Horse Dapples 101: Everything You Need To Know

Dapple Horse 101

Horse Dapples 101

Have you ever wondered why some horses have dapples and others don’t? Dapples are an attractive coat pattern that can be influenced by a variety of factors – some that can be manipulated by you and some that can’t. If you are interested in finding out whether your horse has the ability to dapple, you will want to learn more about this unique pattern.

What are horse dapples? Dapples are circles, or spots, of lighter-colored (and slightly shorter) hair on a horse that is pre-disposed to the pattern. Horses must have both the genetics and the health required to allow dapples to show. If your horse has the dapple gene, there are steps that you can take to encourage them to shine.

Not a lot is scientifically known about dapples, but research is active and ongoing. Keep reading for everything that is known about dapples, from which breeds will more commonly be found with them to what you

can do to encourage them to show.

Horses Have To Have The Gene For Dapples To Show

Horse coats – both colors and patterns – are a science that has researchers fascinated. There is an almost endless variety when it comes to coat patterns in horses, and researchers know that they are all a product of genetics, even if those specific genes are yet to be discovered.

As with other patterns, this is also the case with dapples. Scientists have not yet narrowed down which gene is responsible for dapples, but they are confident that there is a genetic component. You may find that some attribute dappling to the “z” gene, but this is a gene that is specific to silver dapples (more on that later).

Horses who do not have the dappling gene, but are well-cared for in both nutrition and grooming, will not be able to produce the dapple pattern. 

It is important to note that not all horses with the elusive dappling gene will show dapples, even with proper care. In this case, for reasons not yet fully understood, the gene will not express.

Horses Have To Be In Good Health For Dapples To Show

A horse may have the genetics for dapples, but that doesn’t mean that you will be able to see them on the coat. A horse also must be in good health, with a well-kept coat, in order for dapples to show through.

A horse with a dull coat may indicate poor nutrition. Horses require plenty of high-quality hay or pasture. If they are not receiving an adequate amount of this dietary staple, their coats can suffer. A nutrient-dense diet will bring out the shine in a horse’s coat, which may be all you need for your pre-disposed horse to show his dapples.

If you are not sure about the quality of your hay, you can have it tested to determine whether there are deficiencies. If there are, you may decide to find another hay source. Some recommend providing an Omega-3 supplement for dapples and coat health in general – it is always wise to discuss supplements with your vet before providing.

In addition to a balanced diet, a horse will also need regular grooming to ensure a shiny, dappled coat. Regular grooming allows the oils of the skin to be brought to the surface. This is especially important in coats that do not show a significant contrast between the base color and the dapples, such as bays. 

In Which Color Horses Are Dapples Found?

Dapples are most commonly associated with gray horses, and they do show up very well in this coat color. But dapples are not limited to grays – they can also be found in bays, palominos, buckskin, and black.

They tend to show more obviously in lighter-colored horses and in younger horses. Dapples tend to fade as a horse ages and may disappear altogether in a horse of a certain age. Dapples are typically considered to be most prominent in horses between the ages of two and seven.

One color in which dapples are almost never found is chestnuts. Because the genetics of dapples are still not well understood, researchers are unsure if chestnut dappling is uncommon due to a specific gene un-expressed in chestnuts or if dapples simply don’t show up well on this base color.

In Which Horse Breeds Are Dapples Found?

Theoretically, dapples can be found on any breed of horse that can be found in gray, bay, palomino, buckskin, or black. The breed most associated with dapples is likely the Percheron.

Percherons are a breed of French draft horse and are most commonly found in gray and black. Though according to The Percheron Horse Association of America, the Percheron dapple is “dying out”, many of us will always picture the dapple gray as the typical Percheron.

Other breeds that commonly carry the dapple gene are Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians, Andalusians, Lipizzaners, Oldenburgs, Hanoverians, and Standardbreds.

Will Dapples Show Year-Round?

Don’t fret if your once-dappled horse suddenly starts losing his spots after a long Summer. If his diet and his grooming routine have not changed, your horse is likely just a seasonal dapple. This is very common.

While it is most common for a horse to show his dapples after shedding his Winter coat, some horses may do just the opposite. You may find a horse that has dapples from Summer through Fall, or you may find a horse that shows his dapples for a short month or two out of the year. There does not seem to be an exact science to seasonal dappling, and it appears that every horse is different. 

Where Are Dapples Most Commonly Found On A Horse’s Body?

Dapples can be found throughout a horse’s body, though some horses can be covered in dapples while others have only a lighter dusting of them. If your horse has dapples, they can be most prominently found on the hindquarters, neck, shoulders, and under the belly.

Is Dappling A Sign Of Good Health In Horses?

You may have heard that the dapples on a horse coat are an indication of good health. In reality, the issue is more complex than that. As we’ve seen, both nutrition and coat maintenance can help a horse show his or her dapples.

It stands to reason, then, that if you see a horse with apples, you can probably assume he is being fed a balanced diet, and his coat is regularly cared for. I would take dappling as (one component of) a sign of good health.

On the other hand, the absence of dappling should not indicate a horse in poor health. Your horse can be on the best diet that money can buy, and you can spend hours brushing his coat every day, but if he doesn’t have the dappling gene, you will see zero dapples. In this case, the only thing that the absence of dappling means is that the horse does not carry the specific gene associated with it.

It is also possible to have a horse that carries the dappling gene, who is well-cared for and in peak health, and who has never shown any dapples. How can this happen? No one really knows. Researchers are still actively studying the science behind dappling, and it’s likely we will learn more in the coming years.

At this point, no one can say why the dappling gene will be expressed in some horses but not in others. This also means that you cannot guarantee a foal that will dapple even if both parents show dappling.

All of this to say, while you may consider the presence of dappling to be a sign of a horse in good health, the absence of dappling does not mean the opposite.

What Is A Silver Dapple?

Though the name may suggest otherwise, a silver dapple is not the same as a dapple. “Silver dapple” is a dilution gene that affects the black-pigmented hairs. It is also called a “chocolate”, a “taffy”, or simply a “silver”.

This gene lightens the black of a base coat (or legs and points of a bay) into a chocolate color. Strikingly, it also lightens the mane and tail further, turning it into a silver-gray or platinum shade.

They are sometimes mistaken for flaxen – flaxen is primarily a gene found in chestnuts, while silver dapples affect black hair. The two horse breeds that most commonly present as silver dapple are the Morgan and the Rocky Mountain Horse.

Do You Want A Dappled Horse?

Dapples are beautiful. If you want a dapple horse, you will need to inquire whether or not the horse you are looking into has a history of dapples or not. You may decide to request pictures showing those dapples.

Because of the elusive dapple genetics, there is no guarantee that a foal with two dappled parents will show the spots herself. If you do find yourself with a dappled horse, given the proper nutrition and grooming routine, you should be rewarded with dapples… possibly year-round, or perhaps only for a month or two.

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