03 Aug Chestnut vs. Sorrel Horse: Key Differences Explained
Chestnut Vs. Sorrel Horses
Chestnut, bay, sorrel, gray… horse colors can be confusing to even the experienced equestrian, and truthfully they can be quite complex. To further muddy the waters, one breed may call a specific color by one name, while another breed may call that same color something else entirely. Take chestnut and sorrel as an example.
What is the difference between chestnut and sorrel? When discussing horse color, chestnut is a reddish-brown that evenly covers the body, mane, and tail. It is one of the most common colors found in horses. A sorrel is simply a lighter chestnut – it is genetically the same color but describes a lighter shade. That said, you will often hear the term “sorrel” in the Western disciplines, whereas the term “chestnut” will be used to refer to both in the English arenas.
Keep reading to learn all you need to know in order to accurately label a horse with a reddish tint.
Chestnut & Sorrel Horses: The Genetics Of Horse Colors
The color of a horse’s coat isn’t all that mysterious – like all physical traits. It comes down to genetics. The chestnut (and thus, sorrel) color of a horse is caused by a recessive gene. Researchers do not differentiate between the two hues because they are genetically indistinguishable.
To those studying genetics (and there are many – horse color is taken quite seriously), chestnut and sorrel horses are simply called “red horses.” To be a true chestnut, there must be a complete absence of black hair.
Because the gene that causes the red coloring is recessive, that means that both the dam and the sire must have this gene. Think of it as similar to a person with blue eyes – two blue-eyed parents will almost certainly have a blue-eyed baby.
However, two brown-eyed parents can also have a blue-eyed baby, so long as each parent carries the recessive blue-eyed gene (passed down from one of their own parents). If just one parent does not have that blue-eyed recessive gene, it is not possible to have a blue-eyed baby.
Bringing this concept to horses, this means that breeding a chestnut mare to a chestnut stallion almost guarantees that you will have a chestnut foal because the red gene is recessive. If you breed a chestnut mare to a black stallion who has the red recessive gene, you may or may not get a chestnut foal.
English Chestnut vs. Western Chestnut (Sorrel)
You may hear that Western equestrians use the term “sorrel” while English equestrians use the term “chestnut.” This may be true most of the time, but I’ve heard plenty of Western riders use the term “chestnut” for their red horses. That said, when I hear a horse referred to as a “sorrel,” my bet is that the speaker is a Western rider.
One of the reasons the terms may be used differently according to discipline may be because of the way that different breed registries identify horses. Each breed registry determines how its horses are labeled.
The American Quarter Horse Association allows one to register a horse as chestnut or as sorrel, depending on the shade of red. On the other hand, The Jockey Club Registry (the breed registry for Thoroughbreds) does not differentiate between the two – all red Thoroughbreds will be registered as chestnuts.
Thoroughbreds tend to be used more in English disciplines (i.e., racing), while Quarter Horses reign supreme in Western disciplines like roping, reining, and barrel racing.
The Many Shades Of Chestnut
Chestnut is a base color with a red pigment, resulting in a horse with a reddish-brown body, mane, and tail. As with any color, however, chestnut is a spectrum, with shades from light to dark. Some of the more common shades of chestnuts are called:
- Sorrel – sorrel is to chestnut as lavender is to purple – it is a lighter shade of the same color. Even within the term sorrel, there is quite a range – some of the lightest sorrels can be mistaken for palominos because of their light copper hue.
- Liver Chestnut – a liver is on the opposite side of the chestnut spectrum. Liver chestnuts are a very dark reddish-brown, sometimes appearing similar in shade to a seal brown. Some of the darkest of chestnuts can be mistaken for black until very close inspection.
- Flaxen Chestnut – I’m listing flaxen as a variation of chestnut, though it may also fit under the dilution variations below. The genetics behind flaxens are not well understood, but it is specifically a lightening of only the mane and tail. This means that a flaxen chestnut will have a chestnut body with a significantly lighter (often silver) mane and tail. The contrast is striking, particularly on a darker chestnut body, which can be mistaken for a “silver dapple.”
There are three horse “base colors” – black, bay, and chestnut. There are many more coat colors and patterns a horse can have, though, due to various genetic components that affect the base color. There are a number of dilution genes that work specifically on chestnuts.
- Palomino – this is probably the most common chestnut dilution variation. Palominos are a very light golden or yellow due to a single copy of the cream gene working on a chestnut base coat. Palaminos will not appear to have any red, differentiating them from very light sorrels.
- Cremello – a horse that has two copies of the cream gene (“double-diluted”) on a chestnut coat will be cremello. The coat is cream-colored, and these horses typically have blue eyes. A perlino, which is often mistaken for a cremello, has two copies of this gene working on a bay base coat.
- Champagne – a horse with one or two copies of the champagne gene over a chestnut base will have a coat that is a golden hue, with amber or hazel eyes and freckled skin. The champagne gene can work on other base colors as well, lightening them as well.
- Red Roan – roan is a coat pattern where white hairs are interspersed with the base color. The roan gene can work on any base color, and a red roan is a chestnut with one or two copies of the roan gene. Very light red roans are sometimes called “strawberry roans”.
- Red Dun – when one or two copies of the dun gene work on a chestnut coat, you will get a red dun. This will appear as a tan-red horse with darker red dorsal stripes, mane, tail, and legs.
Can Chestnuts & Sorrels Have White Markings?
Chestnuts can and often do, have white markings on the face and lower legs. These help differentiate horses from one another and are noted on breed registries.
There are several terms for these markings, such as blazes, stripes, stars, and snips on the face, and stockings and socks on the legs. While a chestnut can have no white markings at all, the presence of them does not affect the horse’s designation as a chestnut.
Can Chestnuts & Sorrels Have Black Markings?
Chestnuts often have white markings, but they do not have black markings. Remember that part of the definition of a chestnut is the complete absence of black hairs. Therefore, a true chestnut will not have any black markings.
If you’ve seen a reddish-brown horse with black markings, you were probably looking at a bay. Bay is one of the three possible base colors a horse can have and is the most common one at that.
A bay will have reddish-brown hair on the body, similar to a chestnut, but will have a black mane, tail, lower legs, and ear tips. These are called “black points” and differentiate a bay from a chestnut. Some bays have a body color that is so dark they are almost indistinguishable from black horses.
As is the case with chestnuts, there is a spectrum of bay and a number of terms used to describe the vast range. Typical bays have medium red bodies, while “blood bays” have bodies that are a more saturated red. “Dark bays” have bodies that are a very dark reddish-brown, almost closely resembling the black of the “black points.”
Is That Horse A Chestnut Or A Sorrel?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact point at which a chestnut will be light enough to be called a sorrel, but I can tell you how I distinguish between them. If a horse is a medium or medium-dark red (body, mane, and tail, of course), I call her a chestnut.
If a horse is a lighter red, and I’m talking to her English rider, I will probably still call her a chestnut. If I’m looking at a light red Quarter Horse with a big Western saddle on her back, I may refer to her as a sorrel.
You really cannot use the term chestnut incorrectly in this context, and if you “incorrectly” call a darker chestnut a sorrel, the person you’re speaking with will know what you are talking about. Of course, if it’s your horse you’re talking about, you can call her whatever you want!
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.