a horse’s coat. As popular as the chestnut horse is, several misconceptions surround the color.

What are chestnut horses? Chestnut horses are known for their reddish-brown coats, though they can range in shade from a very light red to a dark “liver” color. Because of the spectrum of shades, chestnuts can often be mistaken for other colors, like dun or bay. Nevertheless, chestnut is one of the most common horse colors in the world. 

The majority of the horses I’ve owned have been chestnuts. With their popularity, you may also end up with a chestnut if you plan to get a horse! Keep reading to learn more about this unique coat color!

#1: Red is One of Two Base Horse Coat Colors

Most of the seemingly endless horse coat colors and patterns are due to a modifying gene that acts upon a base color. There are only two base color options for horses – black and red. Black is dominant, while red is recessive. Chestnut horses will have two copies of this recessive red gene.

#2: Chestnut Is One of the Most Common Horse Colors

Chestnut horses have a reddish-brown coat with manes and tails that are the same shade as the body, if not a shade or two lighter. This color is distinct from the bay, which features a reddish-brown body, black mane, and tail. They are so commonly found that some breeders are biased against the red gene because they consider horses of other colors to be more marketable. 

#3: There Are Countless Shades of Chestnut

Chestnut horses are often mistaken for other colors because so many different shades of color fall into the chestnut realm. Unlike two bay or black horses, two chestnut horses can look vastly different from one another. The lightest chestnuts are a pale “strawberry” color and are often mistaken for palominos. The darkest of chestnuts are often mistaken for bay or black horses. 

Two terms that are used to describe various shades of chestnut are “flaxen chestnut” and “liver chestnut.” Flaxen chestnuts have a reddish-brown body of varying shades with a blonde or white mane and tail. Haflingers are known for their flaxen coats, as are Black Forest Horses. I used to think that all Haflingers were palominos, but once I looked at the qualifications for the breed, I realized they are all chestnuts!

Liver chestnuts are a very dark shade of reddish-brown and are often mistaken for “seal brown” or even black. This shade of chestnut is rare, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a dark liver chestnut horse. Or, maybe I have, and I just thought they were bays!

#4: Most Horse Breeds Recognize the Chestnut Color

Almost all horse breeds recognize the chestnut color, including the most popular breeds worldwide, such as the American Quarter horse, the Thoroughbred, the Arabian, the Morgan, and the Miniature horse. The familiarity of these breeds and their large percentage of chestnuts add to the perception that the red coat is a “common color.”

Even Friesian Horses can be chestnut. A bloodline within the breed produces a “red” Friesian, as they’re called. To learn more about the different colors Friesians can be, visit my article Friesian Horse Colors Guide: White, Black, & Chestnut.

#5: “Chestnut” May Be Synonymous with “Sorrel”

If you’ve ever been confused by the term “sorrel,” you aren’t alone! Light-red chestnuts are often referred to as sorrels, especially in the Western disciplines. American Quarter horse registries and other stock horse registries recognize “sorrel” as a coat color in addition to chestnut. However, the term is not usually used in the English circuits.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that every sorrel horse will be chestnut, but not every chestnut horse is sorrel. Sorrel is a shade of chestnut. My pony, Tucker, is a sorrel Appaloosa. He has a lighter coat, which qualifies him as a sorrel.

#6: Chestnut Horses Can Breed True

While horse color genetics are more a mystery than a science, one thing breeders can count on is a chestnut pairing. Assuming no modifiers are at play (like the pearl or the mushroom gene), a chestnut mare bred to a chestnut stallion will always produce a chestnut offspring. This is not true of horses with the base coat color of black. Two black horses may produce a chestnut foal if both parents carry the recessive red gene. This makes breeding a black horse trickier than a chestnut horse. 

#7: Some Breeds Only Come in Chestnut

Some breeders have the opposite of a bias against the red gene – they only breed for chestnut horses. A few breeds produce exclusively chestnut horses – both the Haflinger and the Suffolk Punch are two such examples. The Haflinger breed goes a step further – all horses of this breed are specifically flaxen chestnuts, with the registry requiring a “pale chestnut to dark liver chestnut with pale mane and tail.”

Other breeds are often found in a chestnut shade, if not exclusively. Perhaps the most well-known example is the American Belgian Draft Horse. The breed started out in multiple colors; however, it is almost entirely chestnut now, with a red or strawberry roan pattern being acceptable. 

Growing up, I had a Haflinger pony named Beau. Here’s a picture of 10-year-old me and Beau trying a jump!

#8: Chestnut Horses Are Most Likely to Have White Markings

Most horses can be found with at least some white markings on their coats. These are patches of white of varying shapes and sizes found on the face and legs. White markings are not random and have a specific genetic component that is not yet well understood. Interestingly, chestnut horses are much more likely to have extensive white markings than their bay counterparts. 

#9: Chestnut Mares Have an (Unfair?) Reputation

If you’ve been part of the equestrian culture for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard the stereotype that chestnut mares carry. They are believed to be moody, irritable, and even “crazy.” Is their reputation unfounded?

It’s important to remember that chestnut is one of only two base coat colors. Most horses have a red base coat, and the genetics come with chestnut coloring. Scientifically, there does not seem to be any basis for chestnut horses having a particular level of moodiness over horses with a black base coat. After all, chestnut geldings don’t have the same reputation as chestnut mares, so it doesn’t seem to be a color-specific trait. 

Which brings us to gender. This is an over-generalization for sure, but most female mammals tend to be somewhat more aloof than males. This is true of dogs, cats, goats, sheep, and horses. This can be entirely hormonal but may also be due to a female’s protective instinct over her young.

I’ve ridden my fair share of chestnut mares, and I can testify that they were lovely. While they did tend to be more stoic, they always tried hard and gave it their all. Every horse has their quirks, and these mares were no different. However, overall, I would say this stereotype is false.

#10: Many Famous Racehorses Were Chestnut

Two of the most famous racehorses in history were chestnut stallions. Both Man O’War (who won 20 out of his 21 starts) and the Triple Crown winner Secretariat, who needs little in the way of introduction, were chestnuts. Another chestnut famous for her speed is the mare Rags to Riches, who in 2007 made headlines as the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes in over 100 years. 

#11: Chestnuts Can Fetch a High Price

Regarding show horses, the highest prices come from conformation and bloodlines, not color. So it should come as no surprise that being one of the most common colors, a chestnut horse can fetch a high price if the buyer believes the horse will be successful in his or her discipline. The most expensive chestnut horse ever sold was a Selle Francais named Palloubet d’Halong. He was an elite show jumper and, in 2013, sold for $15 million. 

This was a Quarab mare I rescued and re-homed. Her name was Dolly, and she had the most beautiful chestnut coat:

Chestnuts Are Common, But Not Forgettable (Plus, a Bonus Fact)

When researching whether chestnuts are moodier than horses of other colors, I found a Swedish study examining the behavior of 477 bay and chestnut horses. While they found no color association with problem or “excitable” behavior like bucking, rearing, kicking, and biting, the chestnut horses tended to display bold behaviors than the bays.

For example, chestnuts were more likely to approach unfamiliar objects in their environments than bays. This may explain why so many stock horses are chestnuts – you need more sensibility on the ranch or trail than in other disciplines. Many chestnut horse owners won’t be surprised by this study! So, while the chestnut coloring may be more widespread than other equine colors, that doesn’t make them less exciting.

Have you ever seen a chestnut Akhal-Teke? These horses are rare in America and are known for their unique shimmering coats. Learn more about the Akhal-Teke in my article Akhal-Teke Horse Breed: 10 Fascinating Facts.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

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My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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